ST. PETERSBURG | Half a year shy of her 12th birthday, Imuneq Johnson is a child walking around in a woman's body. Her older brother stopped inviting his friends to the house months ago because they couldn't keep their eyes off her. Her uncle started picking her up at the school bus stop to spare her the stares and wolf whistles of men three times her age. And more than a year ago, the family pediatrician issued this warning to her mother: You have to tell her about boys and what can happen. She could become pregnant at age 10. ¶ That startled Jackie Godwin, whose only daughter was 5 feet 8 by the time she started fifth grade. Godwin began insisting that she wear T-shirts under her sundresses. She's relieved that Imuneq, who starts middle school next month, is a "good girl." But she worries about her just the same. "She doesn't give me any problems, but I always feel like I've got to keep an eye on her," Godwin said. "I have to try to protect her."
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Tijuana Bigham's studies in elementary education didn't prepare her to deal with issues like body odor and menstruation, things that many of today's fourth- and fifth-graders are experiencing.
Campbell Park Elementary's principal was surprised one day when the maintenance man told her the school's plumbing was backed up. The culprit? Sanitary napkins the girls were stuffing down the toilet.
It was a wakeup call to Bigham that girls are maturing earlier than they used to, and that elementary students can be as old as 12 or 13 if they're held back once or twice.
She noticed that other issues — hunger, homelessness and the responsibility of caring for younger siblings — were aging some girls beyond their years.
They were becoming prickly, unwilling to follow a teacher's direction. They kept to themselves. Their self-esteem was plummeting.
Their lives reminded Bigham, 32, of her own childhood growing up in Ridgecrest, one of the poorest sections of Largo. She had known girls who got pregnant in middle school and girls who got arrested before they turned 16.
Certain that she wouldn't have gone to college if it hadn't been for caring teachers, Bigham now saw a chance to put into action a plan she had created while training to become a principal.
She launched a club for three dozen girls who were physically or emotionally older than their peers.
She christened it the Girlfriends of Campbell Park.
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Girlfriends debuted in November. The ground rules were simple.
The girls had to refrain from rudeness, bullying and fighting. They had to keep their grades up.
And every Tuesday, they had to come to school dressed like ladies — no jeans, no bare midriffs and no short shorts. It was a stretch for some of the girls, especially the chronic dress code violators.
It also was tough for the ones who didn't own nice outfits. The club advisers began picking up clothes at thrift stores and quietly offering them to girls who wore the same dress week after week. Some donated outfits from their own closets.
Each week, a guest speaker talked to the girls on a topic like personal hygiene, Internet safety or dressing for success.
Maria Olski, a nurse at Bayfront Medical Center, offered this message:
"If you're wearing short dresses, you're saying something about yourself. If you're dressed appropriately, people will respect you."
The girls who dressed correctly got to wear a strand of pearls.
Early in the school year, the PTA had scraped together funds to buy each of them an inexpensive necklace, strung on elastic thread. The girls picked up their pearls in the morning and surrendered them at the end of the school day.
Bigham wore her pearls on Tuesdays as well, a gift she bought herself as a good-luck charm when she interviewed for her job at Campbell Park. Each week, she explained to the girls the symbolism of the pearl and hoped it would inspire them.
A pearl forms as layer upon layer of deposits accumulate. Eventually, what emerges from a misshapen oyster shell is a smooth, polished treasure, valuable beyond measure.
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Bigham's plan for Girlfriends called for strong role models. She enlisted the help of first-grade teachers Brittney Daniels, 29, a mother of three boys, and Shaquina Gore, 31, who grew up on a military base.
For Daniels, the challenge was learning more about what makes girls tick. For Gore, it was about becoming a better listener.
They consulted with fifth-grade teacher Jacqueline Craven, 26, who had noticed that some of the girls in her class had attitudes — chips on their shoulders — and needed extra guidance and mentoring.
Over and over, the women delivered the same messages to the girls:
Even when you fail, you don't have to stay down.
Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not a success.
Who you are is so much more than what you have on, but what you have on says a lot about who you are.
The women described the journey to get the girls to act like ladies as two steps forward and one step backward.
Eleven-year-old Janiesha Brown, whose parents were both in jail when the school year started, learned "not to fight." But she failed to return the paperwork to enroll in a class that would challenge her to work harder this fall.
Jamiia Spradley, 11, dressed up several weeks in a row, but then forgot on consecutive Tuesdays. One week, she overslept and didn't have time to iron the white shirt and black skirt she'd planned to wear.
She hung her head when told she couldn't wear her pearls that day.
And Healey Segeren, 12, a self-professed tomboy, came to school dressed up most Tuesdays, but would change back into jeans and a T-shirt after collecting her necklace.
"I wanted to learn how to be a young lady. I wanted to learn manners and be proper," Healey said. "But I can't stand dresses."
This coming school year, Bigham plans to expand the club to third-graders to give some girls an extra year of attention.
"I want to keep encouraging them to think big," she said. "To dream."
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Thinking big was the message on the first Tuesday in June when the fifth-grade Girlfriends gathered in the school cafeteria for graduation.
Janiesha, a head taller than the girls on either side of her, wore a white sundress with a short-sleeved jacket. Healey stood tall and proud in a white taffeta dress with a black lace overlay.
And Imuneq, as poised as a model, wore a long-sleeved black shirt and a sleek, knee-length white skirt. She flashed a brilliant smile as her mother snapped her picture from the front row.
Halfway through the ceremony, Bigham paid special tribute to the Girlfriends.
She had one last gift for the girls: The pearls that had been on loan to them all year were now theirs to keep.
The excited girls walked out of the cafeteria for the last time.
Their teachers walked behind them, ready to catch them if they wobbled on their 3-inch heels.
Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.