The worst moment of the pageant came soon after the teenager walked on stage: She flubbed the aerobic fitness routine.
Ronke Olaleye was concentrating so much on smiling, on convincing the audience that she was "high energy," she says, that she forgot the steps she had rehearsed all week. Always resourceful, though, the 16-year- old improvised a few moves and rejoined the other contestants. She prayed her smile hid her disappointment - and shifted her remaining hopes into positive thoughts about her vocal performance.
Later, wearing the black gown she'd bought for 50 cents at a Goodwill store, the McDonogh School senior dived right into her 90-second excerpt from Etta James' signature song, "At Last." The pageant coordinators had recommended to her that she not close her eyes while singing, but Ronke respectfully disagreed with them.
For her, singing was a matter of the soul, of the spirit - and she wanted no distractions. On this night, in particular, her best effort might earn scholarship money toward a college education she couldn't afford on her own.
Ronke and her family moved to Baltimore from Lagos, Nigeria. She had watched her father, a minister, work at Pizza Hut and Burger King. She had seen her mother, a registered nurse, take a job as an assistant in a nursing home until she could gain her U.S. certification. Ronke had tangled with kids who had looked askance at her clothes, at her British way of spelling things and her ignorance about shopping malls.
She discovered it wasn't easy to be 10 years old in the sixth grade.
Now, just seven years after arriving in this country, she was the youngest of 17 high school seniors competing at the Weinberg Center in Frederick to become Maryland's Junior Miss. The title meant a $5,000 cash scholarship as well as other awards.
"I told myself, `Why not take this opportunity, this risk?'" Ronke says.
And what could be more American?
Ronke Olaleye strides across the bucolic campus of McDonogh with an energy that suggests she has much to accomplish and is eager to start. Determined, curious, sometimes philosophical, always spiritual - she talks readily about her life. She's the kind of teenager who's used to hearing grown-ups tell her how mature she is. She's preoccupied by agendas, not hairstyles.
"I'm not a pageant person by any means," she says. "I was skeptical about this. My dad's a pastor, so he has issues with anyone prancing around the stage in a swimsuit."
America's Junior Miss competition, however, has no swimsuit contest - and no evening gown competition. It doesn't even have a crown. As it turns out, the 48-year-old pageant really is about the scholarship money.
At last year's national competition, for instance, 15 high school seniors received a total of $107,000 in cash scholarships. The national winner received $60,550.
In making their decision, judges evaluated contestants' grades (last year's average GPA was 3.99 on a 4.0 scale); their verbal abilities; their performing arts talents; their fitness (as part of a choreographed aerobics routine) and poise. They preferred girls who were involved with community outreach and school leadership.
It looked like a contest tailor-made for a high-achieving, vocally talented, mature teen like Ronke. At least that's what McDonogh grad Brooke Poklemba, Maryland's 2004 Junior Miss winner, told her friend.
So last month, right in the middle of a blizzard of tests and quizzes, as she waited to hear about college acceptances, Ronke made time to practice the jumping jacks and pushups that were part of her Junior Miss aerobics routine. She would also give this contest her best shot.
"I don't believe in luck," she says. "I believe there is a purpose for everything and I feel there is a higher power pushing me. ... We were living in poverty in Lagos. Out of millions of other people, my dad won a visa lottery that brought us here. I believe that God is the one helping us out."
Winning the green card lottery sponsored by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service meant that the Olaleyes had the right to move to the United States. When they arrived in February 1998, they lived with a family friend in Baltimore County for several months. Then the family of five - Ronke has two younger siblings - moved into their own apartment. Eventually they bought a house in Randallstown and became U.S. citizens. Grace Olaleye went to work for Northwest Hospital Center. Emanuel Olaleye opened a church, the Former and Latter Glory Assembly, on Liberty Road.