Ajabu Brown is the fifth of 10 children of a single mother, a narrow little thing with skin the color of coffee with heavy cream.
The 11-year-old lives in public housing, a place of rusty fences and broken glass. Gunfire at a block party once had her hiding in a closet. "That's how it be around here, and I don't like it,'' she says. "You could get killed or shot or raped or something."
One minute she acts like she has all the sense in the world, the next she's hitting and yelling. She has an old-soul bitterness that sometimes breaks with a playful eye roll, rarely with a smile.
Leaving Just Elementary School one day, a classmate yells, "Ajabu. You 11 in third grade? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.''
She could haul off and smack the girl, but it's Monday.
And on Mondays, Ajabu is a lady.
• • •
Here in a neighborhood where police log more rapes and assaults than anywhere else in Tampa, at a school where 97 percent of the kids qualify for free lunch, Ajabu and two siblings are part of a social experiment that is being duplicated at hundreds of schools around the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen's Clubs, as they're called, attempt to dare kids to dream — despite their situations — of a better life through encouragement, etiquette and cultural exposure.
Most are launched in middle schools. At Just, they've invited grades 3 through 5 under the rationale that it's never too early.
A starting group of 62 includes Ajabu, her brother Milo Martin and sister Mylena Martin; picked for their potential, the trouble they caused in school and the obstacles they face at home.
For nearly nine months of Mondays, they will dress in monogrammed garments laundered by a good-hearted cafeteria worker. Girls will arrive in stoles and skirts. Boys will wear ties, when they remember.
Eleven teachers, a police officer and a guidance counselor will work extra hours for no additional pay to teach etiquette, self-discipline and self-respect. They'll take the kids to formal dinners and excursions they otherwise might never experience.
Whoever can't keep up, typically about 30 percent, will be dismissed. The others, educators say, stand a strong chance of succeeding beyond the school year.
Their teachers do not expect miracles. They are encouraged, they say, by small steps.
• • •
"Your parents gave us the best that they had when they gave us you," counselor Lynette Henry tells the ladies at their first meeting in September.
"She's diggin' up her nose and puttin' her boogers on me!" one girl says.
"And she's passin' gas!"
The interruptions are frequent, the teachers overwhelmed.
"There's a jail cell waiting for you guys,'' says former Navy SEAL Wayne Valenti, addressing the Gentlemen's Club. "But I know that you won't end up like that. Feel me?''
“Feel me!" the boys respond.
Ten-year-old Milo is known as a knucklehead. He pushes, runs around, flunked first grade.
Ajabu was held back twice. As a kindergartner she refused to talk. Now she's known for mouthing off.
Mylena, 8, is the only one of the three in the correct grade.
At home, Ajabu helps care for three younger sisters, ages 2 to 4. Meka, as everyone calls their mother, Demetric Deshawn Blanco, cooks dinner.
When they moved to this five-bedroom home, Meka had seven children. She was barely a teenager when she had the first. Now she's 33, with nine under her roof and the oldest staying with his grandmother.
Afternoons and evenings, the place buzzes with activity: television, Internet surfing, homework, cell phone conversations.
Meka dreamed of running a day care and says, "I guess now, that's what I've got." She works stacking chairs at a sports arena. She demands respect from her children, knowing she's swimming against a tide of delinquency outside her doors.
Neighborhood kids "broke out every window in my house because I wouldn't let my son out to fight with another boy."
When cops swarm the block or people fight in the streets, the family watches from an upstairs window.
• • •
Teacher Maryam Muhammad knows the kind of life her students experience outside of school. In the high-rise projects of East Orange, N.J., as one of eight children, she lived it.
Her mother had her first child at 15.
Her father spent 22 years in prison.
Her older sister raised her.
"We were in poverty, but the respect was always there," she says. But, says Muhammad, with this generation, it's lacking.
On the first of October when the girls first wear their club attire, Muhammad tells them what it means to be a lady. As she lectures, one girl plays a video game. Another chokes herself with the stole; others giggle and talk. It's a day that will try the patience of the 33-year-old with the thick Jersey accent.
"You're not going to stand here and disrespect me," she tells a lady who keeps talking. "You're not. You're not."
Soon, a half-dozen girls have been called up to the front for discipline.
At the Gentlemen's Club, one boy sleeps through the lecture. When it's over, they do back flips outside. Stoles the ladies chewed on have wet, wrinkled ends.
"You better not be hitting anybody! You're in the Ladies Club," one lady reminds another.
Muhammad is encouraged.
• • •
"Why play ball when you can own the club? Why be a rap star when you can own the studio?"
These are the words of Ladies and Gentlemen's Clubs founder Stephen G. Peters, a writer, educator and speaker who visited Tampa with his wife on Oct. 19.
He wants the children to dream. To envision. To know there is more to life than what West Tampa has offered them.
Heads turn as the tall, golden brown man in the tailored suit and pinstriped tie enters with his wife. Backs are straight. Formal introductions are made.
Angela Peters tells the kids she didn't pull the best grades in high school. "Now I'm a doctor of science. It can be done.
"You just have to believe."
Stephen Peters' idea was hatched in the years he spent as a teacher, assistant principal and school administrator in Virginia and Maryland. As he saw it, 10 percent of the students caused 90 percent of the trouble. If only he could dress them in shirts, ties and self-respect, he thought.
His first club, in Norfolk, turned out 30 gentlemen in 1996. Of those, 22 graduated college, he says. Four have master's degrees.
Today there are clubs throughout the nation, with five in Hillsborough at last count. Grants of $12,500 pay for the excursions. Other money comes from federal funding. Teachers dip into their pockets for snacks, supplies and clothes.
The school district is watching Just. If children show even a little bit of progress, the program could be replicated at other elementary schools.
"I want you to pay now so you can play later,'' Peters says, gazing at his wife. "We're playing now."
Together, they look like money.
"You were born for a reason," Stephen Peters tells them. "Take your place in life."
• • •
It's almost Thanksgiving. Ajabu and Mylena are making the short walk home after a Ladies Club meeting. Without warning, another lady jumps Ajabu, holding her face-down on the concrete. Punches are thrown. Ajabu cries and covers her head. Adults watch, leaning on dusty cars. Some cheer. None help.
Ladies from the two camps drag the two apart. The sisters walk home, do their homework.
No one mentions the fight.
• • •
The dining room of the Valencia Garden restaurant has vaulted ceilings, kelly green walls and Christmas lights. Servers pour ice water into crystal glasses on linen tablecloths.
No elbows are on the tables.
Mylena's eyes dance over five utensils. "Is this the right one?" She picks up the outside fork.
Milo sits with his back straight and hands crossed. He pulls out a chair for Circuit Judge Ashley B. Moody of the juvenile delinquency division. "You don't ever want to come into my court room, do you?" she admonishes.
Speaking in hushed tones and making formal pronouncements between courses, the children work their way through a traditional Spanish dinner.
Afterward, Milo stacks plates, thanks the servers and holds the door for Moody. "I was just being a gentleman," he explains.
At home Mylena taps her mother's arm. "Guess what we had? We had some chicken and some rice."
"They gave us some fried bananas," Ajabu interrupts, complaining of a stomachache.
Milo wants to call his father.
"I told him y'all were going out to eat, and he thought I was playing,'' Meka says.
Her eyes are on a Christmas tree, her mind on the light bill. She hasn't been to work lately. The babies were coming home from day care with unexplained scratches and bruises.
She sees Mylena eating marshmallows. "I thought you said your stomach was hurting."
"Nuh uh, that was Ajabu."
• • •
It's a short drive to the University of Tampa, but it could be a continent. Here, $28,000 buys a school year of credits and an entree into Tampa's business world.
Today, Feb. 2, the Spartans are playing basketball.
A red-and-gold banner greets the Ladies and Gentlemen, who are brimming with questions.
"Do y'all got people, like, this short (she stands to show her height) on y'all team?" Ajabu asks a college student.
Only about 20 children earned enough points to take part in this trip. Milo wasn't one of them. Too much horseplay in the hallway.
The questions keep coming.
"If you're roommates, do you share the same bed?
"When I go to college I want to play sports and be a pediatrician. Can I do that?"
Cheerleaders throw Frisbees into the crowd. In the melee to catch one, the boys rip the welcome sign. Wide-eyed with embarrassment, they piece it back together.
Days later the teachers mount a defensive strike on the Gentlemen's Club. They make it clear: Misbehave and you'll soon be gone.
Milo is late, sucking a red Ring Pop. He laughs. His eyes wander.
"I saw you guys all at dinner so I know you know how to act like gentlemen,'' teacher Jon Uhouse says. "You need to act that way to your teachers, to your lunch ladies, to people you don't know. We're not trying to get you to a place you want to be. We're trying to get you to a place where you need to be."
• • •
I believe I'm smart because ...
"I know everything," Ajabu says, eyes on a worksheet.
"Even I don't know everything," teacher Ayana Gibson says.
My parents think I'm smart because ...
"I hipe (help) my little sister read… I want to be a basketball player," Ajabu writes. "And a teacher. I can do both?''
My biggest challenge is...
"I don't like writing."
Gibson, a graduate of Virginia's historically black Hampton University, leaves and returns with a diary for Ajabu. She had one as a child, she says. The more you write, the more you'll like it.
"She don't deserve that!" another lady calls out.
Ajabu cuts her eyes at her but stays silent.
• • •
Eighteen girls and 13 boys of the original 62 attend on Feb. 25. Seven girls have uniforms, better than last time, but subpar just the same.
Henry, the counselor, refuses to see a glass half-empty. "You're different,'' she says. "You're holding the door for others. You're being a gentleman. You're being a good friend. You're being a lady."
In the gentlemen's meeting, Milo is muttering under his breath at the lecture of his teacher, Wayne Valenti.
He is not our daddy.
"You're supposed to be a beacon of light for this school."
Oh, my God … I wish today wasn't Monday. … Man, he needs to shut up.
"You think everything's funny."
"Mr. Peters wouldn't be pleased."
He ain't our daddy neither. ... He needs to shut up. ... You neeeeed to shut up.
"It's so easy to listen right now. To do the right thing now."
Nope. It's hard.
Only three have brought a required progress report. Valenti tells them he's tired of "wasting my Mondays with this crap."
• • •
At Valencia Garden, they behaved better than some adults. Why can't they bring those manners to the classroom, to the hallway? Why are teachers finding club clothes on bathroom floors?
Henry wants to dismiss them for the day.
But there's trouble at a spot called "Four Corners" just outside the school. Police Officer Wayne Moore wants them to stay until a crowd of loud, thuggish-looking men disperses. He doesn't even want teachers driving past. "Go the other way," he says, pointing to Blake High School.
A half-hour later they leave.
• • •
Past the gated front steps of Just, this is the life they face.
"We know as a staff that there's a good possibility that whatever we build up will be broken down out there," says Valenti.
Still, they take heart in small signs of progress: in respectfully hushed voices when the children speak to teachers and peers, in fights they mediate or avoid, in the way they see potential in themselves.
"If you can see 10 percent (change), that 10 percent might grow to 20 and that 20 to 40," says assistant superintendent Gwen Luney.
"Change is something that happens a little bit at a time."
Before the year ends, two more ladies and nine gentlemen are voted out. But Meka's three children are still in the club, and Ajabu's mother expects her to be promoted to fourth grade.
Indeed, Ajabu has changed. She has proof. Writing in a pastel notebook, her mother had asked her teachers: Has Ajabu been good in class, or disrespectful to the other students?
Months ago the pages were filled with color-coded warnings — yellow and red — about her behavior. Flip ahead and the colors change.
"Ajabu has made great improvement in her behaviors in school,'' a teacher has written. "We are proud of her efforts."
Pointing to the green ink and happy faces, Ajabu smiles.
Times staff writer Amber Mobley can be reached at [email protected]