"Remember, you're a puppet on a string, you're a puppet on a string. Pup-pet. Pup-pet."
Over and over, Dr. Angela Slack calls out these words as her 13 students, ranging in age from 9 to 18 years old, take turns walking down a hallway and lowering themselves into a chair.
Simple tasks, such as the proper way to walk and sit, are key elements of Get Charmed, a charm school for girls. Slack is the director of the school.
When it's time for a new student to take her turn, Slack walks with her, correcting her when she leads with the wrong foot. Sitting properly is important, too. Slack demonstrates how to feel the chair with one's calves, lowering to the edge and sliding back.
Legs are together, she emphasizes, or crossed at the ankles. Crossing at the knee is OK but only while wearing pants, not a skirt or dress.
Charm school might give the image of little girls in starched dresses, learning to sip tea and walk with books on their heads, but Slack said her motivation was about instilling confidence and self-esteem.
"The purpose of Get Charmed is to enhance skills in young girls that will help them to always be a lady," she said. "It's to help girls understand that they are worthy, they have to be competent and that they belong in whatever venue they see themselves in the future as far as their vocations and dreams."
Slack co-founded the program with her husband, Dr. Rozario Slack. He is founder of the Legacy Campaign, a family and marriage empowerment organization. While the Slacks have run enrichment sessions for couples, they wanted to see how they could meet the needs of the whole family.
"After noticing some changes in the middle-school girls - the lack of self-esteem some of them were exhibiting, the struggles they were having with body image, the confidence levels - my husband and I were pondering how we could meet the needs of some of the young ladies we were encountering," Angela Slack said.
They also wanted to meet the needs of their own daughters, Taylor, 8, and Pamela, 12, who is a Get Charmed student. So in 2009, they opened Get Charmed, beginning with the daughters of friends. A program for boys, she said, is in the works.
Practice makes perfect
Each Saturday, the students gather in a classroom at Eastgate Town Center. To greet a new student, each girl stands up and introduces herself. Some are poised, others fidgety. After roll call, they review last week's lesson from a speech pathologist.
"Speak clearly," one student recalls.
"Make eye contact," says another.
"Always say 'please,' 'thank you' and 'you're welcome,' " says a third.
To practice the techniques they've learned, each girl rises to give a two-minute speech about a local attraction.
Maya Jafar, a sixth-grader at Heritage Middle School, gives her speech on the Hunter Museum of American Art.
Maya's mother, Sonya Jafar, said she thought Get Charmed would benefit her daughter.
"I thought it would be a good opportunity to ... enhance the things I've tried to instill in her as far as etiquette, how to carry herself well and how to handle herself in public, just being more confident about who she is as a person," Jafar said.
She said Maya, 11, is more aware of her table manners, including what utensils to use, and personal care.
In a phone interview, Maya answers with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," and says, "Could you please repeat yourself?" when she doesn't hear a question.
The self-esteem cup is a demonstrative tool, a Styrofoam cup filled with water to represent self-esteem, which is then poked with a pencil. It is vital, Slack teaches them, to neither poke the self-esteem cups of others nor to allow their own cups to be poked.
"We want the girls to be ladies, but we want them to be strong women when they are pursuing their life's goals. We teach them that you never let anyone poke holes in your self-esteem," Slack said.
She said she notices differences in the girls as they work through the lessons of Get Charmed.
Winifred Foster said of her daughter Elexis, a seventh-grader at Lookout Valley Middle School: "Her whole attitude has changed. She has more confidence in herself."
During the speech session, Slack gently admonishes one student for an offense.
"I see gum," she says. "I'd like to not see gum. Because a lady - what?"
"Never chews gum in public," the girls chorus.
After the speech review is complete, the girls rise and move into the hall to practice proper walking, each remembering, as Slack tells them, to be "a puppet on a string."
After each takes a turn walking, then walking and sitting, they line up for a third go-round.
This time, there are indeed, books on their heads.