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SCENES FROM A PROM // PART ONE: BON VOYAGE

Proms used to be a rite of senior passage _ gowns, corsages, tuxedos, limousines. But now the glamor and celebration belong to eighth-graders. School officials may call it an end-of-the-year dance, but adolescents go all out preparing for this special evening.

This story follows a group of eighth-grade students on the night of their "prom" at Sixteenth Street Middle School. The Times had their parents' permission to tag along.

6:30 p.m. _ The Kassha apartment is breathing with kids. Mikell Edens, 14, is early, making her final prom preparations with Randi Kassha, 14. For her ensemble, Mikell has two options: a white cotton dress borrowed from a cousin or a purple velvet spaghetti strap affair she swings from a hanger. She sticks with white. Randi wears red, which, turns out, is the most popular color at the prom. Kenny Johnston, 14, is early too. He hangs in the background, dressed in baggy jeans, Adidas sneakers, a No. 34 Rockets tank over a T-shirt and a white baseball hat. The rest are Randi's siblings, neighbors, friends. They're not going, but they want to see the white stretch limousine Randi's dad procured for the evening.

A knock at the door elicits screams from Randi's bedroom. Chris Wulff, 14, arrives in his new tuxedo _ $110. "It would cost $82 to rent," he explains. He's smaller than all the girls in his group, and it's questionable whether his tux will fit him next year.

Amanda Richardson, 14, is the next to arrive _ braces and blond hair accented by a blue tea-length dress with white flowered bodice. Then Helen Black, 15, Kenny's date. Like most of the other girls, she opts for the French twist for her hair, but she is the only one in a long formal _ a black-and-white off-the-shoulder gown that shows off her bathing suit tan lines.

Amanda Kinnas and Janelle VonDeylen, both 14, arrive together in a minivan chock-full of moms, neighbors and friends. Carefully, the two girls negotiate the apartment stairs in just-out-of-the-box heels. An open door and a camera flash send them flying back down, shrieking.

"Janelle! Settle down!" yells her mom. Her command is lost in the sea of kids who wash out of the apartment into the parking lot.

6:50 p.m.

Cameras snap; videotape rolls. Where is that limo?!

The boys hang back. The girls compare outfits.

French manicures are the nail-style of choice, at roughly $20 a pop. Done the day before, they already show signs of nervous chipping.

Conversation turns to shoes, as Helen's black chunk-heel loafers, a heavy contrast to the spindle-heeled sandals, meet with scrutiny.

"Are those combat boots you're wearing?!"

"No! They're witch's shoes!"

"Where did you get them?"

"Payless!"

"Me too!"

Turns out, everyone got their shoes at Payless, with the exception of Janelle, who bought satin shoes dyed to match her violet satin dress. First the store lost the shoes. Now the dye is bleeding purple on the heels of her pantyhose.

Excitement takes a nasty turn for Amanda K. "Can you see through my dress? Mom! Why didn't you make me buy a black dress?!" Turning a baleful eye on her friends, she laments: "Why can't I be as skinny as Randi?"

Convinced that her arms are fat for her sleeveless white A-line, Amanda K. attempts to wrest a navy blazer from her mom, Linda Kinnas, who works for the Times.

"Mom! Let me wear your jacket! PLEASE."

Mom and friends assure her, "Amanda, you look FINE."

6:59 p.m. _ Clothes, hair and relative body fat fall out of focus as a white stretch limo winds its way around the corner. Half the group scrambles inside the cab before chauffeur Guy Anderson has a chance to stop the car, let alone open the door for them.

7:10 _ The limo merges on to I-275, taking the slow lane toward Sixteenth Street Middle School. "We need our privacy," the group declares, raising the driver partition.

It's No Panties Thursday, declares the BRN (Bubba Radio Network) on 93.3 FLZ _ the group celebrates the radio discovery by cranking it full blast. The volume from the TV inside the limo joins the din of squeals that persist all evening.

Limos and middle school proms are nothing new, according to Guy, who's chauffeured 14-year-olds for the past five years.

7:30 p.m. _ All eyes turn to the limo as it rolls into the bus circle. Prom attendees posing for pictures on the sidewalk turn to gawk. Some rush to pose in front of the limo, as if it were theirs.

This time, the gang chills out and waits for Guy to open the door before spilling out. "Wait for me," Amanda K. shouts from inside the limo. Locking the doors, she emerges a few minutes later in Mikell's purple velvet dress, sans pantyhose, shoes and bra. "Can you tell?" Amanda asks.

More limos pull in, trapping a Volvo and other parental vehicles. Girls clamor to have their pictures taken with three very debonair dudes in tuxedo tails, top hats, canes and sunglasses. Wallflower boys lean against the red brick walls until the campus cop asks them to move inside.

Amanda K. adjusts her sandals on the sidewalk, begging Randi and the rest of the girls to wait up. Kenny lags behind.

7:45 p.m. _ Everyone through the door gets sunglasses, a neon plastic Hawaiian lei and streamers. The theme is "Bon Voyage." It's the last year of middle school for the eighth-graders, and it's the last year for the gymnasium.

A sailboat filled with silver streamers drifts in the fog of the dry ice machine and vibrations of DJ-driven dance music.

"They're tearing the school down and rebuilding it after this," says Scott Kaplan. It's his third year as a teacher at Sixteenth Street Middle School, and his first as dance coordinator.

As for the alleged "National Eighth Grade Skip Day" the day after the dance, Mr. Kaplan claims no knowledge. Traditionally, he says, there may be a large amount of eighth-grade absentees. "I don't know if anyone's ever checked it."

7:50 p.m. _ Helen and Kenny get in one slow dance to Celine Dion's Because You Loved Me before Kenny is out on his ear. Turns out, he doesn't have a ticket, so according to county rules, he isn't supposed to be on campus. He had planned to hang out in the limo, but the driver isn't sticking around. Kenny kills time outside with Amanda K., who is not feeling well, until he's instructed to leave campus. He moves across the street to Campbell Park.

8:10 p.m. _ Amanda K.'s mom pulls into the bus circle to find her daughter, now in purple, standing with Helen, Randi and Mikell, eyes one the park and the banished Kenny.

"Where's your dress?"

"It's in the limo!"

Helen laments her boyfriend's downfall. "It's my fault," she declares dramatically. "I made him come! It should have been me who was suspended! I'M SORRY, KENNY!"

Like sharks to blood, other kids teem toward the commotion.

One claims to have inside knowledge that a gang in the park is planning to "jump" Kenny.

"If he comes back on campus, he'll be arrested," another declares.

"What about your dress?" Mrs. Kinnas asks her daughter.

"I'll get it, and I'll bring it to her," Janelle offers.

"Amanda, don't go!"

"I don't feel good you guys! I think I'm going to throw up again."

"When the limo comes back, I think we're going to go because we don't want him sitting across the street," Helen offers. "Oh, look how sad he looks!"

Kenny, neon lei still around his neck, slouches in a chain-swing, dragging his feet in the dirt.

8:15 p.m. _ "Where is the limo?!"

"He said he'd be here at 9 p.m. for us. But he might be back before 9 ...

Leann Welvaert, a seventh-grade geography teacher looks young enough to be a dance attendee herself.

"You're a teacher!" the group implores. "Convince them!"

"No," says Ms. Welvaert, who knows the burdens of being The Cool Teacher. "You'll have to go to Dr. Jones on that."

"I'm going over there!" Helen announces. "This is my fault!"

"HELEN! YOU CAN'T! You'll go to jail!" It's a chorus.

"I'm going to sit here and comfort Amanda," says Randi.

"What did you eat today, Amanda?"

"Chicken nuggets."

"No wonder you don't feel good!"

"Are you guys going to the beach?" Amanda K. asks.

9:05 p.m. _ Inside, the Limbo champion is announced. Mr. Kaplan and a variety of other teachers dance the "Tootsie Roll," causing at least one student to break into a hysterical fit of laughter.

The limo has returned. Amanda K. locks the door and changes back into the white A-line.

Over in the park, Kenny has moved from the swing to the bus-stop bench. Chris crosses the street to keep him company. He is not arrested. He does not go to jail.

The campus cop says it's okay for Kenny to come back on campus to get into the limo, as long as nobody sees him. Meanwhile, his date, Helen, disappears inside the gym. Janelle and Randi organize a search party, can't find her. Finally, Helen emerges, but Amanda R. is missing. Turns out she's decided to ride home in another limo. The heck with her, is the common consensus. To the beach!

9:35 p.m. _ Putt-Putt Golf! It seems like a great idea at first, but is soon forgotten in the glamor of the Don CeSar. The crowd cuts through the lobby, utilizes the plush restroom facilities and cuts out through the pool area. Toes are dipped in the hot-tub while hotel management watches from a distance. Everyone waves and shouts "Hello!" to a couple watching them from a pink tower window. Then it's on to the beach where a sand fight erupts between Randi and Helen. A group caucus, another sand fight. Back to the limo. Guy makes everyone wipe their feet before getting back in.

9:55 p.m. _ "Can you get this thing through the drive-through?" someone asks. "No food in the limo," Guy informs the group. "You'll ground it into the carpet."

Kenny is the only one who orders more than a soda anyway, getting an Arch Deluxe. "Super-size it, please," he asks the cashier. Amanda K., Randi and Janelle hit the pay phone just off Gulf Boulevard. Can they spend the night at Helen's?

Back in the limo, there's an hour to kill. The ride is officially over at 11.

10:05 p.m. _ "You guys act like an old married couple," comes one shout of admonishment from the back, probably directed at Helen and Kenny. Truth or Dare is the game of the moment, as Guy cruises slowly back toward Randi's apartment. Someone is dared to ask someone else out on a date, the command punctuated by the same hysterical shrieks of joy that have colored the evening. No voice is the hoarser for it.

11 p.m. _ On the dot, the limo rolls back into the parking lot, where a convoy of parents wait for their wards. The best part of the evening? Everyone agrees. "The way home!"

Helen draws Kenny over to meet her older sister, there to pick her up. He shyly extends his right hand, using his left to cover the spot on his neck where he got a hickey during Truth or Dare. Randi's dad descends the stairs in time to see his daughter pile into a car with Helen and Mikell for a sleepover at Helen's. Janelle and Amanda K. decide to go home; they didn't bring a change of clothes. Kenny and Chris turn to walk home together.

"Bye, you guys!"

"Bye, limo driver!"

"Bye!"

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