The tougher road feels right

Feb. 3, 2005, midnight | By Brittany Moyer | 15 years, 11 months ago

Engaged couple leaves Blair in pursuit of tailored education and new life

Junior Vanessa Penney always thought she would live her life without resigning to the traditional custom of marriage; she had seen too many divorces, too many single parents to make the commitment. But in 2003, one moment and one boy changed her mind.

Now, at age 16, Penney is engaged to be married. Sitting on the bed of junior Ian Beard, her fiancé, Penney pulls her knees into her chest and explains her reasoning. "I didn't think that marriage was a possibility, didn't think I would enjoy it, so I didn't think I could do it," she says, "but now, everything has changed."

Photo: Former juniors Vanessa Penney and Ian Beard.

Across the room, Beard slouches in a desk chair, listening and watching Penney intently as she continues speaking. "When you meet someone like Ian, it changes your whole perception of marriage," she says. "When somebody can change your whole idea of love and marriage, then that must be a sign of something. I guess he made me realize that I could love, that I could get married."

While the couple is waiting a few years to officially tying the knot, they are acting jointly on their education in the meantime. Together, on Jan. 24, Penney and Beard withdrew from high school, checking the "Evening school/GED" box on Blair's withdrawal form; the next day they enrolled in community college and began their new life. Even though studies and voices of experience caution teenagers against dropping out of school and marrying early, these 16-year-olds are following their hearts - not societal norms - to live teenage life their own way.

Together now, why not the future?

The couple sits in Beard's bedroom in the unfinished basement of his parents' Silver Spring house. It's Jan. 4, and the two skipped school today to help their friend's father on a chimney job, and Penney's clothes are still dirty. "It's not fair. You get new clothes," she says to Beard.

"Here, you want one of your shirts?" Beard replies, swiveling in his chair to reach into a drawer behind him. He pulls out a top of hers and throws it to her on the bed. Because she spends so much time with Beard - all afternoon until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 12 a.m. on weekends, her respective curfews - Penney keeps a few shirts, socks and underwear, the "basic stuff," at his house to accommodate her daily needs. "We're pretty much always together," says Penney.

It's been that way since October 2003, when they met at the annual Takoma Park Street Festival, where Beard felt a "spark of feeling" and Penney an "instant connection." After spending the day with Penney, Beard thought about her all night, wanting to see her again. The next day, he showed up on Penney's doorstep, and that night as they said goodbye, he inaudibly whispered "I love you" as she walked away towards her house.

"It just popped out," he says now. He had never felt so much love before, "not in that way."

It wasn't until this past August, nearly a year later, that the idea of getting engaged arose. While it started as a joke on their friends, "after a while, it seemed more and more like a good idea," Penney explains.

Because of this unusual start, the couple didn't enjoy a memorable or romantic proposal; instead, it was a "mutual decision," says Beard. Still, Penney proudly wears an engagement ring that the couple picked out together, a silver band of intertwined hearts. Although Penney usually doesn't let her "broke" boyfriend pay for her - despite his regular attempts to buy her flowers and dinner and treat her "like a little princess" - the engagement ring was an exception.

In the days following their decision, they were careful not to let anyone know. "I mean, we're so young," blurts Penney. But as they became more comfortable with the idea, the secret was divulged to their friends and parents.

Facing the questions of parents

Penney says that she has a stronger relationship with her mother than that of the average teenager. "I feel like I can talk to her about anything, and I feel that we both treat each other with a lot of respect," she says of her mom. Just over three years ago, Penney's father was killed by a truck while bike riding, leaving Penney and her brother fatherless and Penney's mother a single parent. "[My mom and I] have a really strong bond because I guess tragedy brings people together," she says.

While Penney was direct with her mother about her plans to drop out of high school, Penney was not so upfront about the engagement. For four and a half months, she kept the commitment a secret for fear she would upset her already burdened mother, ignoring Beard's regular urging that she tell. When Penney finally told her mother just a few weeks ago, her mom's response was questioning yet accepting. "She kind of reacted the way I would expect of her to react, like, 'Why would you want to do this now? You don't really need to,' a lot of the same things that everyone would ask, but I think she kind of accepted that this is what's happening right now," Penney says.

Photo: Penney shows off her engagement ring.

Beard's parents are aware of the engagement but hardly take it seriously, says Beard. "I don't think they believe me. They probably think it won't work. But we'll show them," he says. Beard himself was born out of a young relationship. When his mother was 17 and father was 15, they gave birth to Beard and didn't marry until five years later. "They screwed up and had me. I'm not going to screw this up," Beard says.

Although they have promised their futures to each other, Penney and Beard say they will not marry until they're 18, when they are legal adults. For now, they have other plans.

Dropping out, but staying in

On Jan. 25, Penney and Beard began classes at Montgomery College to get their GEDs, then enroll in the college's two-year program for Associate Degrees.

Beard's high school career was checkered at best. It was so off-course that he would have required two additional years of Night School and summer school after his senior year before he could graduate from Blair. Although Blair teachers and administration attempted to help Beard through the "Sophomore Watch" program, which targets sophomores whose freshman-year academics were not up to par, Beard had already decided that high school was not for him.

When Beard told technological education teacher John Kaluta in late November of his plans to drop out, Kaluta, hesitant to condone the action, urged Beard to keep in touch and let him know how everything went. "[Dropping out] isn't a kiss of death, but generally speaking, I think it's a bad idea," Kaluta says. A nephew of Kaluta dropped out of high school as a tenth grader, and Kaluta realizes that in some cases, withdrawal from school might be beneficial. "It's silly to think that Blair or any public school will be perfect for every kid," he says.

But for Penney, school simply became too monotonous to bear. "At school, I just am really overly depressed. Going through the day is so routine that it becomes really mundane and boring," Penney says.

Kaluta's nephew, Michael Smith, now regrets letting the boredom take him out of school. "Had I known that the easier road would have been to stick with school and get my diploma, I probably would have been a lot more tolerant of what I thought was mundane," Smith says. "I kind of liken it to an express train and a local train: When you have your high school degree, you get your ride on the express train. When you have your GED, you're forced to take the local train, and it takes a much longer time to make it uptown."

Penney believes that she has the drive to overcome the obstacles that dropping out might deal her. "When you think of a dropout, you think of a person who sits in a room all day until they're 18, and then finally goes out and works," Penney says, attempting to distinguish between the stigma of dropping out and what she and Beard are doing. "I'm dropping out of high school, but I'm still going to school. I'm just switching gears. You may not understand," she says, pausing, "but I don't know. I don't like when people judge based on that."

"Set for the next step"

Besides facing the stigma of being a dropout, the couple must also prepare to face new financial burdens of marriage. Experts recommend that teens considering marriage work out a realistic budget before getting hitched, and Penney and Beard have done so. Assuming they would work eight-hour days at minimum wage while paying rent for an apartment and buying essentials like food and clothes, they have calculated the cost of their future living situation. But they haven't factored in health insurance or transportation costs, expenses that teenagers usually do not think to deal with but will eventually confront.

Norman Epstein, a professor in the Family Studies department of the University of Maryland, expresses concern over teen marriages. "It's not that teen marriages can't work out, but it's risky." Epstein points to statistics that correlate younger marriages with ultimate separation: In 2001, the National Center for Health Statistics found that nearly half of marriages in which the bride was 18 or younger ended in separation or divorce within 10 years. "Teens don't have a lot of experience with dating or relationship skills, and maintaining a relationship over time takes these things," Epstein explains.

But Penney and Beard are confident in their feelings of love and plans for the future. They have ambitions of a simple wedding - nothing "expensive or glamorous," says Penney - and aspire for college educations.

"People treat our engagement like it's a really huge deal. But when you feel like you're in love, then you are, and there's no reason to wait," says Penney.

"We know that we are together and that we're set for the next step," adds Beard.

Picking at her sock from her spot on Beard's bed, Penney says, "Just because we're young doesn't mean we don't know what we're doing."

Reflections of Michael Smith, a high school dropout:

"I wish now that I had paid more attention in school, but while I was there I was kind of distracted. I was always thinking of other things; I didn't necessarily want to learn what they wanted to teach. At that point, I just didn't feel like I was cut out to be a student. I felt like I had bigger, better plans when I was 15 years old.

"The world doesn't offer a whole lot to the uneducated. Had I known that the easier road would have been to stick with school and get my degree, I probably would have been a lot more tolerant of what I thought was mundane. The four years of your life that you spend in high school are just a drop in the bucket when you get out in the real world. No one ever gave me a job. No one ever gave me an opportunity to be bigger than I was. It only happened when I decided to go out and do it. My income doubled when I went back to school.

"No matter how bad [school] seems and no matter how long the days seem, there is a sunrise over the horizon. Even if you have to fight to sit there and stick it out, just stick it out, because there's nothing better than being able to realize every time you fill out a job application for the rest of your life that you're able to tell them you've graduated high school.

"For the rest of your life, if you drop out, they ask on every application what high school you went to, and your temptation is not going to be to be honest. And the last thing you want to say is, 'I didn't graduate. I got my GED.' The social stigma that everyone assumes is there, is there.

"I kind of liken it to an express train and a local train: When you have your high school degree, you get your ride on the express train. When you have your GED, you're forced to take the local train, and it takes a much longer time to make it uptown."

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Brittany Moyer. Brittany is a senior in the Communication Arts Program at Montgomery Blair. She has taken pride in being part of Blair's girls' soccer team, Blair's <i>a capella</i> group InToneNation, and of course <i>Silver Chips</i>. Outside of school, Brit goes crazy for arts & crafts, outdoorsy … More »

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