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Group offers D.C. girls a glimpse of high society

(Published November 5, 2001)


Staff Writer

D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell founded the High Tea Society to help disadvantaged D.C. girls de-stress while exposing them to some of the finer points of proper etiquette.

Young ladies took notice of the linen, fine chinaware, assorted shortbread desserts arranged decoratively on silver trays, and they exchanged smiles with familiar greetings as a soft orange glow from the sun illuminated the room.

Dressed in their "Sunday best" with hats and gloves, the group of young ladies sipped tea while being serenaded by a classical quartet.

These young ladies, ranging in age from 12 to 18, are offered a taste of a cultured lifestyle through the teachings of sociable etiquette, exposure to social events and daily encouragement as part of the High Tea Society.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell helped create the High Tea Society for elementary and junior high school girls who are disadvantaged. But that wasnít the original plan for the society. Terrell said the original concept was to serve as an outlet for professional women to relax after a stressful week on the job. The focus from professional women to teenaged girls changed one day when Terrell was visiting P.R. Harris Educational Center in Southeast Washington.

"I went to P.R. Harris to give a presentation and as I was talking, I noticed the condition that some of the girls were in," Terrell said. "I realized that a lot of girls as young as 12 get stressed out, too, just from dealing with life."

Because of their already hectic schedules, the original founders were not able to continue with the High Tea Societyís formation, so Terrell took it upon herself to continue. Terrell did receive help from a new group of women who are dedicated to helping youth Ė including Alicia Peterson, chair of the membership committee; Melodie Johnson, chair of the mentoring committee; Lorna Johns, chair of the program committee; Fannie Allen, chair of the fundraising committee; Erika Laws, chair of the culture committee; and Lisa Clark, chair of the education committee.

Throughout the year the High Tea Society hosts social gatherings. On Oct. 20 the High Tea Society held its "Afternoon Tea" at Second Baptist Church in Northwest Washington. Included in this social gathering was the classical quartet Sisters with Strings.

Candice Lawrence, 16, Tahira Pratt, 15, Michelle Walker, 17 and Erikka Watkins, 15, serenaded the High Tea Society with the strike of their cello, violins and viola. The group preformed such songs as "The Lordís Prayer" and "Putting on the Ritz." Lawrence said Sisters with Strings, a small branch of the D.C. Youth Orchestra, is not a part of the High Tea Society, but they often are asked to participate in the tea socials given by the society.

"I wanted to provide an atmosphere where the girls can feel as comfortable in the White House like as they would in their house," Terrell said.

"There is just something soothing about sipping tea in the afternoon," adds the Rev. James Terrell, pastor of Second Baptist Church, who is Judge Terrellís husband. Second Baptist Church serves as a home to the High Tea Society. Many of the social tea gatherings and Saturday tutoring sessions take place at the church.

Though tea socials are the main events of the group, the High Tea Society provides other activities for the young ladies. The High Tea Society provides them with writing workshops, visits to college campuses, academic tutors, trips to New York to view Broadway plays and regular tea socials at exclusive venues in the District such as the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

Through the teaching of etiquette, it is mandatory that the young ladies wear gloves and a hat at all social functions they attend.

"The hat and gloves are about values and how you carry yourself," Terrell said. "Iíve even noticed that the girls act different when they have them on. They are ladies."

Shileathe Smith, a member of the High Tea Society, said a hat and gloves "are like the High Tea Societyís trademark."

"We stand out wherever we go when we wear the hat and gloves," Smith said.

Even though the group formed in 1997, the High Tea Society did not receive its first group of young ladies until 1999. To recruit girls for the High Tea Society, representatives go into D.C. elementary and junior high schools and talk with the principals. The principal makes recommendations of what student should participate based on the studentís daily academic and social performance in school. The principal holds a conference with the student, the parents and a representative of the High Tea Society. Terrell said there is no minimum grade-point average required for membership.

Currently Mary Church Terrell Junior High, P.R. Harris Educational Center and Martin Luther King Elementary School are the only academic institutions that are partnered with the High Tea Society. Terrell said she is hoping to expand the societyís efforts to other D.C. public schools, but the society currently does not have the capacity to expand to other schools.

More than 50 adult women and students currently are members. The High Tea Society has also received donations and formed partnerships with the Womenís Bar Association, the Rotary Club and Washington Gas.

Each girl is assigned a mentor. The mentor keeps up with the academic progress of their student. Smith said the High Tea Society has helped her to become a more outspoken person and has helped her to develop a sense of uniqueness.

"When some people see me they always say I look like someoneís mother, but that does not bother me. Iím just unique," Smith said.

Tobi Odunlami shares the same sentiments as Smith. The two 14-year-olds credit their participation in the society for encouraging them to attend college.

"After high school, I would like to major in civil engineering or join the Navy," Odunlami said.

"Iíve thought about joining the Navy, but I want to major in mass communications and psychology," Smith said.

Smith and Odunlami are students at Banneker Senior High School and entered the High Tea Society when they both attended Terrell Junior High. Judge Terrell said that each student selected to participate is considered to be a member of the High Tea Society until she graduates from high school.

"If the member decides to attend college in the D.C. area, then her mentor will be in contact with her just to check to see if she is doing OK, and she can still participate in the societyís functions," Terrell said.

Because this society is fairly new, there have not yet been any graduates of the High Tea Society. None of the participants have dropped out of the society. Honorary members of the High Tea Society include Virginia Hayes Williams, mother of Mayor Anthony A. Williams; C. Dolores Tucker, president of the National Congress of Black Women; and Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator