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Yearning to belong

Membership limits mean St. Petersburg High students must compete for coveted spots in popular service clubs.

[Times photo: Pam Royal]
St. Petersburg High School students crowd around a list to find out whether they have been admitted to the Rojan Club. Some are troubled by the way service club members are chosen at the school.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Anxiously, the crush of St. Petersburg High School students gathered to peer at the list of names that had just been taped to the glass outside the gym late last week.

The cries of "Did you make it? Did you make it?" rose above the clamor of excited students, craning their necks or standing on outdoor furniture to get a better view of the eagerly awaited lists.

Would they be a Keyette, an Exchangette, or best of all, a Rojan? In short, had they been picked for a coveted place in one of the school's elite service clubs?

Some shrieked and hugged friends in celebration, effectively eclipsing disappointed peers. It was a bittersweet culmination to a ritual -- rejected by some, embraced by others -- that is unique among the city's public high schools.

The clubs do good work, helping with everything from blood drives to Special Olympics to canned food drives. Those who praise and those who pan the clubs agree on that fact.

What troubles some people is that not everybody is allowed to help. Decent grades aren't enough. Good discipline isn't enough. Previous volunteer work may not be enough.

Unlike other public high schools in the city, St. Petersburg High uses a system that limits club membership. Supporters say that is necessary because large numbers can be unwieldy. Critics say the policy is exclusionary.

Candidates for the clubs are selected on the number of points they earn. They can accumulate a maximum of seven points. For volunteer experience, they can earn a maximum of three points. They are given one point for being a minority. They also earn one if they have submitted a previous application. Another two points are possible with a majority vote from club members.

In other words, the current members exert great control over who gets in.

Meischa Jackson, who graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1997 and is a senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., remembers unsuccessfully applying for membership in one of the school's service clubs.

"I did it kind of half-heartedly . . . because it was the social gathering of the afternoon," she recalled.

"At the time, I definitely considered the service clubs to be the fraternity and sorority scene. . . . I was a sophomore. We sat around in the hallways all afternoon. I finally had my first interview at 5 that afternoon. Ridiculous. I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that going through the rush process wasn't worth it."

For many high school girls before and since, it certainly is.

Laurie Burket, Rojans president, touted her club's work.

"I think our service club does so much in the community. . . . It's like every month, at least one or two service projects that we do," she said. "We're very, very active, and that is very good for college."

A few weeks ago, the club ritual began with an information night, when each group -- Rojans, Keyettes, Civinettes and Exchangettes for girls and Interact, Key, Civitan and Exchange for boys -- took to the stage to promote itself. Afterward, prospective members were treated to food, sometimes in club colors. They also picked up applications.

Interviews by club members were held a week later. School rules require that each candidate attend two interviews. This year, the two most popular girls clubs, the Keyettes and the Rojans, held their interviews on two separate afternoons after school.

As several would explain with the earnestness of beauty contestants, they wanted to belong for the opportunity to serve, to make friends, to have fun.

Rojans members made sure they had plenty of snacks to see them through the lengthy process. They filled plastic cups with potato chips, stacked cupcakes and cookies on napkins and topped off cups with soda. Among the group of mostly slender, well-dressed girls, there were few minorities. There was a handful of Asian members but no blacks in the club as the new school year began.

As they prepared to begin interviewing the throngs of girls clogging the corridors outside, teacher Virginia White cautioned, "Please don't make anyone feel uncomfortable."

"Why take all the fun out of it?" joked someone in response.

The presence of principal Linda Benware, a Carol Brady look-alike, did not seem to make either club members or candidates uncomfortable.

Prospective club members, who were to be known only by the numbers they were issued and not their names, were ushered in three by three.

"How can the service club make a difference in our school and in our world?" was the question some were asked.

"Why do you want to be a Rojan?" was another.

Prepared for exactly such a question, one hopeful read a poem she had composed. She was cheered.

Asked to describe herself, another girl declared she was "dedicated and dependable." And, she added, "I like St. Pete High, and I'm a cheerleader."

Another said she was hard-working and, she added, her mother had been a Rojan.

There were several minority candidates.

Lindsey Schultz, 17, who is black, leaned against the podium and seemed amused by the process. Even so, when asked by a club member whether she had a rap song for the occasion, the International Baccalaureate student launched into rhyme.

Ending, she said, "As I bring this little rap song to conclusion, all I have to say is, pick me, okay?"

They did.

Lindsey would also appear before the Keyettes, who were arrayed in their signature black-and-white jerseys for the afternoon of interviews. This time, though, Lindsey and four other girls were given short shrift.

"I know that's short," said Keyettes president Melissa Karshner after the brief interview, "but I know they're all rushing Rojans."

Later, Melissa explained, "Since everyone has to go to two interviews, we did have some girls where Keyettes were not their first choice. If we are first, we do have a bias toward them."

Before the interviews, Melissa, a self-assured senior in the IB program, issued a warning to her club sisters about the candidates.

"If you guys know them, don't scream out their name or say, "What's up?' " she said.

Still, the Keyettes session was less formal than the one conducted by the Rojans. A boom box, placed just outside the classroom, blasted popular tunes. Pieces of cardboard blocked curious eyes from seeing the proceedings through a glass insert in the door. Club members also made their decision about each candidate as soon as the interview was completed. Some hopefuls drew big, fat zeros. Others made a better impression.

After one batch of hopefuls had departed, the girls made such comments as, "She's like such a good worker" and "She's really awesome."

A candidate who expressed concern for the environment got an exuberant vote of two raised hands from the Keyettes' president. Another, who described what the Keyettes' colors meant to her, was applauded.

"They're opposite colors, yet they come together and do great things," she said. "They are classic colors."

Another girl told the group, "I know a lot of people in here, and they are all really sweet."

A few days before, the Keyettes had crowded into the same classroom for a meeting. Like the Rojans, the group had only a few Asian members and no blacks as the school year began. The order of business that afternoon included a discussion of the upcoming interviews. Melissa mentioned that club officials had decided to increase the size of the club from 50 to 60. Last week, the club admitted 30 girls, bringing the number of Keyettes to 66.

Melissa has happy memories of the day she was chosen to join the Keyettes.

"I got out of class early because I was so anxious to know if I'd made it. . . . It's just an awesome feeling, and I was really excited."

Certainly it must be disappointing for those who are not selected, she said.

"I'm sure people are hurt, but I don't think people cry. It's not that big a deal. . . . It doesn't mean anything about them, but it's just there is a (numerical) limit," she said.

"If they're really wanting to serve the community, I don't think it should be our position to say they can't serve in a service club, but it's just like any group or team. You can't take everyone."

According to Melissa, the yearning to belong to one of the high school's service clubs is less strong for boys.

"It's more of a big deal to the girls," she said.

Ray Parzik, assistant principal in charge of activities, wishes all qualified students could be in the clubs.

"I hate to see any limitation on the numbers," he said. "However, according to the sponsors and some of the youngsters, that's because large numbers are difficult to manage."

Parzik recalled a time in the 1980s, when four "wonderful kids" did not get into the club of their choice.

He encouraged them to apply to Rojans, which had few members at the time.

"Now, that is the most popular club," Parzik said. "That is the club."

To Darcy Hall, who graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1997, the popularity of the club was of little consequence.

"I did not rush. . . . I understand the value of service and I understand the value of philanthropy, but I do not understand the value of exclusion," said Ms. Hall, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and an account assistant with a communications firm, Hager Sharp.

"Most of the reasons that people gave for wanting to join a service club were brotherhood and sisterhood or philanthropy, but I know there are other ways you can have those without the exclusion."

Last week, best friends Lara Pullan and Meredith Currey, both 16, waited to learn whether they had been accepted into Rojans.

"They do a lot more volunteer hours than any other club," Lara said of her choice. "A lot of my friends are in there already."

Days before the posting, which brought neither girl her wish, Meredith was philosophical about her chances.

"It'll be okay," she said. "I'll survive. There's always next year."

Dominique Spearman, a 10th-grader, also wanted to be a member of the popular Rojans club. Thursday she was happy to have been chosen by the Exchangettes.

Mrs. Benware, the school's principal, emphasizes that a 2.0 grade point average and a good disciplinary record play a part in determining a candidate's selection.

"We think that the process is a fair process," said Mrs. Benware, defending the system in which applications have numbers rather than names and are kept safe under lock and key.

In a few weeks some clubs will welcome successful candidates with initiation ceremonies.

"We do a lighting of candles, and you get a corsage and we also get an iron key," said Melissa. "It's just nice. I still have mine and still have my corsage that I got. It's kind of a nice keepsake, I guess." Custom requires that older Keyettes pick a "little sister" from among the club's new members.

"It's called tapping them in," Melissa explained.

Little sisters are showered with gifts that are supposed to fit into a milk carton.

"But," said the Keyettes president, "people usually do a laundry basket-size or any sort of bucket, and we fill it with black and white stuff, lots of food, and we make a big "K,' and we tie a string around it, like a really, really big necklace. And they carry their baskets around all day."

In return, the little sisters also give their big sisters gifts. Members of the Key club also give Keyettes gifts.

This traditional reciprocity can get a little expensive, said Aixa Ruch, an IB teacher and longtime sponsor of Rojans.

"Two years ago, the former principal set a standard as to the size of the basket," Mrs. Ruch said.

But it is just another ritual that annoys detractors of the school's service club traditions.

"I thought a lot a people spent a lot of money and lost a lot of time waiting in line to be asked questions like, "If you were a fruit, what kind of fruit would you be,' " said Ms. Hall, the 1997 graduate. "And on that, people would decide if they could be a member of their club or not." "Also, the division of the sexes, having Keyettes and Key men, I thought was 100 years outdated. I actually started high school at Clearwater High, where I was an active member of Key Club. I transferred to St. Pete High halfway through freshman year for IB, and when I mentioned I was interested in joining the Key Club, someone mentioned I could be a Keyette and I said, "Excuse me?' I thought, "No thank you.' "

But the school's customs have a staunch defender in Jake Weixler, president of the Key Club.

"I think that the selectiveness, the fact that at St. Pete High that we have segregated clubs and that they operate in a selective nature, it makes it more exciting to do service," Jake said.

"We just have a lot of traditions that we like to uphold."

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