Barbara Mitchell, mentioned in yesterday's debutante story as best-dressed senior in the graduating class at Wakefield High School, will be, instead, recipient of one of the school's 12 Starstone awards for community and school service. Karen Judson will be best-dressed senior.
At 4 on Saturday, a snowy afternoon in Arlington, 18-year-old Barbara Mitchell is ready for her debut into society. Her short hair is sleek and curled up around her face. Long nails glisten copper. In a few minutes she will put on the long white gown she spent days searching for, for this, one of the most anticipated nights of her life.
She is an honor student at Wakefield High School and listed in "Who's Who Among American High School Students." She holds an after-school clerical job, is president of Health Occupational Students of Alexandria, volunteers in hospitals, attends Bible study classes every Wednesday night, disapproves of premarital sex ("I think I'd be a disappointment to my parents and myself") and has little interest in politics.
"I've always liked tradition," she says, hands clasped on her lap. "In this, the girl is being presented to society. People say why can't the boy be presented? Well, it seems like going through this makes you a woman."
At 11 in a blue-lit, flower-bedecked Washington Hilton ballroom, Barbara Mitchell glows amid a sea of beaming parents and friends, dotted with white satin-clad debutantes. Her presentation to society is complete, the elaborate curtsy for which she prepared with special knee exercises, has been executed smoothly. She moves among the round, pink tables to greet the 34 who have come to see her--friends, cousins, grandmother, pastor. Too excited to eat, she ignores the food, gulps some coffee and water. "All the girls are going to put some money together and rent a room and have a party," she says, clutching a bouquet of pink carnations, trailing pink and green streamers. Across her white chiffon and lace dress is the pink sash proclaiming her Miss Congeniality by vote of the 35 other young women. "They'll party until 5 or 6. I can stay awake that long if I'm dancing. If I sit down, I'll fall asleep."
These are the stars of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority's 25th Annual Debutante Cotillion. They are high-school seniors, black, well-brought up, and for the most part, financially comfortable. They are good students, painstakingly good daughters and they like good clothes. Mitchell was voted best dressed at Wakefield this year. According to the program notes, they aspire to be everything from lawyers to doctors (Mitchell's goal) to fashion designers. One plans "to pursue a career goal as a psychologist or an executive secretary. She will endeavor to be an overall success."
There is no competitive selection process. Members of AKA, a black women's college and post-college sorority, invited 56 prospective debutantes to a meeting. Thirty-six decided to go through the debutante process. Caleen Greene, a new AKA member who was herself a debutante at Fort Valley State College in Fort Valley, Ga., in 1970, watched the final results from her table. "White women have had this for years," said Greene, a government editor. "This lets black women see there is something nicer . . . than a little party where you disco."
"At first I had doubts about it," said Carlos Hall, an escort. "But now I think better of it . . . I think for the young ladies it's a big affair . . . It makes you feel good."
Most of these debutantes were born in 1964, which means that the headiness and the angst of the '60s and '70s were but passing scenery in their childhood and early adolescence. The notion that a curtsy to society might be outdated or sexist has barely flickered in their minds.
"It's the glamor of it," says Mitchell of the event. "It's so formal."
"One might look at it in different ways," says her mother, Lueida Mitchell, who estimates she and her daughter will spend more than $1,000 on clothes, tickets and ads for the souvenir program. "Barbara has worked hard. She's an A student. She's an all-around person. She's been a good child . . . A lot of time with our black students, they're not given an opportunity to tell what they're doing. We feel good about this. Although a lot of the feeling has been taken from it. It used to be a time to present women to society. Now, it doesn't have a lot of meaning. But for us, it has . . . I may have felt different if Barbara was just an average student, with no goals."
The preparation for this year's group of debutantes includes one meeting a week since October, charm class, lessons in curtsying, the waltz and minuet and aerobics.
The dress for the event: white formal gowns with long white gloves. "Nothing revealing, no spaghetti straps," said Geraldine Lewis, chair of this year's event. (There was one spaghetti strap.) And "they must be ladies of--how shall I put it--high social character. Now, what that means in today's society is interesting."
For the required escorts: white tie and tails. (Same for fathers.) This produced a group of well-scrubbed, stunning young men who spent much of the time talking and giggling in the back of the ballroom before their cue to appear on the dance floor. "You all are sharp in your tails," whispered Elaine Trivers, a former cotillion chairman, to some of them, "and acting like you're on the basketball court."
Geraldine Lewis, who is also a field service claims representative for State Farm Insurance, says, "When you're planning it, you think, 'Why am I doing this?' But when the night comes, they feel dressed up, they feel pretty. All eyes are on them. Many of these girls never get a chance to dress up this much. They feel very special. They come up to me throughout the night to say, 'Thank you, Mrs. Lewis.' I've been hugged and kissed and everything."
"You have to keep some of the old-fashioned things," said escort Michael Kushin, in tails, watching from a distance as his girlfriend, Hope Black, was presented. "I guess this is one of the best."
Gracefully, the young women stand with bouquets in white gloved hands along the perimeter of the dance floor. The room is hushed while a soloist sings "People." Halfway through, the sound of faint crying comes inexplicably from the dance floor. It is Kathy Lewis. Across the circle she has just seen her twin sister Karen faint. Quickly and quietly, several adults glide to comfort each of them. A man in tails offers Kathy his handkerchief, and Elaine Trivers explains that their guardian had died several weeks ago. By the time the soloist is finished and the debutantes begin the promenade, Kathy is composed, silently dabbing at her eyes, and Karen is revived. It happened so quietly that hardly anyone noticed.
"PRESENTING Miss Carol Teresa Willis. Carol is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William M. Willis. Carol is a senior at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg. Carol plans to become an accountant or a computer analyst."
Carol Willis, 17, walks across the stage to the greenery-and-pink-flower-adorned archway. She wears an off-the-shoulder dress with baby's breath in her hair. She will miss her favorite group, Hall and Oates, on "Saturday Night Live," but tonight she doesn't mind. She pauses and a milky white spotlight appears on her. The curtsy. ("I'm afraid I'm going to get out there and fall," she had said earlier.) Then the walk down the runway. William Willis, her father, a retired CIA officer who spent three years in Thailand, crosses the ballroom floor toward her. Carol Willis, 20 months old when her family took her to Thailand, spoke better Thai than English during those years. She can't remember a word of it now. Her father takes her hand and helps her down the steps from the runway.
Carol Willis' escort is John Peterson, a friend and the son of the minister at the Alfred Street Baptist Church, which her family attends. "I asked one or two others," she said, "but they said, 'No, I don't know how to do the dances.' I'd say, 'Well, it doesn't matter. We'll teach you.' But I guess they thought it would be too difficult." Just as well. Peterson, a senior at T.C. Williams in Alexandria who has been accepted to six colleges, was delighted to escort her. He is slender and handsome with high cheekbones. This is his second cotillion. He escorted someone last year.
"There are a lot of AKA girls at our church," said Willis at her parents' two-story dark-red brick house in Northeast Washington Saturday afternoon. She is soft-spoken, with a dazzling smile and a quiet intelligence. She is slender now, after losing 30 pounds several years ago. A picture of her plump, smiling eighth-grade face sits on a table, proof of the startling difference. "They would tell us, 'You're going to be a deb.' So it just got stuck in your head. You get a feeling that you're carrying on a tradition."
Willis is a senior at Seton, a Catholic high school. She is a Girl Scout, has traveled to Europe with her school, belongs to her church's Gospel Inquirers choir, belongs to the Spanish club, and will not wear this white gown again to her prom despite what her mother thinks.
"I like things that have to do with history, that have to do with tradition," Willis said. "I'm an old-fashioned girl," she said, turning to her mother, "aren't I?"
"I don't believe in lavish expenses," said Emma Willis, who estimates they have spent about $400 on the affair. "I believe in rewarding Carol. She's been a nice child. I suppose if she had gotten into trouble it would have cost me more."