"I am a queen!"
The proclamation echoes through the halls of Graham Middle School and signals the end of this meeting of Queens in Pearls, a group of 45 girls who meet for one hour each Thursday to be empowered and learn from 10 mentors.
"When I started working here in November, I noticed the girls would get in trouble, and the principal, he's really good with them, he talks with them, he tries to figure out why they did what they did for them to get in trouble, but then from there you get disciplined, but where's the follow-through for the girls?" said director Angelica Solomon, the front office receptionist for the school.
With Principal Lee Williams's blessing, Ms. Solomon asked Danielle King to help her form an afterschool mentoring group, and they held the first meeting of Queens in Pearls in February.
"The first meeting, I expected to be a very small gathering," Ms. King said. "You couldn't walk. There had to be 100 people in the room with the families."
The guest speaker for April 12 was Earl Alston, a detective with the Sheriff's Office who attended Graham Middle.
He talked to them about what a good man looks like, about why it's important to go to college, and he says it's OK to better yourself, even if you lose some friends and family along the way.
"We talk about social media, we talk about bullying," Solomon said. "We talk about how to respect yourself, how to respect others, what is good friendship, healthy friendship, respecting everyone across the board, and not just because they're older, that you just need to respect people and carry yourself in a manner that starts now so that, when you become the woman that you're destined to be, you don't have too much tweaking to do because you've already been guided in the right direction."
Solomon remembers what it felt like to be a middle schooler without parental support – not because of poor parenting, but because of busy lives and few resources – and even if the girls take nothing else from the experience, she hopes they know they're loved, and they have someone to talk to.
"There's not a lot of support for them and me being multiracial, my kids being multiracial, it's to heart for me," Solomon said. "Maybe what I had to go through and experience can help with what they're experiencing or may experience. It's just about loving these girls, embracing them, and letting them know that they're not alone. People do care about them, and we're here to support them and see them be successful. I had a survey that I gave to the girls recently and it had five different questions, and one of the questions was, 'How do you feel about the mentors?' One girl says, 'They're great. I've never felt so much love in all my life.' "
And sometimes that love is tough.
If any girls in the group get in-school suspension, they're required to write and read a letter to the group explaining what they did and why they did it, and discuss how they could have handled the situation differently.
Solomon says she refuses to let it become a "bad girls club" and that students are there to grow.
As far as how the club can grow, the curriculum for next year is in the works, covering 37 topics, including macroaggression, body image, women's history, and how to succeed academically.
Eventually, Solomon wants to see the program spread to other Alamance-Burlington School System district schools and other North Carolina counties.
Field trips to places like the Greensboro Science Center or the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C., are on the wish list, too, but funding can be a challenge.
"Everything is on a budget, as you know, so we try to get donations where we can, which are far and few in between, but we just make it happen anyway," Solomon said.
For now, she's focusing on students like Chastity Doster, a former repeat offender who received the March "Most Improved Attitude Award" at this week's meeting – complete with her own tiara and set of pearls.
They're presented with ample pride and praise.
"It's called Queens in Pearls because every woman, regardless of race, every woman is a queen, but you have to love yourself and know that that queen lives inside of you," Solomon said. "We're bringing it out."
This article was reported by The Times-News of Burlington.