THE PARENTS: Keegan Hart, 17, and Kareem Garner, 18, of Roxborough
THE CHILD: Isaiah Chase, born June 3, 2016
THE UNFORGETTABLE BABY-SHOWER CAKE: Four layers, frosted in vanilla, with blue cheetah designs in the icing and an elephant on top.
People scoff when she tells them, but Keegan swears the story is true: She fell for Kareem even before she saw his face.
Both were working at an Italian restaurant in Manayunk - she was a hostess, and Kareem scrubbed dishes - when Keegan wandered into the kitchen during a shift. "I saw him doing dishes, just the back of his head, and something inside me flickered."
It took three weeks for Kareem to ask her name. But soon, they began hanging out in Pretzel Park after their shifts ended at 11 p.m. - talking about music, favorite colors, friends, and childhood.
Keegan grew up near Jim Thorpe - quiet and secluded, just woods, deer, and the occasional bear - then moved to Roxborough to live with her mother in fall 2014. "I was becoming pretty rebellious," she recalls. "I thought I knew it all." As a consequence for her disrespect, Keegan's mother stopped paying her cellphone bill; that nudged her toward the restaurant job.
As a sophomore at W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, Keegan dreamed of getting out. "I thought I would graduate and get into a good college. I was looking forward to parties and freedom."
Kareem, raised in West Philadelphia, was a student at Olney High School, an aspiring musician - his rap name is Chase Hunnits - who hoped to earn degrees in business and music.
Then everything changed. When Keegan started bolting for the bathroom with surges of nausea, then responded to a teasing question of Kareem's with a flood of tears, he suggested she take a pregnancy test.
"When I looked and it said 'positive,' it didn't seem real to me," Keegan remembers. "I started laughing, and Kareem looked pale. When my mom got home from work, I said, 'I need to talk to you about something,' and she said, 'Are you pregnant?' "
Her mother asked if Keegan wanted to carry the pregnancy to term. "I said yes. I never wanted to live my life thinking, 'What if?' I figured everything happens for a reason."
Kareem shared that belief. "I told her I was going to stay by her side, whatever her decision was. That I was going to be there no matter what."
Both families gradually accepted the couple's choice. But not everyone was on their side. At school, some kids sneered, "You're not going anywhere in life." Other classmates pulled away, embarrassed to be with Keegan as her belly grew, as she huffed her way upstairs, pausing on landings, perpetually late to class.
After a horse kicked her, she switched from Saul's equine class to one on aquaculture, which she liked better. Her two best friends, as well as some supportive teachers, cushioned her days. Her younger brothers and sister - ages 15, 12, and 7 - talked excitedly about having a nephew.
"A couple of my friends said, 'You're too young to be a pop,' " Kareem recalls. "A couple people said I was out of my mind. And a couple said they were rooting for me."
Keegan's 12-week ultrasound helped make the pregnancy real. "I started tearing up as soon as I looked at him. It was the most overwhelming happiness." And thoughts of the baby - a boy, they soon learned - buoyed her through weeks of persistent nausea and heartburn. "Being able to feel him kick for the first time, to feel him moving around, I was able to get excited."
Meanwhile, she kept up a draining routine of school and work - a new job as a waitress at Cathedral Village, where she hefted trays bearing 20 pounds of dishes and endured a range of reactions from elderly residents. "Some said, 'Congratulations, you're going to be a great mom!' Others said, 'You're 17? You're not married? You can't even serve alcohol!' "
In April, friends and family threw a shower, filling the house with infant tubs and swings, clothes and bouncy chairs, bottles and toys. Blue banners announced the name they'd chosen - Isaiah, which is Kareem's middle name, and Chase, for Kareem's rap moniker. That was also the day Kareem moved in. "I wanted to help out with him through the night," he says, "to be there and watch him grow."
Keegan's midwife had suggested childbirth classes, but Keegan shied away from a close encounter with those details. The whole prospect scared her: the epidural needle, the pain, the pushing. When contractions came, induced by a Pitocin drip at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, they were fierce and frightening.
"When the midwife said, 'It's time to push,' I was freaking out. But as soon as I could feel the hair on his head, I thought: 'This is the last thing I need to do.' "
And that was the moment fatherhood snapped into focus for Kareem. "I remember holding her leg up. She was squeezing my hand extra-tight. When he actually came out, my heart kind of dropped. That's when reality hit me. It was a crazy, beautiful experience."
Isaiah remained in the NICU for four days; he had fluid in his lungs and had to learn to breathe on his own. "He had all these tubes. It was just heartbreaking seeing my son like that," Keegan says. And then they brought him home to his school-age uncles and aunt, to his grandmother, to the house where Keegan cuddles him every day after work.
They still dream: Keegan, now a senior at Agora Cyber Charter School, wants to become a licensed practical nurse, then an R.N.; Kareem hopes to graduate next year from YESPhilly, an alternative school for youth who have dropped out.
Both say Isaiah tugged their priorities in a healthier direction. "People say, 'How irresponsible - teen parents!' " Keegan says. "But I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm not rebellious. He made me grow up."
Kareem echoes that. "I have to show him the way, when I'm still trying to figure out the way myself. Now, I always think of Isaiah first."
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