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Birney Imes: The most important job in the world


Birney Imes



In "Good Old Boy," his memoir about growing up in Yazoo City, Willie Morris recounts a boyhood prank where he and two friends pretend to be a radio host calling from New York. They called a local woman, a Mrs. J.D. Wren, and promised her $1,000 if she could answer three questions. 


After two easy questions and the oratorical equivalent of a drum roll, Morris asked the third question: "How many miles in the world?" 


"The whole thing?" Mrs. Wren asks. 


"All of it," says Morris. 


"Oh Lord, I'll just have to guess," Mrs. Wren says. "One million!" 


"One million? Mrs. Wren, I'm afraid you just missed. The correct answer should have been one million and three. I'm very sorry, and don't think I ain't." 


So here's a question that on the surface seems as preposterous as Willie's: What is the most important job in the world? 


Teacher? Doctor? President? Soldier? Clergy? 


OK, here are some clues. It requires long periods of tedium punctuated by fleeting moments of joy. To do it well requires patience, wisdom, some familiarity with medicine and nutrition. Patience -- did I say that already? -- and endurance. Lots of common sense and a healthy degree of skepticism are helpful, too. 


The pay is negligible; in fact, it is financially unprofitable. Oh, and one more thing: You have to learn it on your own. They don't teach it in school. 


What is the most important job? The answer, of course, is parent. 


Most of us get a shot at it. Done right, it's hard, hard work and best done with a partner. Yet, done well, the rewards can last a lifetime. 


Friday at lunch I got into a conversation with an elected official about community issues. Though we agreed about the problems, we saw different causes and solutions. 


Surprising to me, he blamed many of society's ills on entitlement programs.  


"I wouldn't want to be quoted saying this," he said (He's African-American.), "but people expect something for nothing. I think people should have to do something to get these hand-outs." 


I nodded in agreement, then countered our epidemic of teen pregnancy -- a category in which Mississippi leads the nation and in which the nation leads the industrial world --¬†undergirds so many of our problems. 


Nationally, almost one of every three girls will have a baby before 20. More than 80 percent of those births will be unplanned. A teen mother has less than a 50 percent chance of finishing high school and less than one in 50 will finish college by age 30. Only two in 10 fathers marry the mother.  


Guess who's paying for much of this? 


According to, a website of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:  


-- More than half of all mothers on welfare had their first child as a teenager. In fact, two-thirds of families begun by a young, unmarried mother are poor. 


-- Children who live apart from their fathers are five times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home. 


-- The daughters of young teen mothers are three times more likely to become teen mothers themselves. 


-- The sons of teen mothers are twice as likely to end up in prison. 


Educators are reluctant to wade into this arena. Since the beginning of this school year, Mississippi school districts have been able to choose between two sex-ed programs, Abstinence and Abstinence Plus.  


Some argue that sex education shouldn't be taught in schools at all -- that this education belongs in the home. While that may be a good idea in principle, it's not happening. Others argue we should only teach abstinence. Let's be realistic. Children are having sex at an age before they fully understand the consequences. Middle school may not be soon enough, one educator told me.  


What if school girls could somehow hear from teen mothers. What if young girls could be taught it's OK to say no. 


This is an ethical problem, a health problem and an economic problem. 


Curbing unwanted pregnancies won't solve all of society's ills, but it would be a big step in that direction. 


If parenting is our society's most important -- and arguably most difficult -- job, we need to do all we can to ensure future parents assume that responsibility when mature and prepared, not before. 





Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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