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The Swan Project: Girls, please meet social etiquette and good manners

LAKELAND

They had just finished lunch, were just crumpling paper napkins into trash bins, when the call came through the school speakers:

"Will the following girls please report to the conference room . . . "

The teenagers looked at each other. What was going on?

"Lindsey," said the voice coming through the speaker. A girl with green bangs hung her head.

"Spring," the voice continued. In the corner of the lunchroom, a 15-year-old huddled behind her black curtain of hair. Dark liner smudged her eyes. She looked as if she had been crying.

The voice called several other names. Finally it said: "Chayna." A girl with a short ponytail cringed. The look on her face said: What did I do now?

They trudged into the conference room, 10 girls wearing a kind of slacker uniform — jeans and flip-flops and baggy school T-shirts. They dropped into swivel chairs around a long table.

A whiteboard listed some of the things that could get you in trouble here at PACE Center for Girls: "Racist slurs. Smuggling drugs or weapons. Bad behavior."

On another wall, a framed print showed a dirt road winding beneath cherry trees. The picture carried a quote from Norman Vincent Peale. "People become really remarkable when they start thinking that they can do things."

The girls didn't read the walls. They spun in their chairs, played with their hair.

Guidance counselor Kedine Johns waited for them to get settled. She was 25, slender and graceful, with long dark hair, almond eyes and perfect posture. On weekends, she modeled for charity events. At school she always wore pencil skirts, stiletto heels and just enough makeup. To the girls at PACE, such a woman seemed completely alien.

"Today, I'm starting a new class for you all," the counselor said. "It's a semester-long group session on etiquette."

The girls groaned. One yawned. Another propped her feet on the table.

"Do any of you know what etiquette is?"

None of them did.

FIRST DAY

The PACE Center for Girls — a free school operated by a statewide nonprofit agency — is in a long, low office building in downtown Lakeland. It has 45 students. They are 12 to 17, almost all living in poverty, each struggling with something.

Their parents are in jail or they have been locked up themselves. They have drug problems. They have babies. A few have hurt people. Several have tried to kill themselves. Many have dropped out or been kicked out of other schools.

PACE is their last resort.

The acronym stands for Practical Academic Cultural Education. Students learn English and math and history, but also how to look for a job and get along with their parents. They work in small groups, and they know it's okay to leave class to cry or scream or just talk to someone.

Kedine Johns — the students call her Miss Kedine — became a PACE guidance counselor in January 2009, after receiving her master's degree in counseling. At first, she cried every night. The girls were all so hurt, so damaged. She worked with one girl who got adopted after her mother died — only to have her adoptive mother die, too. Another teen got pregnant and miscarried three times in a year.

"So much sadness," Miss Kedine recalled telling her own mother.

What struck her even more was how the girls behaved. Miss Kedine grew up in a big family in rural Jamaica, sheltered and loved. She was raised to be a lady and to appreciate manners. She never fidgeted, never seemed flustered. In the hard plastic chairs at school, she sat like a queen.

She never imagined girls could be like this.

The PACE girls swore. They mumbled and slouched. They ate with their fingers and let boys call them "Hey, Baby." Many had never had their hair done or used makeup. They wore undershirts because they couldn't afford bras or didn't know how to buy them. They didn't say thank you.

Other instructors could teach the students to master algebra and read a map. But what good would that do if the girls went for a job interview wearing flip-flops, chewing their hair, not knowing to cross their ankles or look the interviewer in the eye?

Last fall, Miss Kedine approached her principal with a plan. She wanted to create a new class in etiquette. She would write her own curriculum, using information from books, the Internet and the skills she had learned in childhood. Over eight weeks, with a small group of girls, she would cover everything from deodorant to dating to dinner parties.

Principal Michele DeLoach was intrigued. Certainly the girls needed polishing, and she wanted to get to them before life hardened them even more.

She just wasn't sure they would listen, or care.

Would a girl who had been sexually abused want to hear about proper behavior on a date? Would a teenager who was always hungry have the patience to learn about dinner parties?

It was My Fair Lady, with a young Jamaican teacher as Henry Higgins and a bunch of coarse small-town kids as Eliza Doolittle.

"We don't have funds to start a new program," the principal told Miss Kedine. "But if you want to try it, I'm behind you. You can handpick your girls."

The counselor called her class Introduction to Etiquette.

The principal called it the Swan Project.

In the conference room, on that warm Tuesday in October, Miss Kedine smoothed her skirt and looked over her girls.

Lindsey seemed angry: arms folded, one foot tapping under the table. Spring was still hiding behind her dark hair. Chayna looked bored.

Miss Kedine took a breath.

"Sooo, etiquette," she started. None of the girls looked up. "You know, manners, class, being a lady."

"Who wants to be a lady?" someone muttered. Someone else laughed.

"You are all ladies, whether you want to be or not. This is about how you carry yourself, how you present yourself to the world."

Lindsey leaned forward, cut her eyes. "Okay, I mean that's cool and all," she said. "But is there a reason we have to do this? I don't really want to be here."

The counselor forced a smile, soldiered on.

"We're going to learn a lot of interesting stuff this semester, like how to shake hands and address people. No, 'Whuzzups?' or 'Hey girl!' in here," she said.

The girls looked confused. "What's wrong with that?" Lindsey asked.

"We're going to learn about grooming, hygiene and makeup," Miss Kedine continued. "Posture, eye contact. The proper way to sit."

"There's a proper way to sit?" someone asked. At least now some were listening.

"We'll talk about buttering bread and cutting meat. Eating soup and setting a table. And at the end of the semester, there will be a treat."

A few girls looked up.

"A final exam."

They looked away again. Some treat.

Miss Kedine explained: The last class would be a field trip. She would take them to a fancy restaurant with china plates, linen napkins and a full setting of silverware. She would join them all at a proper luncheon.

"What's a luncheon?" asked Chayna (pronounced SHAY-na).

Most of these girls had never left Polk County; one thought Tampa was a state. Of the 10 in class, only three had ever eaten at a restaurant other than a fast-food joint. Spring asked: Does Golden Corral count?

Miss Kedine had grown up with elegant restaurant dinners, big formal family meals at home. Until she moved to Florida when she was 15, she had never been to a Burger King, never seen people eat with their fingers. Now she would have to help these girls understand her world.

"It will be so much fun and we'll get all dressed up, and we'll get to see how beautiful you girls can be," she told them. Again, the girls groaned.

None of them — not one — owned a dress.

LINDSEY

The second week, Miss Kedine moved her girls from the conference room to the cafeteria, where the air smelled like fried food, body odor and cheap perfume.

The students slid into plastic chairs and crossed their arms. Spring cupped her chin in her hands. Chayna balled her fists. Two girls already had been kicked out of the group for fighting.

"Okay, sit up straight," Miss Kedine said. "Both feet on the floor. Today we're going to talk about respect."

"Oh I got a lot of respect," one girl said, rolling her eyes. "For me."

The counselor let it pass. She started to talk about how you should respect your parents when she noticed she was one girl short.

Lindsey was missing. Again.

"Does anyone know where she is?"

Lindsey Kennedy, proud to be "almost 18," was the oldest girl in etiquette class, and the most popular. She was a good listener, patient and always eager to help. Buy someone a soda, give someone a ride.

But the other girls didn't know much about her, didn't understand why she missed school so often. They didn't know that helping others was Lindsey's way of masking her own hurt.

Lindsey's parents split when she was little. She and her younger brother and sister bounced between their homes for years. Both parents later married other people and then divorced again. Her dad lost his job, and her mom got mixed up with meth.

Lindsey had been a good student, a cheerleader, even a coach for her little sister's squad. Now she was skipping classes, hanging out with the wrong kids, crashing on people's couches. She dropped out of school in 10th grade.

"I've been pretty much grown and on my own," she said, "since I was 14."

She had sex with a boy once, but it felt wrong. Soon she started dating girls. When she told her dad she was gay, he wouldn't speak to her at first. She told herself she didn't care; what did she need his approval for?

Lindsey's closest friend was a girl she had known most of her life. Candy was the kind of friend, she said, who made you believe in yourself. You're smart, Lindsey remembered her saying. You can do anything. Candy wanted Lindsey to go back to school and become a nurse, just as Lindsey had always said she would.

One night about a year ago, Candy came over to Lindsey's uncle's house, where she was staying. The girls watched TV and listened to music. They didn't drink or take drugs, Lindsey said (the police later confirmed this). The next morning Lindsey learned that Candy had been killed in a car accident on her way home.

She got Candy's name tattooed on the back of her neck, to honor her. She started going to PACE, got a job slinging tacos at Tijuana Flats and saved enough money to buy an ancient Camaro. She put Candy's picture in the dashboard, by the instrument panel, for inspiration.

Lindsey's classmates didn't know about her loss, or what her life was like now. Most afternoons, after a full day of school, she picked up her nephew at day care, took him home, changed his diaper and fed him peanut butter and jelly — or something. She sat next to him at the breakfast bar, eating cereal or a sub or whatever passed for her dinner that night.

Forks were not usually required.

When her uncle got home, Lindsey went to work, often pulling a full shift, 3 to 11 p.m. After that, she just wanted to go somewhere and collapse. Lately she was staying with her uncle, though sometimes she bunked with friends, or at her dad's, or in the Camaro.

After all that, she was often too tired or overwhelmed to go to school. Sometimes she stayed away for days, and Miss Kedine would go looking for her. She always found her asleep.

Lindsey still talked to Candy even though Candy was gone. Behind her cracked steering wheel, smoking a Marlboro Menthol, Lindsey would tell Candy about her job, her new girlfriend, even about etiquette.

When the class met for the third time, Lindsey strolled into the lunchroom and plopped into a chair beside Chayna. No one asked where she had been, and she didn't offer.

She picked at her fingernails while Miss Kedine talked about hygiene — brushing your teeth, showering and shaving. Stuff she already knew.

Lindsey didn't think she needed this class. Anyone could see she was more refined than some of the other girls. She wore lots of jewelry: three necklaces, jangly bracelets, rings on every finger. She underscored her eyes with navy liner and smiled when she spoke. And she highlighted her hair with a different color every week, often pulling it into a ponytail or fountain.

Today her hair was dark eggplant, streaked with gold.

Besides, she knew how to behave in a nice restaurant: She had been to Olive Garden.

But Miss Kedine had chosen her for a reason: Lindsey would graduate soon, and the counselor saw this as a chance to give the girl a shine.

She also knew that if Lindsey bought in, the other girls might do the same.

When Miss Kedine began talking about looking for work, Lindsey sat up.

"Do you know the right way to greet a stranger," the counselor asked, "someone who might meet you for an interview?"

She showed the girls how to introduce themselves and shake hands firmly. "You don't have to squeeze, but don't be flimsy," she said. She made each of them practice with her. "Okay," she told Lindsey. "But don't pull away so fast. You want to hold on for at least a couple of seconds." Lindsey nodded.

"And look me in the eye," said Miss Kedine. "You want to make eye contact, let people know you're listening." Lindsey stared at her counselor, still holding her hand. Miss Kedine laughed. "It's okay to blink."

Next, they worked on posture. Back straight, shoulders squared, no slouching — whether you're sitting or standing. "The way you carry yourself says a lot about you," said Miss Kedine. "Your bearing, the way you sit and walk."

She told the girls to get a book. Any hardback book. Lindsey grabbed a Stephen Hawking book, and Spring took one about co-dependency. "You're going to need to hold yourself very straight to balance your book," Miss Kedine said, planting a thesaurus on her head. "Don't shuffle. Lift your feet. Chin up, don't look down."

She glided across the lunchroom, the book barely wobbling. She stopped in front of Chayna, who hadn't bothered to get a book, and placed the thesaurus on her head. It slid off. "You're going to have to practice this," she said. "You've got to be able to do this in heels."

Chayna shook her head, dislodging the book. "No way, never. I can't walk in those."

"That's why you need to practice," Miss Kedine said. "Now let's see you all try."

Lindsey led the way, taking small steps, holding steady. The other girls tried to follow. But Spring kept staring at her feet. Chayna padded heavily in her flip-flops. Their books kept sliding off.

Soon Miss Kedine turned to a new subject: how to behave on a date.

"What do you do when someone holds the door for you, or pulls out your chair?"

"Why they pulling out your chair?" asked one of the girls.

"Oh," the counselor smiled. "They're not trying to dis you. It's a common act of courtesy. And you don't plop into your chair, you slide. Smoothing your skirt beneath you."

The girls laughed. As if any of them would ever wear a skirt.

Soon the hour was over, and Miss Kedine told the girls she would see them next Tuesday.

That weekend, Lindsey had a job interview at the coffee shop in Lakeland Square mall. She liked Tijuana Flats, but this job sounded better and it paid more. She was nervous as she drove to the interview, tumbling over everything Miss Kedine had told her.

When the manager of Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co. extended his hand, Lindsey shook it, smiled and met his eyes. When he pulled out a chair for her, she slid in gracefully, in her new, nonripped jeans. She told him she had experience, worked hard, loved people and wanted all the hours he could give her.

She said, "I can handle a lot."

She started the next week.

SPRING

For the fourth class, Miss Kedine brought in a big cardboard box. She set it on the long table in front of the lunchroom and greeted her girls.

Another student had been kicked out for fighting. Seven of the original 10 remained.

"Today you're going to get to do place settings," Miss Kedine said, bouncing a bit in her high heels. "I brought us all sorts of plates and cups and silverware."

She reached into the box and began unloading foam dishes and plastic utensils. The school couldn't afford china or flatware, so these items would have to do.

The utensils had colored dots on them, each one carefully applied by Miss Kedine herself. She handed out a printed guide to the colors. The fork with the red sticker was the dinner fork. The orange one was the seafood fork. Green was salad, yellow, cake.

The forks and plates and so forth were to be arranged according to a guide to holiday entertaining that Miss Kedine had printed from the Internet.

"Four forks?" Lindsey laughed. "Who needs four forks?" Her hair was ash blond now, with walnut streaks.

"You'll get four forks when we go out for our luncheon. And you'll need to know which one to use for what," Miss Kedine said. "Haven't any of you ever set a table?"

Chayna yawned. "I saw someone do that on TV one time. I didn't get it." Most of Chayna's diet — burgers, chicken nuggets and fries her mom brought home from her job at McDonald's — required no silverware.

Miss Kedine just shook her head. "Okay, girls, now come on up and get your place settings."

In the back of the room, Spring sat alone. As usual. When the other girls came forward, she didn't move. She just stared at the diagram, breathing hard, her hands shaking.

"Spring, you okay?" asked the counselor. All the girls turned to look. Spring covered her face with her sweaty hands. "Spring?"

Miss Kedine crossed the room, put her hand on Spring's shoulder, rubbed her back.

"It is a lot, isn't it? So many things to remember," the counselor said. Spring started sobbing. "It's okay. We'll all help you. You still have a month. You can practice at home."

The girl took her hands from her face, looked up at Miss Kedine. "You don't understand," she sighed.

"At my house we don't even have four forks."

Spring Waterloo could always feel the panic coming, small waves building to big. Whenever she was overwhelmed or scared, she had attacks. Her body would go numb. Her face melted into a blank mask.

It feels, she said, like someone is pressing a heavy board on your chest and you can't gulp enough air. It looks all wavy, like seeing everything in a fun house mirror. It sounds as if you're underwater, everything all muffled and far away. It tastes like bile.

Miss Kedine had been working with Spring for months, even before this class started, trying to calm her. She felt she knew Spring's story, why she suffered.

Spring didn't think Miss Kedine could understand. The counselor was too pretty; everybody loved her.

What if you weren't like that? What if you hated your body, your face, even your stupid smile? What if your brother was smart and your sister was popular and your mom worked long hours and was always stressed and your daddy was the only one who really loved you — but then he died?

"How would you feel," Spring asked, "if that was you?"

She was 11 when her father had the heart attack. Spring remembers lying on the living room floor, watching Jerry Springer, calling her dad's cell phone to see why he hadn't come home. When her mother finally showed up with her brother and sister, everyone knew but her.

She wore a flowered dress to the funeral. She hadn't worn a dress since.

Over the next few years, she moved a dozen times. "We were always getting kicked out of places," she said. "Mostly we just couldn't make the rent."

By the time Spring got to Lakeland High, she was having panic attacks every day. She would be walking down the hall, daydreaming in math class, or standing in line in the cafeteria, and she'd just freak out. The second semester of ninth grade, she stopped going to school. Stopped going anywhere.

She got so scared of being alone, she wouldn't even take a shower. She was 14, and her mom had to bathe her.

She would sit in her room all day, using a razor blade to carve long, thin slices into her thighs. The feeling of warm blood trickling down her legs was like a drug, she said, "like I was blocking out all the other hurt and releasing happiness. Or something."

Did she want to kill herself? "I don't know," she said. "I didn't really care."

A private counselor suggested PACE and spent months convincing Spring that she could cope there. She finally enrolled in April 2009. And though the attacks came less frequently, they were just as strong.

She sat by herself at school, barely talked in class, never ate the free lunch. She wouldn't let anyone see her eat.

"Who wants to see a fat girl stuff her face?"

Spring's brother and sister were grown and gone. She lived with her mom, a paralegal, and her mom's boyfriend, "who sells cars or something."

When her mom had enough money to put gas in her van, she picked Spring up from school. Otherwise, Spring got a bus pass from one of the teachers and rode a couple of miles to her lonely duplex.

Laundry filled the living room — jeans and T-shirts wadded on the sofa, sweats and underwear spilling across the floor. Spring couldn't remember what was clean, what was dirty. The only table, in a corner that was meant to be a dining room, ached under weeks of newspapers, a CD player and a box of panty liners.

Spring and her mom never ate at the table. They almost never ate together at all.

Sometimes, when there was food, Spring would make herself a frozen pizza or waffle and eat sitting on her bed. Sometimes her mom would bring home a Publix sub. Sometimes Spring went hungry. She stashed packages of ramen noodles under her bed.

In her best moments she imagined a different future. She hoped to get a job at Publix, or maybe Winn-Dixie. She would start jogging and finish high school and maybe even go to college. Someday, she hoped, she would be a model, like Miss Kedine.

Each week in class, the counselor reiterated the finer points of table-setting.

She set the plastic foam cups before the girls, helped them position the plasticware. Start with the outside utensil, she told them, and work your way in.

She showed her students how to eat soup: "Scoop the spoon away from you; don't slurp." How to break off a bite of bread and butter that instead of spackling the whole slice. How to unfold their napkins, place them on their laps, and dab at their lips instead of wiping.

"And when you're cutting meat, you don't cut up the whole thing before you start eating," said Miss Kedine. "You cut a single bite, then eat that."

"Man, you should've brought us steak so we could practice!" Lindsey said.

"Well, I didn't bring steak," said Miss Kedine, reaching into the big box. "But I brought chicken."

Spring got scared. Was Miss Kedine going to make her eat in front of everyone?

The counselor pulled out squares of paper. The school couldn't afford real meat. So the girls had to practice on paper chicken.

The lessons continued: Hair care and color. Manicures and nail polish. Walking in high heels.

As the weeks passed, Miss Kedine showed the girls how to trim their cuticles, slide on a pair of stockings, use oatmeal to make a cleansing mask. She gave the girls facials. None of them had ever had a facial.

Miss Kedine saw the girls growing less resistant. They made fewer snide comments, didn't slouch as much. Sometimes they stopped by her office to borrow deodorant.

Two days before Thanksgiving, she canceled class. PACE teachers went to Publix and bought turkey and stuffing, corn bread and cranberry sauce, and served a feast in the lunchroom.

Miss Kedine couldn't wait for her girls to show off their new manners. "Okay, everyone bring a plate up here and help yourselves," she called.

She smiled as her girls placed paper napkins in their laps. Nodded approvingly as they cut one bite of turkey at a time.

But when dessert arrived, etiquette excused itself and left the room.

A girl picked up the whipped cream and squirted it into her mouth. Another smeared some across Chayna's face. Someone flung banana pudding across the room and shouted, "Food fight!"

In the back of the room, Spring licked the frosting off an orange cupcake. It was the first time anyone had seen her eat.

On the eighth Tuesday, a tall girl strode into class, sporting long, scarlet nails, a hint of gloss shimmering on her lips.

"Oooh, look at Spring!" someone shouted. Her hair was mahogany now, with thick auburn highlights, tied with a white ribbon.

"Don't you look nice," said Miss Kedine. Blushing, Spring slid into her seat. But her hands didn't sweat, her stomach didn't clench. A month had gone by since she'd had a panic attack.

"I'm so glad you ladies are here. You know, this is our last class," said Miss Kedine. The girls groaned. The teenagers who had hated the idea of etiquette class now didn't want it to end.

"You all learned so much. You ladies surprised me," said Miss Kedine. "Now, let's go over what we have learned."

On the first day of class, the counselor had asked the girls about self-esteem. Lindsey liked herself, was proud of her independence. Chayna said she was "working on it." Back then, Spring wouldn't even look in the mirror.

"So where are you all today?" Miss Kedine asked. "Has anything changed?"

One girl said she felt fancy now, because she knew what rich people knew. Another said she was ready to meet the queen.

Spring crossed her ankles, combed back her hair with her fake nails.

"Okay, I'm about to be really honest with y'all here," she said. She glanced around the room at the faces of her new friends, then locked eyes with Miss Kedine.

"I've been working on this. You've helped me see it, some," she said, touching her forehead. "I guess, except for this pimple, maybe, like you been telling me, I am beautiful."

CHAYNA

As the girls left class, they talked about what they were going to wear to the luncheon three days from now.

Miss Kedine told them they had to wear skirts or dresses and heels. Or at least nice flats.

One girl had borrowed her sister's homecoming dress. Spring's mom had bought her a new dress, purple and white and black — the first one she had owned since her dad died.

Chayna shuffled past her classmates, not saying a word. Miss Kedine stopped her in the hall. "How about you? Do you have your outfit ready?"

Chayna kicked the floor with her flip-flop. Her mother kept telling her she would give her money to go shopping. But she never did.

Miss Kedine squeezed Chayna's shoulder.

"It's okay," she said. "We'll figure out something."

She started to ask Chayna what size she wore, whether she needed shoes too. But the girl was already running to catch her bus.

Chayna Castro lives in public housing in a small, dark apartment on the edge of Haines City. Chayna moved in with her mom only a few months earlier. She hardly knew her.

She had grown up mostly with her dad and sisters. Her brother was in jail, and her older sister had quit high school and had a baby at 15 — Chayna's age now.

Years earlier, while Chayna's father was still working in the phosphate mines, they all shared a house and ate dinner together. Then her daddy got hurt at work.

They had to move into an apartment, then into a trailer, a motel, and the homes of relatives and friends. In 14 years, Chayna moved 15 times.

"My daddy just couldn't get it together," she said. He was frustrated, she said, and sometimes took it out on her.

"Mama was on drugs for a while. But she went to rehab. Daddy, I don't know. I wanted to stay with him."

She was in sixth grade when she got kicked out of middle school for fighting. The other girl was asking for it, she said.

They sent Chayna to an alternative school, but she got expelled.

About that time, her daddy started leaving her alone with her little sister. First for a few hours, then a night, then two or three days at a time.

Chayna, who was 12, said she would make macaroni and cheese, heat a can of beans, tell her 10-year-old sister, "Don't worry. Daddy will be home soon."

After a few months, her daddy put her and her younger sister on a bus and sent them to live with their mom.

They found the rooming house address their dad had given them. But their mom was gone. An aunt took them in, then handed them off to another relative.

Chayna got so angry and frustrated. Nobody wanted her. Finally, she slashed her aunt's tires and wound up in foster care.

They stayed in strangers' homes for six months or a year, Chayna can't remember. She kept trying to kill herself: slashed her wrists, wrapped a radio cord around her neck, smothered herself with a pillow.

"I kept wanting to go home," she said. Only she didn't have one.

Finally, her dad came to get her. He sent her to PACE, where she learned she was three grade levels behind. When her mom got a subsidized apartment, she moved in with her.

She had been a student at PACE for more than a year, longer than she had ever lived in one place.

Now, she got up at 6 a.m. every weekday, walked a mile in the dark and rode three buses to get there — a 2 1/2-hour trip each way.

Two days before the luncheon, Miss Kedine called Chayna into her office. The girl immediately wondered again what she had done wrong.

"So, you ready?" asked the counselor, stepping from behind her desk. She grabbed the keys to the school van and walked toward the front door.

Confused, Chayna followed. "Where we going?"

"We're going shopping."

Chayna hid her smile with her hands. She didn't want Miss Kedine to see how excited she was.

"Okay," she said. "But I'm not wearing no dress or no high heels."

They pulled up outside a strip mall. Miss Kedine led the way to Marshalls. As they walked through the double doors, toward the first few racks of clothes, Chayna's eyes got wide.

She couldn't remember the last time she had gone shopping. She didn't know what size she was or even what department she should be in. Girls? Juniors? Women's?

Miss Kedine looked her over, trying to guess. Chayna's T-shirts were so baggy you couldn't tell if she was square or hourglass-shaped. "Let's try a size 5," Miss Kedine said. "Looks like you might already be in women's."

Chayna followed Miss Kedine through the aisles, looking all around, never stopping to pull out a dress.

Miss Kedine held out several — a flowered skirt, a sundress, one with short sleeves.

Each time, Chayna scrunched her nose and shook her head.

"You're not even trying," the counselor said. "Here."

She started piling dresses into Chayna's arms, short ones and long ones, prints and solids. On the top, she draped a black dress with a golden sash.

"Hey, that one's cute," Chayna said. "Look at the skirt . . . it's all bubbly."

She dropped the other options on the seat in the fitting room and pulled on the black dress. Miss Kedine tied the sash behind her.

"Beautiful. Just beautiful," she said, turningChayna in front of the mirror. "Who knew you had such a cute figure?"

"I feel naked," Chayna said into her fingers. But when she looked up and saw herself, she just stared. She had never seen herself in a dress, never dreamed she could look like such a lady.

"Now, we just need to get you some shoes," said Miss Kedine, helping her unzip the dress. "You said they had to be flats, right?"

"Well, I never walked in heels before," Chayna said.

"Then now is the time."

The counselor picked out low heels first, but Chayna wanted something spikier — like Miss Kedine's — so they settled on a pair of strappy black stilettos.

"I feel fake," Chayna said, wobbling down the aisle. "Like it's not me."

"Oh, it's you," said Miss Kedine. "Just look at you!"

"Thank you, Miss Kedine!" Chayna cried, taking off the shoes and cradling her new clothes. She kept unfolding the dress to look at it. "Oh, thank you."

Miss Kedine gave the clerk her charge card. The total came to $69.52; she would pay for this out of her own pocket.

At the subsidized apartment Chayna shared with her mom, that much money would cover a month's rent.

Chayna's mom was already there when she got home that afternoon.

"How was work?" Chayna asked, heading for her bedroom, swinging the Marshalls bag on her arm.

"Actually not too bad today," said Chayna's mom, Kathy Young, 47. "What you got there?"

Chayna had told her mom about etiquette class, about how they were learning to do facials and sit straight. But she didn't want to spoil the surprise about the dress.

"You'll see," she said.

Chayna spent a couple of minutes behind her closed door, then re-emerged.

"Do you like?" she asked, twirling down the narrow hall. The gold bow was crooked behind her back. She teetered in her heels.

Chayna's mom was sitting on the couch with her back to her daughter. When she turned and saw her, she gasped. Then she collapsed, sobbing.

"Oh my God, giiirl! Oh my God, I got chill bumps!"

You're so pretty, Chayna's mother told her. So grown.

"I wish I could be there to see you at the luncheon," she said, wiping tears.

She had never been to one of Chayna's school events. And she had never been to a luncheon.

FINAL EXAM

Some girls celebrate their emergence into the adult world with a cotillion or a coming out party. For others it's a quinceanera, bat mitzvah or sweet 16. For the students in Miss Kedine's etiquette class, their proving party was lunch at a cafe overlooking the lake.

They had been working toward this for eight weeks, dreading it at times. But not now. They saw it as a chance to make Miss Kedine proud, to debut their new, grownup selves.

"Okay, ladies, let's get going. You only have an hour here to get ready," Miss Kedine called, leading them into the PACE conference room that Friday. "Anyone need help with hair or makeup?"

The girls weren't listening. They were too busy ogling each other's dresses and shoes.

"Oooh, Chayna, that's so fine," one girl said as Chayna pulled the black dress from her backpack. Chayna looked angry: hands clenched, jaw set, like she might haul off and hit the girl. "Hey, what's wrong?"

Chayna kicked off her flip-flops, stomped into her high heels. "Broke up with my boyfriend on the bus this morning," she said. "He weren't treating me right, and I know better now." She pranced around, practicing her posture. "Hey, I got this," she said, suddenly sounding proud. "Only, heels hurt."

"I didn't bring no high heels," said Spring, shuffling by in dirty flip-flops.

Miss Kedine planted her hands on her hips. "I said no flip-flops."

"I don't have no other shoes."

"Why didn't you tell me?" snapped Miss Kedine. She marched into the hall, smoothed her skirt, then her hair, took two deep breaths and got out her key ring. The teachers kept rewards for the girls in a glass case in the front hall. Perfume and hair clips and rhinestone sandals.

"What size?" asked Miss Kedine, opening the case.

"I don't know."

So Miss Kedine took one of Spring's flip-flops and held it up to the new shoes until she found the right size. Spring's Cinderella moment.

Heading back into the conference room, Miss Kedine looked over her girls. Someone was helping Chayna with her hair. Someone else was spritzing on body spray. Another had left the class. But where was Lindsey?

No one had seen her. A couple of girls had called her cell phone, but it was dead. Lindsey had promised she would be there for the luncheon. It was the last thing she had to do to graduate. How could she miss this?

Miss Kedine asked another teacher to look after the class. She drove a few blocks to Lindsey's uncle's house, the last place she had heard Lindsey was staying.

The front window on the little green house was broken. Someone had taped cardboard over the hole. Lindsey's old red Camaro was parked out front.

Miss Kedine knocked on the door. "Come in," someone called. So she walked down the hall, calling, "Hello, I'm Lindsey's counselor . . ." In the first bedroom on the left, she found Lindsey, fast asleep, her face blanketed by her hair, which was now brown.

"You've got five minutes," said Miss Kedine.

Sitting up slowly, Lindsey rubbed her eyes. "I don't have a dress."

They pulled out of the PACE parking lot 20 minutes later, six would-be ladies, their counselor and principal.

"I'm sorry," Lindsey told everyone. She had worked late, come back and cleaned her uncle's house, then got into a fight with her mom and slept through the alarm. After Miss Kedine woke her, she stopped by a friend's house to borrow a turquoise dress.

Soon they pulled into the parking lot of Zorah's restaurant. "Okay, ladies," Miss Kedine called into the rearview mirror. "Remember your manners."

"You girls all look so gorgeous," said Ms. DeLoach, the principal.

As Spring walked up the path, she started breathing hard. Lindsey watched a scarlet rash creep up Spring's neck, spread across her face. She saw Spring's lower lip begin to tremble.

"You okay?"

"Scared."

"It'll be okay," Lindsey said, squeezing Spring's elbow. "I got your back."

All the girls froze when they walked inside. The restaurant had been a waterfront residence, and was still homey and elegant, like a scene from one of Miss Kedine's magazines. Lace curtains kissed the wide windows. A fire licked at the hearth. And on every table, a scarlet poinsettia.

The hostess led them to a private dining room in the back, where a wall of windows overlooked the sun-striped lake.

"Okay, ladies, let's take our seats," said Miss Kedine. They pulled out their own chairs, slid into their seats, crossed their ankles. Chayna planted her elbows on the table, then remembered.

She touched the edge of the chocolate-colored tablecloth, then lifted the corner of the snowy one laid diagonally across it. "This two tablecloths here?" she asked. "This a tablecloth too, right?" Miss Kedine nodded. "Wow," Chayna breathed. "I never even been anywhere with one."

What's a butter dish? What's tomato bisque? What's hummus?

They regarded the nine utensils and three plates with the caution of bomb defusers. They didn't dare touch the black fabric blooming from their crystal water glasses. "Ladies," Miss Kedine said gently, "remember, napkins in our laps."

Spring fingered the carefully folded cloth, seeming confused. "This is our napkin?"

They didn't know what vinaigrette was. Of six dressing choices, they all ordered ranch. "Like the sauce for McNuggets?" asked Chayna. Lindsey poked a piece of red pepper, held it up and asked Miss Kedine, "What's this? Some sort of fancy tomato?" She thought all peppers were green.

About 45 minutes after they arrived, while the girls were still picking at their salads, Spring leaned into Lindsey and said, "This meal's taking forever. Ramen noodles be ready in, like, three minutes."

Then, the disaster Spring had dreaded.

She stabbed at a crouton. It sailed off her plate and plopped onto the tablecloth. Her face went blank as she confronted the evidence: Who did she think she was, pretending she could fit in somewhere like this?

Stomach tightening, she sank into her chair and buried her face in her clammy hands.

"It's okay," Lindsey laughed quietly. "I told you, I got your back." She jabbed her own fork into a piece of lettuce and flicked it onto the table.

The girls were quiet during most of the meal. You could hear ice clinking in lemonade glasses, knives scraping plates. "You can talk, you know," Miss Kedine encouraged them.

No, they really couldn't. To do this right, they needed the focus of a surgeon.

Cutting real chicken was the hardest part. The plastic knives and paper poultry hadn't prepared them. "You should have at least gotten us Play-Doh chicken to practice," someone told Miss Kedine.

The counselor corrected the girls, gently, when one held her fork in her fist, when another buttered a whole slice of bread at once, when Chayna left her spoon in her soup bowl instead of setting it on the saucer. Miss Kedine nodded when they sat up straight and dabbed at their mouths.

When the chocolate pie and strawberries were served, Miss Kedine clinked her spoon on her glass and said, "Ladies! I'm so thrilled with you all." She beamed at her students, at their transformation. "Now I don't expect you all to remember everything. But if you take even one thing with you from this, as you enter the world, I know it will make a difference."

They had just finished lunch, were folding linen napkins in their laps, when Miss Kedine stood and addressed them again.

"Will the following girls please step forward to receive their certificates of completion . . ."

One by one, the students rose to accept their awards.

The girl who had been on her own since she was 14, who worked 30 hours a week and kept her dead friend's picture in her car. The girl who lost her daddy, who used to cut herself, who couldn't look in a mirror. The girl who had moved 15 times, who had been so sullen and angry, whose own mother hadn't seen her in a dress, hadn't known she was beautiful.

"Lindsey," the counselor called. "Spring." She named the other three girls, who all stood up beside the table. "And Chayna."

They held their paper diplomas in front of them. "I'm hanging this in my room," Chayna whispered.

When the girls started the etiquette class, they thought they would simply learn how to use a napkin and where to place a salad fork. If they knew how to walk in heels and shake hands properly, their teacher had told them, the world would see them differently.

But it turned out that Miss Kedine's class had accomplished much more: It had changed the way the girls saw themselves. Understanding how to behave, they gained confidence, began to think they were worthy, started aspiring to lives they never thought possible.

This wasn't about salad forks or crossing your ankles or saying "Please." It was about knowing you belong. Believing you can make it out there.

With their principal and Miss Kedine between them, the girls posed for a picture. Then, suddenly, it was over. Everyone piled into the PACE van, and the counselor hurried them back to school.

Lindsey had to get to her new job. Spring's mom had promised to drive her home, so she could see her dressed up. And Chayna had to catch her bus. She still had that 2 1/2-hour trip ahead of her.

"Thank you, Miss Kedine," Chayna shouted, waving as she crossed the school parking lot. She wore her purple backpack over the golden bow on her dress, a girl and a woman at the same time. In her hand, she carried a plastic bag with her old jeans and her new certificate, the only award she had ever received.

"Hey!" called Miss Kedine, seeing her in her nice clothes, "aren't you going to change?"

Shaking her head, Chayna climbed onto the bus in her new high heels.

She already had.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

ETIQUETTE (et´i kit; also, -ket´) n. (Fr étiquette, lit., TICKET)

1. the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable
or required in social relations, in a profession, or in official life — Webster's New World College Dictionary

Table settings vary, depending on the formality of the occasion. The most important rule to remember is to start with the utensils on the outside and work your way in. The bread knife gets its own plate. And silverware for dessert is set above the service plate.



ABOUT PACE

The Web site for the PACE Center for Girls, pacecenter.org, describes the organization as a "prevention, diversion and early intervention program serving girls, ages 12-17, in 17 locations across the state." The program satisfies a state Department of Juvenile Justice requirement to provide services specifically for girls.

Locally, PACE has programs in New Port Richey, Tampa and Pinellas Park. Reach the Lakeland center, where the etiquette classes were, at www.pacecenter.org/polk or (863) 688-5596.

HOW TO HELP

Most students at the PACE Center for Girls struggle with poverty. They need everything from clothes to deodorant. You can send a check to any of the schools, or send supplies including:

  • • Clothes and shoes for teenage girls
  • • Personal hygiene items
  • • Hair accessories and hair dryers, curling irons
  • • Art supplies

    • School supplies
  • • Gift cards
  • • Computers or electronic equipment

SCHOOL SITES

ABOUT THE STORY

Staff writer Lane DeGregory and photographer Kathleen Flynn spent two months observing etiquette classes at the PACE Center for Girls in Lakeland. With the school's permission, they followed the girls and their counselor.

DeGregory and Flynn witnessed most of the events described in this story. By necessity, some scenes were reconstructed. The description of Lindsey's job interview is based on her recollection, and the scene about Miss Kedine waking Lindsey for the luncheon is based on interviews with both of them.

DeGregory, 43, joined the St. Petersburg Times in 2000. In 2009, she won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Girl in the Window," a story about a severely neglected girl. DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Flynn, 32, has been with the newspaper since 2002. She can be reached at kflynn@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8049.

The Swan Project: Girls, please meet social etiquette and good manners 03/26/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2010 1:12pm]

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