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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
James Near, 17, right, whoops it up with his friends on the dance floor during the Bloomingdale High School prom, held April 28 at Raymond James Stadium. Near, somewhat of a class clown and attending the prom stag, kept his group of friends laughing with unending stunts, pranks and jokes.
[Times photo - Daniel Wallace]
"My favorite color has been orange for as long as I can remember," Mike Mellon, 18, said of the tuxedo he wore to his Bloomingdale High School prom. He met up with 16 others to go to the dance as a group.
In January, Lauren West scheduled her hair appointment for the Bloomingdale High School prom. In February, she arranged to have her makeup done by her favorite Clinique stylist.
She already had purchased three dresses from Dillard's when her date fell through. Once upon a time, a girl might have stayed home and cried. Lauren felt liberated.
She returned all of the red dresses, a color he wanted to wear, and special-ordered a blue gown. There was no way something as fickle as a boy would ruin the prom night she was planning with her friends.
All 16 of them.
Dinner would be a group activity, followed by a ride in a Ford Excursion stretch limo, the dance, and an after-party at a friend's house.
"It doesn't matter who your date is, " says Lauren, 18, deciding she would have more fun at her senior prom without one. "We're all going to dance together anyway."
Forget the old-school angst about scoring a date for a formal dance. It's no longer required for entry.
These days, no one even blinks when groups of teens - some as large as 30-plus - arrive on party buses. They walk in as groups, dance as groups and leave as groups. Students say it's more comfortable, even for those with actual dates.
And it's, like, a lot more fun.
* * *
In countless teen movies, prom and its fall counterpart, homecoming, are rites of passage. Think Pretty in Pink and American Pie.
The formal ball debuted in the late 19th century as dances for the college set. Even today, many of its rituals remain timeless. There's the Dress, the Tux, the Corsage, the Boutonniere and the After-Party.
But no longer these questions: Will he ask? Will she say yes?
"This is what one kid told me: Going to a dance with a date is like taking a sandwich to a banquet, " says Susan Gray, 48, a student counselor at Tampa's Plant High School. "There is all this food there laid out for you, and you've got your peanut butter sandwich."
Many students say they want to be free to dance with others who feel the same way, not tied to a single partner for the night.
"Not to put down the guys, but I think the date in a way has become an accessory, " says Susan Schulz, 35, editor-in-chief of CosmoGIRL! magazine. While dates still are common, many girls see them as "nice, but not necessary."
At Bloomingdale, Mike Mellon's mother is glad his prom date fell through. She might not have gotten to spray-paint his dress shoes orange.
They had to match his tux.
"Being different is what it's all about. Be your own person, " says Andria Mellon, 46, her voice full of pride. "Needless to say, Michael is going stag."
She gets teary when the 6-foot-1, 210-pound soccer player emerges from his Brandon bedroom in tangerine duds. He models the outfit, a rental found online, complete with a peach top-hat.
"What are you crying for?" Mike asks.
"Because it's your prom, " Mom says, adjusting the jacket. "Did you fix your pads here? It's your prom, and you have to look perfect."
Since he was a boy, Mike, 18, has talked about wearing an orange tux to prom. He cemented the plan when he saw one in Jim Carrey's Dumb and Dumber.
A date might have exercised veto power. Mike was supposed to go to the prom with Liz Hamm, as a couple in the Bloomingdale group. Then Liz got back with her ex-boyfriend.
Mike decided to do his own thing, joined by others caught up in various date dramas.
It went like this: Lauren West planned to go with Eric Rothstein as friends, but two weeks after she asked him, Eric started dating Breanne Branting, who was planning to go to the prom with a friend, James Near.
"It's complicated, " Breanne says, trying to help connect the dots. "It's high school."
In the end, Lauren's and Eric's date was off. So was Breanne's and James'. The group ended up with three singles and seven couples, though few are dating seriously. They mostly hang out with their friends in groups.
"It wouldn't have worked out anyway, " Mike says of a date with Liz. "I'm orange. She's purple."
* * *
For the Bloomingdale friends, the group size was key. They went up to 24, then dropped to 20, before finally settling at 17.
"We're all friends, for the most part, " Kalie Weiss, 17, a senior, says as a nail stylist perfected her French tips the day before the April 28 prom.
"Nobody hates one another, " says Lauren, whose nail appointment is later in the afternoon. "That's the big thing."
Prom night begins with a fashion show for the parental paparazzi.
The girls line up for group photos, including a sexy Charlie's Angels pose in their formal gowns. The boys prefer hands-on-butt poses and goofball jokes.
Everyone meets up at Kalie's house for more pictures, followed by a catered dinner. It was easier and cheaper to order in from Olive Garden than to make a dinner reservation for 17.
Kalie's dad keeps the virgin pina coladas flowing. He pours sparkling grape juice from a bottle wrapped in cloth napkin.
Kalie's date is Ryan Harned, a 17-year-old junior. They've been dating about a month. As conversations bounce around the table, they trade little kisses. Her father watches a cheek nuzzle.
"Oh, you lovebirds, " sighs Tony Weiss, 51.
Another round of photos follows dinner, as does a short burst of tears. The limo driver is lost, despite Lauren's careful directions.
Finally, the stretch SUV pulls up. A much calmer Lauren pops in a CD.
Music pounding, the driver executes a turn around the cul-de-sac and heads for the VIP club area at Raymond James Stadium.
The prom is waiting.
* * *
Exit limo, show ticket at the door, find the escalator, see the silver and black balloons and, ooh, there's the dance floor.
Girls shed their high heels. Boys slip into dancing position, which apparently means pressing as close to the girls as possible.
A note to parents: Even good kids grind. Two's, three's, you name the configuration. It's what your children see on MTV.
The teens' outfits are the evening's real decorations - a rainbow of silky dresses, tasty as lollipops, and suave black and white tuxes.
Mike Mellon-in-the-orange-tux enjoys instant celebrity. Friends signal their appreciation with handshakes and grins.
Lauren bounces - dancing one song with the group she came with, the next with another set of friends.
Kalie calls Ryan over for a photo on the Buccaneers pirate ship: "Baby, I need you." She dances with other guys, too, which doesn't stop Ryan from leaning in for a kiss during a slow song.
At the edges of the dance floor, it's quiet enough to attempt conversation. The buzz is about who's going to be crowned prom king and queen.
Oh, wait, it's a Shakira song! Girls grab the boys by the wrists and rush onto the dance floor.
"Bloomingdale, get ready to sweat, " the DJ booms. "No more slow songs for 45 minutes."
* * *
By the after-party at Breanne's, everyone is exhausted. Lauren goes home to sleep. Kalie dozes off around 4 a.m. Mike stays up all night playing a video game with one of the guys.
The group consensus: Prom was a blast.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400.
Picture- perfect prom?
Did you have fun, too? E-mail your prom photographs to photos@tampabay com.