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From annual ritual, perspective

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007


Stand up straight. Smile. Walk this way. Stop here.

For more than an hour, Tracey Keim offered gentle instructions to the 10 boys and 10 girls selected for this year's homecoming court at St. Petersburg High School.

Keim wanted everything to be perfect Friday night when more than 3,000 spectators were expected to fill the stands. But as a cool fall breeze blew across Stewart Field last week, her mind drifted back 21 years to another St. Petersburg High homecoming, another lifetime.

October 1986. A 17-year-old in a peach chiffon dress and elbow-length white gloves sits in the bleachers breathing the scent of cigarette smoke and sweet perfume. Her heart pounds, and her mouth goes dry. She searches the crowd for her mom and tries not to be nervous.

She follows the game for a while, but her mind begins to wander. She's thinking about halftime, when the queen will be announced. She's thinking about the homecoming dance, and about what it will be like at school Monday. Soon, she's dreaming about graduation, and college, and the rest of her life.

* * *

"The whole week was so exciting," said Keim, now a 38-year-old English teacher at her alma mater. "It was fall. Our football team was winning. We were seniors, and we thought we were on top of the world."

A lot has changed at St. Pete High since then, she said, such as the addition of boys to the court and the crowning of a homecoming king. But so much remains the same at the school, where tradition reigns supreme: green-and-white day, field activities night, the tug of war between teachers and students.

And just like in 1986, the sentiment that winning the crown will be a life-changing event.

"The kids don't realize that it has no bearing on real life," Keim said. "They don't realize that there's no raise for being queen, no promotion for being king."

Still, "it's a great moment in their lives, before college, before adulthood, before loves are won and lost." It's a time Keim hopes they will cherish. But she knows their minds already are rushing ahead.

"There's such an urgency to get out of school," she said. "They're so busy thinking about getting on with their lives. They don't realize that they'll miss so many things once they've become adults."

* * *

At halftime, the girl in the peach dress rises along with the other girls on the court and walks slowly to the 50-yard line, her stiletto heels sinking into the soft earth. She holds her breath and strains to hear the announcer's voice over the roar of the crowd. She feels as though she's inside a vacuum.

Ten seconds later, the suspense is over. St. Petersburg High has a new queen. It's not Keim. But she doesn't really care. She's thrilled just to be a member of the court.

Minutes later, she's riding around the football field in a convertible, feeling like a celebrity. A soft breeze toys with her hair and flirts with the ruffle of her dress. She searches once again for her mom. This moment, she thinks, will be the best moment of my life.

* * *

Keim graduated at the end of that heady year and went off to Troy University in Alabama. She worked for the state park system, then came home to St. Petersburg and opened a restaurant with her mom. Three years ago, she decided she wanted to be a teacher.

She jumped at the chance earlier this year to oversee St. Petersburg High School's homecoming festivities. She hadn't counted on the memories it would rekindle.

"It's made me reflect on my life and how quickly it's going by," she said. "How I've come full circle."

Keim, who will turn 39 in two weeks, realized she's close to the age her mother was back in 1986. Her mother is the age her grandmother was.

"Life flies by," she said. "You have to stop and take a breath. Before you know it, the moment will be over."

Which is the message she tried to convey to the Class of 2008. Did they listen?

"They think they're 10 feet tall and bulletproof," Keim said. "They'll forget we ever talked about this."

Until someday in the future, she said, when if they're lucky, they'll have a deja vu moment of their own.

[Last modified November 5, 2007, 08:02:51]

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