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Bishop DuBourg High School is quintessential South St. Louis. Subsidized by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, it's stricter than those wild public schools, more affordable than the elite single-sex academies, impervious to trends. DuBourg's not known for anything in particular, yet it carries as much bloodline in its rolls as an Eastern-seaboard prep school: Slay kids go here as a matter of course, and this year's student-council president, Kevin Butz, follows three brothers through -- plus his uncle teaches there and his aunt used to and his grandmother works in the office, and his parents started dating there as sophomores.
At DuBourg , security is rooted in family and tradition and knowing everybody in your world. Status is belonging to St. Gabe's parish and living in St. Louis Hills (as opposed to a bedroom-stuffed gingerbread on the wrong side of Hampton Avenue). Fun is generally simple -- a softball game, a backyard barbecue, a cruise to Ted Drewes -- and it doesn't change with the generations. Families stay for generations.
And the planning of the prom is a fresh, giggly half-year process.
Kent Hediger is nervous. A marketing teacher with the self-conscious, boyish charm of a young Bruce Boxleitner, he's the senior coordinator this year -- which puts him in charge of the senior prom. Veteran teachers regale him with past fiascos and walk away chortling. In late November, he bites the bullet, issuing an open invitation to work on the prom committee. Ice storms lead to the cancellation of the first two meetings, though, and by the time everybody returns to school in January, he's pacing the halls, corralling the leader types. Shouldn't they have a theme by now? "How about 'Space Odyssey 2001'?"
"Nothing beyond our atmosphere, Mr. Hediger," Kevin drawls, and bubbly blonde Kelly Regan looks genuinely upset: "See, I'm thinking you guys are thinking that kind of stuff, and I'm thinking -- something sweet. 'Today's dreams, tomorrow's memories.'"
Even Hediger groans.
"Listen, I'm the first girl after three boys, and my mom's already planning to go all out," says Kelly. Her eyes soften. "I'm thinking something long and sparkly and elaborate. I like to dress for elegance and glamour."
"I've never had occasion to wear a tuxedo before," Kevin says formally, then breaks down and admits that what he's "wanted to wear forever is, you know the movie Big, the white-sequined tuxedo? I've looked everywhere." Kelly is intrigued. "One of my brothers had Bugs Bunny on his vest," she volunteers.
"Nice," says Kevin, drawing the word out.
They talk about flowers, Kelly making sure Kevin knows what's expected. "Oh, I'm great at flowers," he assures her breezily. "Those ladies love you; they see you coming and break out the ribbon and say" -- he adopts a trembly falsetto -- "'Oh, this will match perfectly!' I usually just go with the wrist corsage, but someone told me it's always smart to go with the wrist corsage and the bouquet. You know, 'Prom's special. Cost's no option.' Yes, it is." A minute later he says, with a sort of awe, "I heard prom usually costs, like, $300."
"I wouldn't say the sky's the limit," counters Kelly, "but I wouldn't say I'm going to be really tight with it. My family's always shopped for the best deals, but prom's not the time for that."
Hediger, who has long since abandoned his agenda, listens while they talk about the prom's dangers: Living all year in a state of suspended excitement, heaping all your fantasies on that one night, being really disappointed. Going wild afterward, throwing up on the party bus, getting thrown out of a hotel room, sliding half-drunk out of your canoe on a predawn float trip. "I don't want anybody to die on prom night," Kevin says with sudden vehemence.
On Jan. 24, at the first official committee meeting, Hediger claims the moral high ground: There will be no mugs or wine glasses as prom mementos, because that encourages alcohol use. The music will be clean and tasteful. Dress, he's not worried about: "Low-cut is very rare," he says. "The seniors know what it means to be modest; they go to enough church activities."
The nine girls who have showed up to plan their prom shoot alert looks at each other, and class president Val Ricketts dares a smile. Val's smart and funny, prettier than Emma Thompson, with a long neck and curly blond-brown hair and a horseback rider's delicate, obvious bones. She's nice to everybody but not saccharine; the undernote of irony endears her even to rebellious outsiders such as Chrissie Goia.
Chrissie isn't really friends with anybody else on the committee; whereas Val and the others came because "prom's what everybody looks forward to," Chrissie just hopes volunteering will help her get on the student-activities committee next year at Southeast Missouri State University. High school, she says, has been hell: "I think it's because I'm from the county and there's this stereotype here that county kids get everything they want. But I've stopped caring what anybody thinks." Chrissie's aunt and uncle and dad all went to DuBourg, but she doesn't even fit in with them. Her family's nearly all short and dark and Italian-loud; she's slim and marble-skinned, with a white-blond ponytail, chunky platform shoes and urban attitude.
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