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The Last Dance 

The little flower shops wound extra rolls of floral tape, and the photographers wound fresh film, and the Bosnian seamstresses stitched poufs of netting to strapless bodices. DuBourg High was planning its prom.

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.

When the other girls start suggesting themes, her eyes roll.

"How about 'Save the Best for Last,' because it's our last dance ever in high school and it's the best thing you're going to do?" offers banged, brown-haired Lauren Schulte, who looks like a tomboy one day and Audrey Hepburn the next. "When you think of high school, you will think of your prom."

"I've been dreaming of prom since I was in sixth grade," Kelly agrees.

"Everybody does," says another girl. "This is, like, right under my wedding."

They sent their Barbies to prom; watched prom scenes in teen movies; giggled at older sisters and brothers dressed up past recognition, departing in nervous ceremony. Now, finally, it's their turn. Each harbors a slightly different scenario, but all want the night to be "special," a break from ordinary time, a ticket that transports them somewhere more enchanted than a low beige-brick building on the corner of Hampton and Eichelberger.

"I'm really stuck on gazebos," admits Val, leafing through one of five fat pastel prom catalogs. "I want a gazebo so bad!" Lauren leans to look over her shoulder and quickly sticks a finger into the flipping pages: "This! What is this thing called?" She squints at the text. "A trellis. We could have our photos in front of a trellis with roses...."

"'Wish Upon a Star,'" somebody calls. "'On the Edge of a Dream,' because we are definitely on the edge of something!" counters Lauren. Then she has a brainstorm: "'I Hope You Dance.' Yes! The words it speaks are like lessons; it's deep. Of course, how many people are really deep thinkers? But I still really like it. We could write that on the T-shirts: 'When you get the choice to sit it out or dance' -- and then, in big type, 'I hope you dance.'"

There's a murmur of agreement, even though, it's noted, "not everybody likes country."

"What about 'Unforgettable,' because our prom's unforgettable?" suggests Angie LeGrand, a redhead with curvy bangs, translucent fair skin and emotions just as transparent. "It's a really cool song; I got it off Napster this morning."

"'I Want to Be With You,'" someone proposes, and Angie's face falls. "We are trying to stay away from lovey-dovey," she points out, "for us poor single people who don't have steady boyfriends." They decide they can't do "Oh What a Night," either: "Teachers might be, like, 'Oh, it's a sexual song.'" Oddly enough, sex isn't even in the room at these meetings: Prom's romance is of a storybook sort, predating any particular boy. This thrill's about having the door of the limo opened for you, not necking in the back seat.

They rule out "Almost Paradise" because "it sounds like 'Oh, this isn't good enough?'" and "I Stayed Alive" because "it sounds like we clawed our way through high school eating rats." Chrissie, seated down at the end of the long table, leans forward. "What I like about that one," she says, "is, not everybody can say they were 100 percent happy with everything the whole time." There's a long silence, the first of the meeting. "But still," Val says gently, "prom's a happy time."

"What about 'We Danced Anyway'?" suggests Lauren. "We are going to have grandchildren someday, and they are going to be getting ready for their prom, and here we'll be, all shriveled up, and it'll make us feel young again."

The committee presents a list of theme suggestions to the entire class (Val having reminded them, "People like to be asked") and "I Hope You Dance" wins by 20 votes, with "Unforgettable" a close second. At the next Wednesday-afternoon meeting, a new issue burns: They all want graceful frosted-glass vases inscribed with the legend "Prom 2001," but what memento should they order for the boys? No self-respecting DuBourg male's gonna show up for one of these meetings and offer his opinion, so they'll have to guess.

The girls flip through the catalogs again. Would glasses be legal if they had candles stuck in them?

"They won't use candles anyway," predicts Lauren.

"My brother would," says Angie. "He's a huge pyro."

"Snow-globe picture frames?"

Eventually they settle on customized "Prom 2001" Slinkys and make a note to inform Mr. Hediger.

Now, the biggest question of all: whether to restore the prom-court tradition that's making a comeback nationwide after decades of plain egalitarianism. "I'm starting to think no," says Val, "because it's supposed to be everybody's special night, and it's not fair to make it more special for somebody. Maybe we could buy cheap crowns and give them to all the girls -- everybody's a princess."

No way; it'd ruin people's hair, the others say. They all (except Chrissie, who's ready to gag) like the drama of royalty. Not king and queen, because that's for homecoming -- what about prince and princess? The class votes 97-39 in favor, so the committee decides to crown two sets of princes and princesses, avoiding a pure popularity contest ("Impossible," mutters Chrissie) by letting the teachers make the initial nominations.

Later that week, after combing South County Center, Kelly finds her elegant and glamorous dress -- "long, light-pink, with a white glittery sheer overlay and spaghetti straps and the back kind of open." Tiny Kim Hughes, who has a pale French-urchin look and an adorable lisp but could organize the Russian Army, goes all the way to Plaza Frontenac for hers, a coral strapless with sequins and a train and a little beaded shawl. "They send you a thank-you note," she reports, "and they keep a log so nobody buys the same dress as another girl from their school."

All's going well -- except that now it's spring, and Mr. Hediger, who's really supposed to be at all the meetings, must coach on Wednesday afternoons. "No problem," the girls say cheerfully. "We'll meet at 7 a.m. on Fridays, before homeroom."

Hediger pales.

It's 6:45 a.m. on the first Friday in March, and the meeting room is locked. Chrissie's outside, waiting in her car. Kim's standing in the hall, flipping through Teen Prom, debating whether to buy halogen sandals that shine in rainbow colors. Becky Clark arrives wearing a light, shimmery lip gloss, her hair fresh. "I set my alarm for 4:30 so I'd have time to shower," she explains, then confides in a rush that she hasn't found a dress yet. "I went Thursday, but we really didn't see too much, and I got bored. Besides, my mom wasn't there, and I know she'll be honest with me -- she'll say, 'Oh, Becky, you've got a pooch there' or 'It makes your butt look big.'"

This morning, they're talking about the setting for their prom portraits: Last year's toppled columns were a disaster. "It was supposed to look like the ruins of Rome," says Val, "but people didn't get it. They kept saying, 'Why didn't somebody pick these up before prom?'"

OK, they'll do French doors. Chrissie volunteers to check out the photographer's backdrop, although in private she admits she's still a little disgusted about "this king and queen, or prince and princess, or whatever. I'm totally against courts. Your prom should not be any more special to one person than the rest. They just want it because it's cute."

At today's meeting, the pressing worry is money: They're contracted to The Cedars, the Slay-owned banquet hall adjacent to St. Raymond's Maronite Church downtown, but the cheapest dinner, the buffet, is $28.20 per person, pushing the ticket cost to $40 apiece.

"Don't seniors usually have bake sales?" asks Lauren.

"We can't do it anymore because of hepatitis," Kim reminds her.

So they have to decide whether they can afford their favorite invitations, printed on sealed clear-plastic squares filled with glitter -- and what about little table favors of bubble-blowers? "I think we are going a little overboard here," Val says dryly. "Sticky stuff on the ground? I don't think they'd like that at The Cedars."

Once again, they vote. The bubbles win overwhelmingly, but Val tries one more time: "So even if it comes to raising the price, you still want bubbles?" Nobody even bothers to answer. She sighs: "Bubbles it is."

They're moving back and forth between girlhood and womanhood, fast as a weaver's shuttle.

Another 7 a.m. meeting, and Hediger manages to make it by 7:05. He bears good news: $28.20 was for a cash bar all night! Their buffet is only $22.

He's not enamored of the Slinky idea, though: "Whaddya think, that guys are just --" He stretches the sample Slinky wide, looking dubious. "Here, I'll show you what I thought for guys. A simple frame --" he reaches for Anderson's Prom and Party Catalog, then feels everybody's eyes on him. "You really want the Slinkys?"

Lauren sighs like a resigned wife: "Picture frames are fine."

Kelly comes in, swinging a bag of doughnut boxes. The girls slide them down the table slapshot, the aromas of chocolate and grease mingling with the scent of fruit-blossom shampoo. It's time to plan table decorations: How about wreaths of purple flowers around hurricane lamps? Or votive candles floating in bowls with flower petals? And black tablecloths, they all agree, sprinkled with glittery star confetti.

"Do we want fake flowers or real ones?" asks Kelly. "And who sets up the tables?"

Turns out they do, that afternoon. "I know you guys get your hair done and your nails and your makeup and everything -- takes five hours," says Hediger, adding, "I don't know why you guys do that; you guys look nice anyway. But I can't go; I have to teach the underclassmen, so you will have to handle it."

They disperse, Becky muttering to herself, "I've got to find a date."

"If anybody cares, I still don't have a date," Chrissie announces almost cheerfully. "There's a bunch of people who said they would go with me; I just have to narrow it down, depending on who's not mad at me that week."

That evening, on the phone, she explains high school's daily hell. "It's the prejudgment of people," she says. "They are uncomfortable with themselves. Or maybe they know I'm better than they are and they just don't want to believe it." She survives by escaping: "I like to just go for long drives or try to get away from people. And I love to dance. I plan to do nothing but go to dance clubs when I turn 18.

"DuBourg's very cliquish," she resumes. "There's the freaky people and the middle people and the preppy people, and you have all the jocks on top and all the other people seem to filter down a little bit below that, and none of those people can associate with anybody below them.

"I really wanted to be on the committee because I figured I'd have a say in making it good," she adds. "But that hasn't happened too much, because of Mr. Hediger. He's being very difficult."

Late March. Angie finds her dress, a white halter style with thin straps that crisscross in back and "that annoying poufy material from the waist down." Now, she just needs a date. "There's this guy at school I want to go with," she confides, "and it's nerve-racking. He's kind of one of my good friends, and he's the only one out of all my friends who doesn't have a date, and so am I. All my friends are saying, 'Ask Angie,' but he's being really stupid about it. He says he's either going to go stag or just ask somebody the week before. But if he doesn't ask me three weeks before, I'm just going to have to say something. My little brother told me to forget about Justin, because he doesn't want me to be his fallback date. I guess I could ask this other guy who goes to St. Louis U. High, but...."

But she really wants to go with Justin, and all the second-guessing, differing agendas and courtship games are driving her crazy. She's worried about the limos, too: They only seat six, and a group of 22 friends is going together, plus some of the guys are threatening to invite friends from all-girl Nerinx Hall wherever they go afterward -- which is rude. "They think we will never decide what to do," explains Angie. "We tried to tell them that asking a bunch of girls from Nerinx isn't exactly making plans for us!

"I just hope it works out without a lot of hassle," she finishes fervently. "I won't have a good time unless all my friends are happy. We're trying to avoid anything expensive, like renting a cabin for afterward, because some people are real low on cash. And I hope everybody's hair goes well."

Val is dateless too, just less worried about it. Chrissie has decided to go with "my boyfriend -- well, my ex-boyfriend. We were together for a year, and then we broke up, a little while ago." Her parents, she says, don't approve of him. They're still friends, though? "I suppose you could call it that." She sighs. "He's always been very difficult."

Early April, and prom's only a month away. Val has made sure the prom T-shirts and invitations are on order, but she's a little distracted, because her mom has to have a hysterectomy. Just five months ago, the mother of Val's good friend had a hysterectomy but died on the operating table when an aneurysm burst. Still, the freakiness of her friend's loss is also obliquely reassuring: "If it happened to someone so close, it won't happen to my mom," Val tells her friends. "Lightning doesn't strike twice."

Mrs. Ricketts goes through the surgery just fine. But the next morning, a blood clot migrates into her lungs. Val, the youngest in a close-knit family of four girls, gets the phone call at school: Her mother is dead.

In seven days, she's supposed to sing her heart out as Maria, the lead in the school production of The Sound of Music. The school cancels the Wednesday-night performance for her, but Thursday she goes onstage.

The show's a hit. Afterward, Val crashes. Lauren and Kelly take her out, but they don't really talk about her mom. They figure she's doing enough of that with her family. Besides, they don't know what to say.

When Val returns to school a few weeks later, an underclassman has stolen her parking space and she's almost late and she gets a ticket parking on the street and "people want to be nice, so they're all mushy and hugging me and asking, 'How are you?'" she blurts. "You don't want to say, 'Great!' but you can't say, 'Horrible,' and make them feel bad, so you just brush it off, which makes them think you're mad...."

There's the grief itself, the hole torn in her safe and happy family, the aching loneliness for her mom. Then there's the strain of trying to protect everybody else from that grief, because it terrifies them.

Reading what people write on the sympathy cards for Val, Chrissie decides, "It's amazing to see how fake people are. 'I'm here for you' from people who never even hang out with her -- don't tell her that and then not be there." Chrissie likes Val a great deal, but something more than the general hypocrisy is eating at her: "I hate to say this, but you already pretty much know she's going to get it [prom court], because her mom died. We had a girl who got homecoming court last year, after her brother died in a car accident. I'm just sick of people winning stuff through pity and guilt and events beyond their control.

"My dress is a $30 dress," she says a few minutes later. "It's this dark magenta-maroon color, and it's a halter, and it comes up real high on the neck. My boyfriend said that was going to get on his nerves, and I said, 'That's too damn bad. I picked it out, and I look cute.'" She hesitates, again that actressy mix of spikiness and vulnerability. "It's pointless spending a fortune for a dress you're only going to wear one night, especially if you are not on prom court -- although if I was part of the more cliquey, popular crowd, I probably would."

April 20, the last meeting before prom. Becky has found "a Snow White dress" with a lace-up black-velvet bodice and full white skirt -- and a date to boot. Val arrives with a burst of energy, pale but trying hard. She throws herself into a chair, reaches into a paper bag and crunches on granola: "So what are we doing?"

They run through the last-minute arrangements, Val heading off digressions with an impatient "Keep going, keep going." Toward the end, Hediger gets soppy, telling them all how much they've helped him all four years and how, if he could pick the court, it would be all of them. Val smiles back, but her eyes are distant.

Later she recalls, "The last dance I went to at DuBourg, my date ditched me! I thought that was the worst day of my life. It was actually my mom who told me, 'If that's the worst, you've got a pretty good life coming at you!'" She sighs. "What a naïve person I was then. And that was only three months ago.

"This past year has been a blur," she continues. "My mother's death jolted everything into perspective. I used to be scared out of my mind to graduate high school, but now it's such a big nothing. I've got life to worry about, not high school. And prom's -- just another thing." She pauses, and her eyes get that distant look again. "I don't think it's going to be as magical as it would have been."

Friday, May 4. Prom night. The seniors have the day off -- the girls traipsing from hair to nail to makeup appointments, the boys sleeping till 5 p.m. and then showering. Some show up in wingtips and white dinner jackets, some in swallowtail or three-quarter-length coats. Kevin chickens out: no white sequins.

As for the prophesied modesty, there's strapless and skintight and a backless, sideless black dress held on by straps as thin as leather shoelaces. "She doesn't go here," whispers math teacher Kathy Flood, watching eagle-eyed as the young woman walks, tall and tan and defiant, across the dance floor.

Later, Flood brightens: According to The Cedars staff, DuBourg's girls are quite modest compared with the students at Ursuline Academy and Nerinx Hall, who held their proms here last week. Everyone does look lovely, with their hair swept up on top of their heads and their dresses shimmering. One young man follows his date through the crowd, trying to figure out how to hold on to her -- waist? hand? shoulder? -- and how to slow-dance without stepping on her train. Girls tug nervously at the tops of their strapless gowns and give each other careful hugs, exclaiming with newfound social enthusiasm, "You look fabulous!"

Angie shows up with neither of the prior contenders but a third young man named Jason. Stubborn Justin comes stag. Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist. Val's with Charlie, a good friend since sophomore year, and she slips her shoes off in the photo line, relaxed in a way that's only possible when you're not with your dream date.

The Cedars' owner, Francis R. Slay (the mayor's papa), stands outside, joking that he may just come to prom, too. The kids smile and keep walking. By 7:05 p.m., everyone's seated at numbered tables, resigned to the eight-chair seating plan that first struck them as a cruel and arbitrary destroyer of friendships. The doors have officially closed (a reverse 7 p.m. curfew imposed to encourage promptness and safety). But at 7:10, a middle-aged man comes up behind Hediger's chair and leans down to impart the bad news: "There are tardies."

Hediger frowns and rises. But by the time the salads are served, he's back, his brow clear. "They tried to call," he says, relieved that he could do, with a clean conscience, what he was going to do anyway, and let them in. The girls eat the mostaccioli and fried chicken just the way Kelly, at one of the early meetings, mimed: tiny careful bites, shoulders rounded in self-doubt and fear of spillage. Then, at a secret signal, chairs scrape and all the young women stand at once, funnel into the hallway and converge on the ladies' room.

Flood follows, smiles at the overheard exchanges ("Really, it's not you -- he's just awkward") and returns to the table. "One pack of cigarettes," she murmurs to Hediger as she sits, "and stale smoke."

When the ballroom's full again, the lights dim and triumphant music heralds the double coronation. Prince Chad Templin and Princess Lisa Kuntz walk up first, consciously slowing each step, as a teacher reads their bios into the microphone. A girl whispers loudly to her date, "He's going to be a priest!" just as the teacher intones, "Prince Chad was recently accepted to Cardinal Glennon Seminary College by Archbishop Justin Rigali." Applause bursts. Then the second couple start their stately processional: Prince Tim Damazyn and Princess Val Ricketts. More applause, heartfelt.

As the royal couples begin to dance to the theme song, the teacher beckons, and everyone floods onto the dance floor to join them. Soon all of DuBourg's seniors are swaying to "I Hope You Dance," and, for a moment -- no matter what they wore or whose arms they're in -- everything is perfect.

Then the music speeds into "The Tootsie Roll," and the energy explodes, as though whoever was holding the evening's reins tight suddenly dropped them and kicked the pace to a gallop. Lauren, looking sweet in a pink dress that's more sundressy than sleazy, takes the center with her longtime boyfriend, doing practiced spins and dips. Chrissie's face loses all its pained eagerness and goes rapt as she whirls into and out of her date's arms like a professional ballroom dancer. Halfway through the night, she gets kicked in the head while swing-dancing, takes an ibuprofen and goes back out on the dance floor.

In the parking lot, the limos' engines hum and the party-bus driver sits waiting, hunched with resignation. Some of the kids go to house parties -- there's a big one at Kevin's house. Others rent hotel rooms or lakeside cabins. Nobody sleeps.

The next day, they all agree prom was fun, a really good time. Nobody's using words like once-in-a-lifetime anymore, though. The rite of passage complete, their minds have already flown to graduation and fall's unprecedented freedom. Kelly is comparing the "packages" offered by William Jewell, where her mom went to college; the University of Tulsa, where her three brothers went; and Benedictine College. Chrissie wants to study business and then open a resort in Gulf Shores, Ala., where her grandparents live. Val's heading for tiny Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., where she'll play softball and study business, figure out "why people make money and how they are doing it."

They've crossed the line into adult society, where glitter and gazebos play a limited role and enchantment is always temporary.

Realizing it is almost a relief.

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