All eyes were on math teacher Dominique Cooper as she clumped in her high heels across the front of a classroom at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring.
"When you walk in heels, ladies, you do not want to look like an elephant. That's not appropriate," she said to the snickers of the 13 girls and five boys seated in front of her. "Think about lines on the floor. Technically, you're not supposed to look at your feet, but I don't want you falling over."
Welcome to Ms. Cooper's Beauty Clinic, an after-school session held last Thursday to address the beauty questions of eighth-graders who were just 24 hours away from donning semiformal wear for a class dinner cruise on the Potomac River.
The cruise was a special event to mark the end of middle school for Eastern's eighth-graders, who will officially become high school students during a ceremony Wednesday. The county school system doesn't require middle schools to hold promotion ceremonies, so they use their own discretion concerning events to recognize rising ninth-graders, according to county school officials.
At Eastern, Cooper said that she and Robert Barnes, the school's director of after-school programs, decided to offer the clinic to help the students prepare for what essentially was a middle school prom.
The students, Cooper said, naturally are interested in looking good and often will ask her during class for advice on their outfits or grooming. In fact, she is considering offering clinics on grooming and etiquette topics, possibly once a month, in the next school year.
"It's not that they won't do it, but that they don't always know what to do," she said.
Although the clinic was organized for eighth-grade girls, it was expanded to all female students and then to boys when several expressed an interest, Cooper said.
As the students sat at desks jotting notes, most were clearly interested in the etiquette lessons and grooming tips that Cooper offered. When volunteers were needed, Branda Nguyen, 12, eagerly stepped to the front of the room to demonstrate how to walk in heels, which she had worn to school. Finding a willing escort took a moment longer.
"I need a gentleman," Cooper said. A sixth-grader in an oversize black T-shirt made his way through the rows of desks.
"You have to touch her. Can you handle that? Okay, sit down," Cooper said as the boy shrank back.
Jesse Turcios, 13, was more willing to cooperate. The tall eighth-grader easily took Branda's arm as they paraded across the room.
Descending stairs properly while dressed up was the next challenge, as Cooper led the group to a nearby staircase. The students crowded near the top of the stairs, craning to see her.
"When you're going down steps, it's a different story," Cooper said as Jesse took her arm and she turned her body slightly sideways while descending. "Why am I turning? So the people down there can't see up my dress."
"Oh!" said the girls.
Each girl took a turn descending and ascending on the arm of an escort, one step at a time, turning their knees primly to the side.
"Elegant. That's the operative word. Elegance, ladies," said Cooper. "The slower the better, the longer they see your beauty."
As she watched the other girls practice, eighth-grader Blanca Guevara, 13, said she'd signed up for the class because she wanted to be prepared for the dinner cruise.
"Like learning how to match what I was wearing and how to walk in heels," she said. Her outfit was waiting at home: a long light-blue dress with straps and rhinestones.
As the group headed back into the classroom, Cooper stopped them in the hallway in front of a row of lockers to practice posing for pictures. While Branda posed with her feet pointed as Cooper instructed, she explained that she'd come to the session because her mother had wanted her to learn how to walk properly while wearing high heels.
But the sixth-grader had not expected boys to attend.
"I'm a little nervous," she said.
Back in the classroom, Cooper demonstrated how a gentleman should pull out a chair for a lady. One boy grew impatient while waiting for a girl to sit.
"Hurry up!" he muttered.
"Uh uh, let's try again," Cooper admonished as everyone giggled.
Lessons on makeup application followed, including Cooper's advice to use ilightly.
"The purpose of makeup is to accentuate what you have, not cover up what you have," she said.
A quick run-through about giving a home manicure was the last lesson of the hour-long session. Cooper, a licensed manicurist, handed out plastic bags with cotton balls for removing polish, and a nail file and buffer inside.
This was the part that Jesse and the other boys had been waiting for. They were eager to learn how to care for their nails. Jesse, who sported cleanly filed and buffed nails coated with a clear polish, was ahead of the game.
"I already got them done yesterday," he said, displaying his hands.
Suddenly, it was time to go home. The girls clamored around Cooper, peppering her with questions about the proper nail color to match their dresses. Blanca, who wanted to borrow a bottle of light blue polish that matched her dress, was gently advised to try a more neutral color.
While the other girls left with samples of hand lotion or shampoo, Blanca received a more valuable prize: a promise that Cooper would do her nails before the cruise.