Longform

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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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?

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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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Kimberly Thorpe
Contact: Kimberly Thorpe