ODESSA — Friday night, there won't be talk of broom handles and hockey sticks and locker room rape.
Walker Middle School eighth graders will walk down a red carpet and pose for pictures in formal gowns and suits. They'll dance to their favorite songs in the cafeteria and celebrate the end of one stage and the beginning of another.
Best friends Corina Gonzalez and Cassandra Zimmerman, both 13, have looked forward to this day since sixth grade.
For two years, they've seen eighth graders sign out of school early that day to get prepared. "They're all pampered up and you see pictures and it looks all fun and everything," Corina said.
Eighth grade proms have become a rite of passage, a chance to enjoy one last moment together before high school.
But at this year's dance, all Corina and Cassandra want to do is try to forget.
"For one day this week," Cassandra said.
• • •
So much has changed at the Odessa school in the last week.
Four of their classmates, accused of bullying and raping a 13-year-old boy in Walker's locker room during a flag football practice on April 30, were arrested.
"You walk down the halls and all that you hear, 'Oh, so and so is gone and they're not going to be here anymore,' " Cassandra said. "It's like the main topic."
The hallways are the only places they can talk about the rape freely and openly. Administrators, who did not reply to an e-mail from a St. Petersburg Times reporter, have forbidden discussion about the highly publicized crime in the classroom, Cassandra and Corina said.
Counselors were dispatched to the campus on Monday to meet with students in small groups and, if they preferred, individually.
Seemingly innocent tasks like delivering the morning announcements or boarding the school bus now require adult supervision.
"I'm on the morning show and usually we're allowed to stay in the room by ourselves," said Cassandra, the student council president. "They trust us. Now they haven't as much. We have to have the door open at all times."
"We're like a little bit more watched," Corina said. "They're just really, really nervous. You can tell."
Corina and Cassandra have attended school with two of the suspects since elementary. Their mothers won't allow them to tell which ones.
"Can we just say it was totally unexpected and that's it," Cassandra's mom, Laurie Zimmerman, said.
The girls nodded their heads. They've had to dodge a lot of questions since the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office released details of the rape on May 8 and news trucks descended on the N Mobley Road school just as students were being dismissed for the weekend.
Last Friday, Cassandra went to Westfield Citrus Park mall, a popular teenage hangout. Someone asked her what school she attended. She brushed off the question, scared of the reaction the truth may have elicited.
"Any other day, I would have said it," Cassandra said.
"It's just embarrassing," Corina said. "There's those schools that all kids talk about like, 'Oh my God, that's such a bad school.' Now we've become one of those bad schools — and it's not like that at all."
• • •
This is the Walker that Corina, Cassandra and their mothers want you to remember:
The school that has earned A ratings for eight consecutive school years.
The administration that calls parents like Corina's mother, Chrisy Gonzalez, when "we're a minute late to pick up the kids" from after-school activities.
The counseling staff that Corina feels comfortable telling "everything."
The after-school director who spotted Corina and Cassandra at a local Walgreen's one afternoon and stayed with them until their parents could come and get them.
The parents who volunteer at the school so much, they "live there," Laurie Zimmerman said.
Corina and Cassandra say principal Kathleen Hoffman is protective. Sometimes to an extreme, Corina said.
"I guess these kind of situations are what she's trying to prevent," Corina said, a reference to the rape.
"One other thing," Corina said. "Our school is a really, really good school. It's just some stupid people."
• • •
Corina and Cassandra will try not to think about the rape Friday night. "We're going to be focused on having a good time," Cassandra said.
Cassandra plans to wear this burnt orange number that she said she toiled over forever. "Very hard decision," she said.
"Mine's just black," Corina said. "I already had kind of in mind what I was going to get so it wasn't difficult for me."
They hope no one arrives on the red carpet in the same dresses.
"It's a little nerve-wracking," Cassandra said. "All the girls are like, 'Oh, I hope they don't have the same dress as me.' "
Neither girl has a date.
"They're all going stag in a group," says Cassandra's mom, who is co-chair of this year's soiree along with Chrisy Gonzalez.
Still, a part of Corina worries that she and her classmates will have to pay the price for the alleged actions of four people. She fears administrators, still on edge from the rape, will be more overbearing at this year's dance than at previous ones.
"Which really sucks," she said.
Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5303.