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Three girls go forward, confident and strong

They were lined up in the back of a Tampa hotel conference room, a couple of pieces of the future.

Aretha Blake, 19, is majoring in psychology at Florida State University.

Kimberly Boone, 20, lives on the same dorm floor as Aretha and is majoring in business.

One of their professors in Tallahassee asked Aretha and Kimberly, who are black, if they wanted to attend the Florida Women's Conference, which met during the weekend and Monday at the hotel.

The conference _ about girls and the women they become, at work, as professionals, mothers, wives _ was sponsored by the University of South Florida. About 400 women attended.

But most were grown, and most were white, and Aretha said her professor wanted all kinds of women represented.

That's how Aretha and Kimberly got to the conference. But how they got there isn't as important as where they're going.

Aretha wants to be a lawyer, Kimberly a businesswoman.

They announced their plans with as much confidence as a man. That is, they weren't in the least apologetic for their ambitions, the way girls tend to be _ no matter how much we think the world has changed for them.

In their voices, something other than confidence was audible.

You could hear the strength of character that must have been laid down by powerful adults in their lives, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, in a network of love.

Both Aretha, from Charleston, S.C., and Kimberly, who was raised in Tampa, said their churches regularly send them and all the other college students in their congregation small checks, to help with their expenses. Aretha said her church is going to pay the fees when she takes the exams required for admission to law school.

This way, Kimberly said, they know somebody's standing behind them.

"'You feel," she said, "you can go a little further."

A feeling like that is worth more than money. A feeling like that will enrich your heart enough to make you want to give to somebody else.

So Aretha did.

When her college professor in Tallahassee invited her to the women's conference, Aretha called up her younger cousin in Fort Walton Beach, Amber Gardner, and asked if she also wanted to go.

Amber is just 16, but she did a lot of talking at one of the meetings at the conference, on teen pregnancy. At her own school, she said, it's the unusual kids who aren't having sex already. And, of course, she's one of the unusual ones.

She is a long-legged girl with cropped brown hair and a face so perfectly shaped it's a sculptor's dream. She wants to be a dancer.

The three girls, Aretha, Kimberly and Amber, were planning to spend the night at the home of Kimberly's parents in Tampa on Monday, and then go back to their lives at school.

Amber will go back to Fort Walton Beach, her eyes a little more open to the wider world.

Aretha and Kimberly will return to Tallahassee, to their classes and boyfriends and a new project.

After hearing from the experts at the conference about the troubles in so many women's lives, Aretha said, she and Kimberly have decided to work with girls at a high school near the university, who may not have had the same chances. They want to help the girls with their studies, to keep them from getting pregnant, to get them on track. So far the one thing they have for their group is a name, Imani. In Swahili, the word means faith.

Aretha said, "'We don't have money, but we have time, we have energy."

The conference was ending. The three girls, the future made flesh, headed to the door. As they went, I wished them silently: Fly, fly _ no, soar.

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