Last year when Novia Graham walked the graduation podium at Holmwood Technical High School, her biggest cheerleader was her then two-year-old daughter, Gianna Burrell.
Graham, who faced much ridicule and criticism from her peers and persons in her Spaldings, Clarendon, community, not only topped her class but walked away with several awards for her academic performance.
“When I looked in the audience that day, my mother was crying again, but this time, it was tears of joy and pride. She was telling everyone that I was her daughter, and at that moment, I knew that she had regained her confidence in me fully,” she said.
Graham, 20, who was also an athlete, got pregnant at age 15 while attending Alston High School in Clarendon.
“I was doing pretty well in school, but I had a boyfriend. He was going to school also, and I got pregnant. I was afraid and humiliated when I found out, and I instantly knew that I had let down my mother because I was a star in her eyes. I also lost every single friend that I had. There were even persons saying that I was pregnant but aborted the pregnancy,” she said.
Graham said that although her mother was overseas when she got pregnant, she moved out of the house because she was fearful of what the outcome would be when she broke the news.
“I remember the day when I called my mom and told her that I wanted to tell her something. She was so excited because she knew that I was supposed to collect an award for academic performance. She was laughing, but the line went blank, and then she started to cry when I told her I was pregnant. I felt so bad … . My heart literally sank,” she recalled.
The frightened teenager sought refuge at her boyfriend’s home, after which she went to spend time with a cousin in Kingston.
Graham’s mother came around after a few days and stood by the teenager’s side throughout her pregnancy. After giving birth to her daughter in 2015, Graham joined the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation, after which she was placed at DeCarteret College in Mandeville, Manchester.
“I wanted to do track and field, so I got a transfer to Holmwood Technical and was placed in grade 10. I was supposed to be in grade 11, but they had let me repeat,” she said.
Life at Holmwood was not a bed of roses for Graham; she stated that she was often bullied to the point where it affected her academics.
Graham said that she then knew that she would have to shake off the criticisms. She vowed to herself that she would overcome. This, however, was not easy as she had to focus on school and her baby.
“There were nights when I had her in my arms breastfeeding and was doing homework at the same time,” she said.
She sat nine Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects and was successful in all of them. As she reflected on the past five years, Graham offered words of advice to other teenage mothers.
“Being a teenage mom isn’t easy, and people are going to say things that will tear you down, but turn that negativity into something phenomenal, and remember that with God, all things are possible,” she said.