Can teaching rebellious teenage girls how to become old-school "ladies" save them from a cycle of teen pregnancy and poverty?

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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.'"

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Kimberly Thorpe
Contact: Kimberly Thorpe