Reigning Miss A comes back to speak with city youth
Last Wednesday night (June 14) Atlantic City welcomed back Miss America. Well, sort of. The reigning Miss America, the lovely, intelligent and warm Miss Jennifer Berry, attended a town hall meeting held here in the city. She attended, not just to promote Miss America, but to talk to our young people about the real danger of underage drinking.
I don't usually think much of people who stop into town to make one-time speeches to our youth and then hop a plane back out to "celebrity-ville." Miss Berry, however, left me with the feeling that she really did want to be here and interact with the city's kids for more than a photo op. She impressed me. Berry appeared as a real activist for families and communities to work together to stop young people from drinking and making other poor choices in their lives.
Berry explained to the youth, who gathered at the Atlantic County Auditorium on Atlantic Avenue, how, at 22, she's only a few years older than them. She shared details of her teen life and how she fought peer pressure in her native Oklahoma.
"My choice to pursue dance left me no time to hang out with people who were drinking and partying," she told the kids. "Our goals were different."
Berry maintained that she had friends who drank and did other things, but because she was working towards being a dancer, she didn't have many opportunities for late night partying and/or illegal activities. Berry added that the hardest thing she had to do as a teen was to attend the funereal of her best friend, a fellow dance student.
"She got into an SUV with some other kids who had been drinking on a weekend trip." Berry said. "Her rib cage was smashed and she died at age 16."
After Berry's sobering talk, she stayed on to answer questions from the stage and also offered as much personal face time as she could. At one point she let 14-year old Police Athletic League member Quashawn Williams try on her crown.
"I think she brought to light a real problem that we don't talk about much in our community," said Michael Bailey, the PAL's youth director. "She was very good and our kids got a lot out of it."
Bailey added, "I hope this is not the only program on this issue. There needs to be follow-up events."
I didn't realize how much I missed Miss America. Miss Berry's visit took me back to the summer of 1995 when I worked for a weekly paper in Newark, N.J. I wrote an article about the first year of Inter-league Major League Baseball and how the Mets and Yankees were having their first subway series in decades. The series itself wasn't what made me glad I wrote that story. Interviewing people for that piece was a memorable experience -- speaking with people in their 50s and 60s still upset that the Dodgers (aka "Jackie's Team") had left Brooklyn. I could almost smell the mustard and dogs and hear grown men yelling "Slide, Jackie, slide!" and see them waiving their hands like guiding a ship to shore!
Fast forward 10 years and you can bet that hundreds of Shore-area natives are upset about the Miss America Pageant leaving Atlantic City last year. I remember hanging out with friends on the Boardwalk and yelling for Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles and Miss New York Vanessa Williams.
Seeing Jennifer Berry made me realize that I might never be able take my future son, daughter, niece or nephew up to the Boardwalk for the Miss America Parade. We won't enjoy the crappy pizza, dodging the seagulls and listening to loud groups of locals holler "Show us your shoes!" I may never swell with pride as I tell my "brood of the future" a long, droning story about my high school days as the AC Marching Vikings step down the Boardwalk.
Berry is wonderful and her visit to AC was a high point of this year in the city. However, in September 2006 I'll take some time to stop and think about Miss America not being here. Finally, I wonder how much more Jay-Z would be loved if instead of the Nets, he moved the Dodgers back to Brooklyn?
Raymond Tyler is a freelance writer who has written about varied subjects for several of the country's leading urban magazines.
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