When I first visited the World Tea East Conference in New York I was surrounded by individuals with whom I share a common passion, tea. I was not there to suggest that tea vendor wear a tea hat but there is something endemic about the positive qualities of tea that is conveyed in the marketing. One cannot promote tea without suggesting the residual benefits of health, peace, calmness, serenity, charm, and lifestyle. Working in the tea industry is like searching for the proverbial fountain of youth.
I am not a wholesaler or retailer of tea but in a society so rigidly structured tea is a common equalizer. I am perfectly comfortable because I recognize that there is an intrinsic value of a product that urges its customers to take time to reflect, seek inner peace, connect with others, heal your body, and savor the moment with sensory appreciation.
I stumbled upon the benefits of tea as a social bridge to cultural awareness as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Andhra Pradesh, India. It was a social equalizer in culture where a rigid caste system still keeps people separated. I felt just as comfortable sipping tea out of a tin cup in a village in India or drinking tea out of bone china cup in London or the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington DC. The social barriers were removed and the stigma vanished. The benefits are the same, social engagement, conversation, common ground, self-awareness, and no defenses.
It was these tea experiences that led me to create a high tea society for girls in 1997 to open up the world of tea to our girls through the High Tea Society. I later changed the name to High Tea Society-Girls Connected (HTS-Connected) as not only a bridge to the civil and global communities but also as a means of self enlightenment.
Some 24 years later over 800 girls have engaged in various High Tea Society programs and activities. The HTS-Connected can affirm that although tea cannot remove all social barriers, it will prepare one to be as comfortable in the White House as one is in his or her house.
A cup of tea like anything else may have a lot to offer but there must be a readiness to receive it. As I moved from workshop to workshop at the tea conference and from booth to booth, I experienced a different catharsis. I have attended many different tea meetings, events, and conferences before but I never really saw what was there before my eyes just for the taking or asking. My response on those occasions is so common in our times. We often are blinded to God’s gift; however if we keep searching one day we see through new eyes and our thirst for more knowledge cannot be easily quenched. I have evolved into a tea sponge and I am always seeking new information that I can actively use not just for my benefit but for all the girls and individuals I encounter. I have started on this tea journey before without a purpose, but this time I will not detour. I will keep moving forward sharing the beauty, bounty, and benefit of tea with or without my signature hat. Please share with me your tea encounters because your experiences may seem like a ripple but I assure you they will bring waves of joy. God bless.
I have been to tea on almost every continent and observed how people come to tea. But I had to revert to my over 20 years of experience in education and working with youth from economically challenged communities to create a program that would capture the imagination of urban youth. What could be learned at afternoon tea that could not be found in their environment that engulfed them every day. I had read many tea books to know the difference between afternoon tea and high tea. Afternoon tea is a light fare, dainty sandwiches, cookies, and scones. High tea on the other hand was served later and was a meal for working class people without any fanfare.
This was an experiment upon which I was ready to embark. There were no rules. I
live my life abstracting the best from a situation and taking it to a higher level so why stop now. I took the cultural universality of tea, the civility and charm of the tea ladies’ society, converted the everyday high tea into a program for Black girls to reflect the high expectations and high standards we would set for our Black girls. It was brewed in a teapot and served as the High Tea Society. There had to be an attention getting component, a special attraction to tickle the senses, of course hats and gloves. A hat will turn the mundane into the marvelous. Having the girls wear hats to tea will allow them to step out of their front door into the imaginary mirror and see themselves in the bright light of possibilities. For most people embodied in the wearing of a hat is the idea of doing something or going somewhere special.
The girls had a double treat. They went to the Bene Millinery Hat Shop, met Ms Vanilla Bean who helped the girls pick out their hats, decorate their hats, fit the hats and match the hats with their outfits they brought with to the shop. We had taken the girls to purchase outfits earlier in preparation for a yet to be disclosed experience. They were about to enter into a wonderland where they will catch a glimpse of their agency and the endless possibilities of who they could become. Ms. Fannie Allen, Director Allen Protocol and Leadership Institute would give the girls lessons in tea etiquette; explain the importance of demonstrating a positive attitude, best speech, decorum and demeanor. This was temporary transformation but a memorable one reinforced by an outpouring of support. Lots of oohs and ahs came from the admiring bystanders as they enter the premiere Four Seasons Hotel. Our goal was for the girls to capture this moment in a mental snapshot because this was the image we wanted our girls to take ownership. The message is this is who you can become; this is your potential being played out before your eyes.
Embodied in the afternoon tea experience are social and civility experiences and skills needed to be successful in the civil society. In the envisioned program we will build on the first impression that the girls have of themselves that will be the foundation for future program activities. Afternoon tea is the backdrop. In the calm elegant setting in their hats and gloves are protégés are poised to embark upon a journey into another way of life where exposure, exposure, and exposure will be the centerpiece. Exposure, environment, experience and expectation will lead to positive behavioral changes. The calmness of the tea environment slows our girls down long enough for us to get their attention, begin a conversation, and build trust. The hats and the gloves build confidence and self-esteem that provide a sense of belonging, well-being and self-worth. Like a tip of an iceberg where the true essence of our girls is yet to be discovered. What appears on the surface is an introduction: I am….. I want to be… I like… I can… I will. In the days ahead these sentences will be fulfilled and completed in the High Tea Society
There was a time when there was penny candy with many varieties. It was hard to just choose one type. Perhaps I am dating myself. I guess today it would be like going into Buskins’-Robbins with 31 varieties of ice cream and you have to choose one. Anyway it is the purchase but just the experience of being in a place that delights that is the most exciting.
If you can visualize that experience perhaps you can appreciate the thrill and fantasy of being in a hat shop. It is a different world. When you cross the threshold the adventure begins. You leave your personality outside and explore the possibilities with your imagination. Hats have had an affair with the ages. It can be an overwhelming experience as your eyes dart from hat to hat with colors, styles, shapes, sizes that beckon one to come closer to examine the details. With a closer look the craftsmanship, the quality of material, the pallet of color that rivals an English garden come at one like a 3-D movie. Part of the experience is being open-minded, willing to experiment with something different.
What woman or man has not gone to a fashion show, seen an outfit and imagined themselves wearing it and then wondered what it would be like to be the center of attention. Well once you are in a hat shop you have your own private runway. You become the guest of honor. You do not have to go looking for someone to assist you---they come to you. They are there to cater to your whims and meet your needs. When you come in the shop, there are no judgments; hat shops are very egalitarian. No one knows whether you have a million or just $20, whether you came to look or purchase, so you get the full treatment of the rich and famous. A hat shop is one of the few places left other than a boutique where individual customer attention is the cornerstone of the business. You are welcomed like a treasured friend. You can contemplate, meditate or even hesitate, but you are never rushed. It is always an atmosphere of what can I do for you today? What do you needs? Tell me about your outfit. What is the occasion? Is it an evening or day affair? Dressy or casual? It is as if you have walked in a parlor for a private fitting and in a way you have. You can have as much or as little attention as you want. Once you signal that you are ready to dance by the magic words. “May I see the hat on the third row over to the right of the green hat with the feathers” you are in the spotlight and the cameras are rolling. Any hat in the shop is available for you to try. Some hats may be encased but most are on open display. The experience of purchasing a hat is truly an act of civility.
Wearing a hat is a very personal experience. Ten different people can put on the same hat and it will look different on each one and convey a different message every time. You may ask why this is so? A hat is an inanimate object that is brought to life by the person who puts it on. People will often say this cannot be the same hat I saw on the rack. It looks so different. It is like the characters in the Wiz who were able to discover their true self through the magic of self-belief.
It is one thing to buy a hat; it is another experience to wear one. A hat can be purchased one year and worn in another. You have to feel it. I purchased a wide brim brown hat. The brim was animal print faux fur and the crown was dark brown with a gold stud design on the side. I have no idea what possessed me to purchase this hat. It was so out of character for me. I just got caught up in the moment. It was an adventure into a wonderland. , a venture into the unknown. Perhaps it was one of those years when everyone was wearing animal print. I must have tried this hat on at least 8 times or more before I purchased it. It also took some coaxing from the shop owner. After the purchase I was so proud of myself. It was like I received a standing ovation after delivering a speech. It was going to make a fashion statement. I thought to myself I am a risk taker.
When I arrived home, hat in tow, away from the bright lights and cheering crowd, I lost my confidence. It did not look right. It did not feel right. In my mind I was now thinking what does one wear with a faux fur leopard brim brown hat? I put the hat on the shelf. What could I have possibly been thinking? The hat remained unworn for 7 years until one day I stumbled upon a brown two-piece, two-toned animal print dress. I put the outfit on first, then the hat. I felt perfect; it looked perfect. It was just as I envisioned it would look when I made the purchase. In an instance, I recaptured the moment, the moment that inspired me to make the purchase.
How often can one re-capture a moment? It was a second chance to relive a wonderful experience; that is the beauty of wearing a hat. You freeze the frame to put the experience on pause and that allows one to replay it over and over again. I could now wear the hat with dignity and pride. Before I could not conjure up a personality, an attitude, a manner, or the courage to leave the privacy of my home and withstand the public scrutiny that wearing a hat invokes. When I know a hat is right for me, public opinion or comments is the least of my concern. It is only my contentment that counts. It is my world, I created it and only I can dismantle it when I remove the hat!