Can teaching rebellious teenage girls how to become old-school "ladies" save them from a cycle of teen pregnancy and poverty?
Nyjai Hill is dressed like a debutante, but she isn't in the mood to act like one. Wearing a white dress, a tiara and gloves that reach her elbows, she can no longer ignore the pain in her feet as she balances on teetering heels. When she spots her mother in the hallway of the Hilton Anatole, Nyjai gathers the ends of her fluffy dress as if hauling a pile of laundry and heads toward her.
Nyjai's mother hands her a pair of flats, and, relieved, she slips them on and falls in line with the eight other seventh- to 11th-graders. The group grows quiet. Soon they will enter the ballroom and begin the three-hour ball.
It's June, and Nyjai (pronounced nigh-ja) is graduating from the Ladies by Design Junior Debutante Course, a program of the UrbanGirlz company, which is dedicated to building the self-esteem of black teens. Nyjai has spent the last 16 Saturdays at her church, Praise Fellowship Worship Center in Little Elm, learning how to embrace an old tradition once reserved for the white, wealthy elite.
She's a pretty 16-year-old with brown hair usually pulled into a loose bun and shoulders that tend to sag forward and pull her head down unless she remembers to stand up straight. A C- and D-student at Denton High School, she moved from a dangerous part of Cleveland, Ohio, with her mother and four younger siblings about four years ago. They bounced among several apartments here before settling in a three-bedroom house at the northern end of the Dallas North Tollway. (They'll be moving again soon since the bank foreclosed on the family's home last month.)
Born into a poor family -- a single mother raising five children, Nyjai appeared set to follow a common path to a predetermined end -- poverty, underemployment, early pregnancy and dropping out of school. She was getting into frequent fights and cussing people out. She sneaked out at night and had unprotected sex. But then her mother heard of the junior debutante program at Praise Fellowship Worship Center. After months of learning which fork to use, what kind of clothing is appropriate and how to rein in her attitude, Nyjai's grades have risen to A's and B's. And she has declared that she won't have sex again until she's married; God has a greater plan for her.
The odds are not in her favor. Born to a teen parent, Nyjai is statistically three times likelier than average to be a teen mother herself. Nationally, teen pregnancy is the single greatest factor in determining future poverty and homelessness for women and children. Taxpayers feel the burden too. Teen childbearing in Texas, as of 2004, cost taxpayers at least $1 billion, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
At the ball, each girl has an escort -- their fathers, a church-assigned partner, or in Nyjai's case, a church minister, a young and personable man named Mel Johnson. "You're not even supposed to have your eyes looking at them," Johnson is telling Nyjai in the last minutes before the grand entrance, talking about texts between her and a boy from church. A ring he carries in his pocket to give Nyjai during the graduation is supposed to symbolize her promise to abstain from premarital sex.
Is she ready to commit?
"It's going to be hard, but I'm going to try not to have sex," Nyjai says, playfully worrying her minister.
"What do you mean you will try?" Johnson asks. "You're supposed to say you will not."
Nyjai sighs and stares at him. She brings her hand to her head to steady the slipping tiara.
"Yeeahhhh..." she says, rolling her eyes playfully.
Nyjai may still be cracking jokes with her minister up until the last minute, but he's clearly nervous about her future. The program is meant to change the lives of the teenage girls who go through it, and this evening may offer a first glimpse of whether it is working as intended.
The Ladies by Design Junior Debutante Course is part of a trend in programs springing up to help teens like Nyjai. Often promoted by churches or Boys and Girls Clubs as lessons in such things as hip-hop dance or engine building, the programs are in fact holistic youth development gigs. The goal is the same: Replace bad behavior by giving kids tools to make better decisions.
"A lot of times what they say they are is the hook to get the kids to come," says Amy Arbreton, who evaluates after-school programs across the country at Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit that creates and supports youth programs in low-income communities. In the last decade or so, there has been a shift from focusing on the specific problems, like teen pregnancy and dropping out of school, to developing the whole teenager. "Of course we need to reduce negative behaviors," Arbreton says, but "what are you trying to build in place of some of the issues the teen is having? How are you building a caring and responsible adult?"
For Trenette Wilson, creator of UrbanGirlz' Junior Debutante Program, building "proper ladies" is the way to reduce risky behavior, especially teen pregnancy. Wilson saw that abstinence education needed a boost beyond the nostrums of "just say no" and "true love waits." Low-income, inner-city girls at high risk of teen pregnancy also needed traditional social skills to help teach them self-respect.
"Really, you are supposed to be ladies," says Wilson, who based some of the manner lessons on a Christian charm and etiquette book by Emilie Barnes. "Posture is good for you. You use those skills in the boardroom. You use those skills in a marriage. You use those skills to deal with people."
But teaching proper manners to kids is a controversial approach in some academic circles. "Sometimes what is acceptable in the mainstream is not necessarily culturally appropriate," says Dr. David Chard, dean of SMU's Simmons School of Education and Human Development. Appropriate behavior at a business meeting, shaking hands firmly and looking an adult in the eye are behaviors of the "culture of power," a term used by Georgia State scholar Lisa Delpit, but critics wonder whether it's right to judge that one culture is more worthy of being taught than another. "That's the rub," Chard says.
Wilson isn't interested in an academic debate. Her program is built mostly on her own life experience. More than 25 years ago, she found herself in Nyjai's situation.
Wilson, born of a teen mother, had her first daughter at age 15 and a second child at 17. Because she saw herself as ugly, she says, when the star football player at her high school liked her, she felt validated. "I loved him because that told everybody else I wasn't as ugly as they thought I was, even though I'm bucktooth and dark-skinned, that [showed them] somebody loves me too."
Although the relationship spanned years, after high school the athlete went away to Oklahoma University, and Wilson stayed put. "When you got babies, you're going to the ghetto. There's no 'if'," Wilson says. And even though she tried to pull herself out of poverty, she kept failing. Finally, it took meeting the man who would become her husband of 21 years, a postman who showed her how a man was supposed to act toward a woman, to get her life on track. She decided to dedicate her days to helping "screwed-up young women," like she used to be.
She wrote the 200-page Ladies By Design Junior Debutante Course book, which was published in 2008, the same year she created parent company UrbanGirlz, a nonprofit corporation "dedicated to building the self-esteem of girlz and teenz of color," as stated on her Web site. The debutante book is a step-by-step guide for educators looking to host a teen program at a local church, school or community organization. The 16 chapters teach the girls what an academic would label "cognitive behavioral training." That is, it works to replace a girl's instincts with the ability to think through a decision instead.
The course instructs girls to list bad habits and ways to resist them; how to respect their bodies by not giving them away; to hug boys from the side to keep their breasts from being felt; how to set the table; to keep promises; to make good decisions; to eat less junk food to maintain a ladylike figure; and how to write a check and balance a bank account. The life skills are folded into the bigger picture of becoming a dignified young lady.
Wilson recently prepared a shortened two-hour etiquette course for the Boys and Girls Clubs throughout northern Texas. She says the most pervasive problem among young teens is a bad attitude, rooted partly in low self-esteem and partly in culture. "In the 'hood, in the ghetto, in urban communities, the weak one does not win," she says. From a very young age, girls learn to react aggressively if they feel disrespected. Now, when Wilson sees girls screaming at men on TV, she feels ashamed. "That is the most unladylike behavior." And it's what Wilson wants to root out, permanently.
"We grew up in a culture that if somebody walks up in your space, you have the right to knock the hell out of them," Wilson says. "You don't solve that by saying, 'Well, let me teach you how to put this fork in the right place,' because she's going to put that fork in you!" She laughs. "They don't have coping skills. They don't know how a lady deals with situations. They deal with it how Momma dealt with it, Grandma dealt with it, people in their community. We got to get rid of that attitude that 'you're going to respect me or I'm going to knock the hell out of you.'"
After Nyjai's last day of 10th grade, and a week before the debutante ball, she is hanging out with siblings and neighborhood friends on her porch, and it looks like she is about to be disrespected.
It was recently Nyjai's 16th birthday, but she didn't trouble her mother for gifts. "We don't like to bug my mom for a lot of stuff," Nyjai says, wearing gray leggings and a loose Praise Fellowship Worship Center purple T-shirt while she leans against a wooden post. "She's struggling."
"You're mom's not struggling," one neighborhood friend says.
"She is struggling," Nyjai says, and yells, "You ain't here to help her. Ain't nobody here to help her. She is struggling!" She adds more calmly, "She keeps saying so herself. You better mind your business."
A round of low ooo's come from the group.
The old Nyjai, as she sometimes refers to herself, would have cussed out the neighborhood friend. The new Nyjai, though, is trying to be more respectful, especially to her mother.
Before the debutante program became Nyjai's last option, her mother, Yvonne Perkins, hoped that having her daughter spend a few nights in a juvenile detention center would persuade her daughter to stop running away. Perkins, a petite 34-year-old with high energy, did not know how else to deal with her rebellious daughter. Nyjai was running away often to an older teen boy's house. Her mom kept calling the police and reporting her as missing.
Nyjai was in love and having unprotected sex to try to get pregnant. "If I get pregnant, I can have my own world," Nyjai recalls thinking at the time. "I can do whatever I want to. I can't have my mom tell me what to do because I'll be a mom myself."
But each time she packed her bags and ran away, her mom strategically waited three days to report her as missing. This guaranteed Nyjai would have to spend the night in the detention center.
Her mother still does not know why her daughter grew so disobedient. It started when they moved to Texas and the kids were increasingly unsupervised since Perkins had to work. Then teachers from school started calling and writing letters explaining that Nyjai needed a better group of friends than the girls she was hanging out with, who liked to pick fights. The teachers said, "'Whenever there's drama, Nyjai is somewhere near,'" Perkins says.
The breaking point, recalls both Nyjai and her mother, was at court one day after Nyjai was released again from jail. The judge asked Nyjai, "Do you know that this man you keep running off to see has four other baby mamas?"
Nyjai had no idea. She burst into tears and turned to her mother, "I'm sorry, mom," she recalls saying, "I didn't mean to do this." Then Nyjai told her mother that she loved her and that she wouldn't run away again.
But it wasn't easy for Nyjai to change. "I kept slipping up," Nyjai says. Her mother started to lean heavily on the Little Elm church for help and allowed Nyjai to leave the house only for school or church activities. And one night, Nyjai found herself praying to God for guidance. "Lord, help me," she asked. She didn't know what else to say. She repeated the one-sentence prayer until she fell asleep.
At the final debutante class before the ball, nine teenagers are seated around a formally set table inside a back room of the church. There are two flower arrangements on the table with faux white, purple and yellow lilies and daisies. And the girls, wearing pink T-shirts that read "Praise Fellowship Worship Center Junior Debutante," are all sitting up straight.
Today Trenette Wilson has come to meet the young debutantes. Wilson wears a bright magenta suit jacket, a wild color she says suits her personality. As the program leader, Sonya Ball, introduces each young lady to Wilson, Wilson compliments every girl. "Oh, you're beautiful," she tells one; "What nice hair," she says to another; "I like that headband."
Today's lesson is on the difference between a young lady's gift and her talent. "A gift is something that comes natural to you, something from God," Ball explains. A talent is something you have to work at harder. Wilson says her talent is hair. "Can anybody else do hair?" she asks. Many hands go up.
Ball thanks the girls for spending the last 16 weeks with her. "You are all beautiful lights," she says. She encourages the girls to share with the room how they are feeling. The girls share stories of transformation.
"About five years ago, I had anger problems," one young lady says. "I would be mad for no reason. I guess I started going to church more, and seeing what my cousin was doing, dancing and stuff. So I got into it. And I began to turn my anger in a positive way."
"Praise the Lord," Ball says.
Nyjai raises her hand to share. When she first started this class, she never spoke. She's more open now. "Before I started coming to this class, my attitude was really bad," Nyjai says, and some others in the room giggle. "Like really, really bad. Then I started coming here and learning how a lady was supposed to act. My attitude is better, my grades are better. I never thought I could make A's and B's, ever. I used to get C's and D's."
"Praise the Lord," Ball says again.
Another young lady, LaJazerin Paul, raises her hand. "I used to be really bad. Bad attitude and talk back to teachers, everybody. If I felt like they were disrespecting me, I would talk back to them. I used to always make the C, D, F—I was on that honor roll. I used to always fail." She cries. When she began high school, she joined the dance team. "My grades just shot up. I've matured. I still have some attitude problems, but I know what I need to work on. I know that I have to keep myself active 'cause if I'm not, I get in trouble."
Nyjai has one more thing to add: "You know how I was sexually active, or whatever, I used to want to go out to have sex just because, but now that I've learned in here to respect my body and wait till I get married and stuff, it really changes my life."
When Ball and Wilson step into the hallway to catch up, the girls chat about the program more candidly.
Was it hard to get to the church in Little Elm every Saturday?
How did you get involved?
Although the program turned out to be more time-consuming than they ever expected, most learned lessons not taught at school.
"At school they just teach you book stuff, they don't teach you life skills," one young lady says.
"You learn what's appropriate and what's not appropriate," LaJazerin says. "You learn how to talk, how to walk, how to eat, how to sit and stuff like that. I know that by being in this program, my self-esteem has been boosted."
"At home you just eat how you eat," Nyjai says. "It's not like, 'OK, Nyjai, now you're going to eat like this.'" They giggle.
"I want it to be over already," one girl says.
Only one of the nine girls planned to go on to become a traditional debutante and formally debut when she was older.The others thought there was no need. They had come a long way, and the lessons were sure to stay with them.
Like most of the other girls in the program, Nyjai's mother made her enroll. One day her mother came home from church, handed her the application and told her to fill it out. When Nyjai asked for details, all her mother said was, "It's a program you are going to do." Somebody at the church had volunteered to sponsor Nyjai since her mother couldn't afford the $125 fee. The application asked why Nyjai wanted to be a young debutante; because her mother was making her, she wrote. And she added some other made-up goals.
At first Nyjai sat quietly in the introductory lessons. "Oh my God, I have to go to this boring class," she recalls thinking. When her friends asked her why she couldn't hang out on Saturday, she made up something. "I was too afraid to tell them what I was actually doing."
Finally she felt her attitude begin to change and saw her grades going up. She liked how it felt. The reasons she wanted to be in the program, the ones she had made up, suddenly felt real and true. She actually wanted to become a better person. She really wanted to love herself for who she was and not give her body out. Her mother started to see a change and gave back some of her privileges. She could now have her cell phone and wear some makeup.
"I'm going to be a virgin all over," Nyjai says. The ring she will receive at the ball symbolizes a fresh start, even for those who have been sexually active. "I'm not going to have sex anymore. I'm going to pray. I'm going to be the young lady that God has called me to be. Not this person who goes out having sex and trying to get pregnant. That's not the plan that God has for me." Her advice to other teens: "Have high self-esteem. Don't have a man tell you you're beautiful. Know that you're beautiful even if called ugly."
Nyjai thinks she's come a long way, but the last five months are "just a drop in the bucket" compared with the 16 years of hard times she's had, says Sherril English from the Simmons School. "You never want to say it's the last chance," English says. "The hard part there is what if this program doesn't work? If it doesn't, it doesn't completely mean that this is it and she's just going to be a failure and never do anything with her life. What you're hoping is that this program is almost like a beginning for her." The question now is who is going to be her advocate to navigate the future?
The doors to the ballroom open. Inside Nyjai can see the heads of families and onlookers seated at the fancy tables, the speaker at the lectern, and the stage she is supposed to walk to. "I'm not scared," she says to Minister Mel Johnson and turns her head to look out the window. And then it is almost her turn. "Hold me!" she says and grabs Johnson. "Oh, look at all those people," he teases her. The speaker calls her name. She begins by walking too fast, but Johnson tells her to slow down. She turns and curtsies. Then she stands next to the other girls and holds her turned-out hands stiffly at her side.
But as the hours pass, she starts to slouch, shakes her head, and remembers to pull back her shoulders. The dinner is served to the girls onstage. At one of the round tables, Nyjai's mom and sister Faith complain about their dinner. Faith asks her mom what she's supposed to wipe her fingers on. Johnson teases them for not going to many restaurants. Yvonne laughs along. Johnson turns back his focus to Nyjai. Her attitude still needs some work, but she has really come a long way, and tonight he's proud of her. "She did good," he says of her grand entrance and curtsy at the stage.
It's time for the ring ceremony, so Johnson gets up from the table. The ring is in his breast pocket. He first escorts Nyjai's mother to stand next to the pastor who is leading the ceremony. Then he gets onstage, pulls back Nyjai's chair for her and escorts her to stand before the pastor. Nyjai's heartbeat accelerates in her throat.
"The ring symbolizes your commitment to God," the pastor says. "You're saying that your body belongs to him. No one else. And this ring will be replaced with the ring that you will receive from your husband and will be taken off at that time."
Nyjai removes her glove, pulling at one fingertip at a time, quickly, like somebody in a rush to disrobe in the summer heat. Johnson slides the silver band marked with a cross onto her finger. She looks at it and smiles. The smile remains as she is escorted to the sidelines to stand again with the other girls. Her glove drops to the floor, but she doesn't notice. She's too busy catching the light in her new piece of jewelry.
"Wow," she recalls thinking at that moment. "I'm a brand-new person. I've changed. I'm not the same person anymore. I feel brand-new."
After the ceremony, she is out in the hall, hugging friends. Asked how she feels now, she says, "tired." The ring is one size too big for her, but she's going to wear it anyway, she says, confident it won't fall off. "See?" she says, extending her arm and shaking out her wrist.
But the ring flies off. It rolls on the carpet some feet away.
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