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?"