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OPINION: My DYW experience: Not a jail, not a pageant

By: Railey Ayers

“When I first heard that Railey won this title, I thought she would be going to a pageant,” laughed my pastor, Travis Johnson, at the send-off that my local DYW committee threw me, “but now it sounds more like she is going to jail.”

Technically, the Distinguished Young Women of Alabama program was neither a pageant nor jail, but Brother Travis didn’t know that and neither did I.

I expected it to be fairly close to both of the aforementioned things. All I knew about DYW was what I heard at a jam-packed orientation day in December, and it scared me.

Orientation day took place at Saint James Elementary School. 48 girls and their parents walked into the cafeteria, checked in, received garment bags and instructions and were sent to meet their host families and housemates.

I had almost gotten my long legs situated under the too-short table when my housemate arrived and found our table. Ann-Marie Willis of Mobile County differed from me in some obvious ways. She was 5’2 compared to my 5’7, blonde compared to my brown and dressed a lot cuter than I could ever hope to be.

We met and talked and overlooked differences. I liked Ann-Marie Willis. She was great, but there was one part of her that stuck with me for the entire month between orientation and program week— Ann-Marie had three sisters, and Ann-Marie had taken three trips to Montgomery to cheer on her sisters for the state DYW title.

Yes, Ann-Marie’s mom had done this four times, and, yes, Ann-Marie was a DYW legacy. The family streak was no small feat; Mobile is a huge county. The state chairwoman then began to speak, giving me the grave news that I hoped was just a horrible rumor.

“No phones allowed,” she stated. She said other things too but I was too concerned about the devastating phone news to listen. I clutched my iPhone in my hand and upon leaving Saint James Elementary, pushed DYW into the back of my mind until my send-off, where I contemplated that going to jail may be less horrifying than wherever I was about to go.

Reality did not begin to set in until I checked in for the week at Frazer United Methodist Church. I entered my local DYW program hoping to leave with a first runner-up title and some scholarship money, but I left with a medallion and an instruction handbook for the state program instead.

No one at Frazer knew that I was the girl who had accidentally won her small county. No one at Frazer knew that I had never even seen a DYW program or knew what it was prior to being in it myself. I had entered a whole new world.

I was not ready to leave my mom, dad, brother, softball practices or technology, but I went through the motions and did it anyway. I went to rehearsals in a daze and made it to lunch. We loaded up the bus and headed toward Wintzell’s in downtown Montgomery, and then we were asked if we would like to take part in the oyster-eating contest.

I mechanically raised my hand and looked at it as if it were a foreign object in the air, wondering what it was doing. Now, I was not only terrified of the upcoming week and in a confused daze, but I was also in an oyster-eating contest. Though I did not win, I did enjoy some free oysters and good entertainment from watching some oyster eaters far more dedicated than I.  It still had not set in that I was in the state DYW program.

After eating at Wintzell’s the first day, no-nonsense mode began. We practiced for nine plus hours a day, no distractions. I went through the motions. I, being one of the few non-dancers there, struggled with choreography. I ate and drank more than twice my weight. I looked forward to nothing but going to the Montgomery Zoo in a few days.  It still had not set in that I was in the state DYW program.

The rest of the week was a blur. We went to the zoo, where Ashton Berry of Lamar County and I were legendarily chased by a peacock. We ate lunch with the Kiwanis Club, where three men in the steel industry joked about football and then advised Lindsey Fox of Pike County and I to take college classes in the summer instead of taking summers off.

We went to the Cattlemen’s Association to eat steak with our host moms, and I became the champion of the 2017 round of beef trivia. We tried to convince Morgan Harrison of Cullman County that “Bugtussle” was not a real town despite her address being there.

We all ran our talents, and I had an asthma attack in the middle of mine, along with two other girls.  It still had not set in that I was in the state DYW program.

Friday arrived, and nerves set in because it was the first day of competition. It finally set in that I was in the state DYW program, and the day of competition is a pretty late time to have that realization. I quickly got nervous and became visibly deterred, when my own little DYW miracle happened in the form of pre-school teachers who had just gotten off for lunch.

There were four of them. They all had sweet, gentle voices. They had just gotten off of work, and divine intervention sent them my way. They rescued me from an impending breakdown, and prayed with me. I smiled and began to head out, when one of them reached and plucked a laminated paper shaped like a holly leaf off of the tree on her classroom wall and handed it to me.

For the next two days, the ridiculous leaf was my lucky charm. I apologized to God for complaining about the state of humanity so much because these pre-school teaching angels restored my faith in it.

Competition came and went. With the help of an inhaler and my lucky holly leaf, I had made it through the fitness, talent, self-expression, interview and opening number portions of the program. The aforementioned took place during the first and second shows. The third and final show consisted of the announcement of the top eight, and their competition. After they are announced, the top eight contestant’s talent, self-expression and fitness scores are wiped away, and performed again for a new score.

Half of the contestants were dying to be in top eight, and the other half wanted no part of it.

The third show began, and the top eight were announced. My name was never called, nor was Ciara Locke’s of Monroe County. I listened to them one-by-one, clapping for each. The fifth name called was Caitlyn McTier’s of Talladega County, but Caitlyn never heard it. I looked at her nudged her down the stairs, and she just shockingly blinked, “Wait, what? Did they just call my name?”

Two more names were called, followed by the final, Emma Grace Benton of Houston County. Ciara grabbed my hand and laughed joyously, “Railey, we survived!”

Ciara was right, we survived, and that was a feat to be proud of. I, the accidental Distinguished Young Woman of Crenshaw County, survived a week gone away to a program I knew nothing about, entered a whole new world and even enjoyed it enough to cry a little when I had to leave Ann-Marie, my new friends and my host family.

I realized that it was not so much like jail, to my relief. I entered my local DYW program hoping to leave with a first runner-up title and some scholarship money, but I left state with lifelong friends and blessings that will forever leave an impression in my heart.