“This is a trust exercise.”
Doretha Brown faces a line of fifty girls, organized by grade, leaning against the Bowen High School hallway. Some are dressed in fancy cocktail frocks; some are wearing snapbacks and jeans, rushing to the end of the line from another class. Doretha walks and talks with the cadence of a drill sergeant while handing out blindfolds, hand-cut from a white cotton tablecloth, and costume party eye masks, alternating the two with every other girl.
“Put them on! Close your mouths. Shut your eyes! I see some of y’all peeking.”
Despite the repeated requests to hush the girls’ excited whispers and lifting their blindfolds, Doretha speaks with a firm warmth, which by any other voice, might be a contradiction. Maternal, nurturing, and soothing, but never patronizing. Ever calm, she’s hiding a surprise party with an extensive itinerary: this My Vision, My Journey celebration is a bit more elaborate than most. Alongside WOW tees and souvenirs are bubbles, hula hoops, paddle-balls, and a buffet of party food. “I wanted the theme to resonate with their inner child,” she told me. With a wistful air, she added, “To bring them back to their youth and to imagine being carefree in paradise. These girls grow up too fast and forget how to be a kid.”
Fifteen minutes passed. The WOW girls get antsy with anticipation, squirming and struggling to keep their blindfolds propped on their faces. The lights are turned off in the classroom with a votive candle flickering, ready for the group to surround it.
“I need each one of you to place your hand on the girl in front of you. Trust her to lead you. Trust yourself to follow.”
The line zig-zags – the blind leading the blind. Another counselor reigns them into a circle, the usual format for their counseling meetings. The counselor does not lecture or preach at them; instead, they join together in commiserating, sharing successes and failures equidistant.
The girls stand and use their hands to feel for a chair. They’re allowed to open their eyes. They murmur in awe while helping other girls’ untangle their masks and blindfolds.
“Did you trust the girl in front of you to lead the way? Or did you trust me to trust the girl in front of you?”
“We trust you!” a majority said in unison.
“I like that,” she chuckled to herself, “but y’all need to trust each other. You have to bring each other up, not bring each other down.”
For many of the girls in the WOW program, which is expanding to 1,500 girls across 20 CPS schools, distrust of both self and others runs deep. Doretha, and many WOW counselors like her, strive to remedy their anguish by creating open, emotionally vulnerable safe spaces. In their classroom, everyone is equally encouraged to share their successes and their failures, and celebrate as much as mourn. In traditional therapy programs, there is a professional, formal distance between psychologist and patient; here, in the schools, counselors and students are friends and kin, healing together.
“We call her Ms. WOW. We call her ‘Mom,’” Kaleah, a junior, commented. Arriving at Bowen High School as a freshman, Kaleah had anger issues that caused fights and disruptions in class. “Ms. Brown taught me to believe in myself. That I can have goals. That I can have a vision. She made me realize my worth.” Because of Doretha and the WOW program, Kaleah received a certificate at the end of her sophomore year, praising her as her class’s “Most Improved Student.”
At the end of the ceremony, Doretha handed out a crystal to each girl, tucking it in her hand and embracing them tightly. The crystal symbolized and celebrated the end of the academic year, a memento of their successes. Kaleah kept it in her purse, where she keeps last year’s crystal, too.
The work of WOW never ends. The tireless dedication of its counselors, students, and Youth Guidance work together to ensure a tight-knit support network to keep students like Kaleah strong, confident, and emotionally prepared for life.