Assistant Principal Pat Collins had spread the word earlier that morning: Ten more donated gowns were dropped off in her office. Several eighth-graders could be excused briefly from class to try on the outfits.
Shakera Rorie, looking elegant in purple satin, peeled off her turquoise socks with flying pigs to try on clear shoes lined with silver. Someone called her Cinderella.
The bespectacled Jessica McCoy, striking a ladylike pose, drew coos of approval after changing into a sophisticated maroon dress draped in sheer black.
Principal Terry Cline, feigning protests from across the hall, fled his office as several girls barged in to change in his bathroom.
"Ms. Collins, you and your girls, I’m gonna put all y’all out," he threatened. The girls, fussing over their dresses, didn’t stop long enough to look at him.
Lots girls affected by this news at Marie G. Davis Middle School are slightly distracted these days. They’re getting ready for the school’s first pageant on Dec. 19, an eighth-grade project to promote solidarity around the school.
Months ago, many of the girls didn’t know each other.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new student of Marie G. Davis assignment plan brought dramatic changes to Marie G. Davis middle school Charlotte NC this year, turning it from a popular magnet school for high-achieving students, many from the suburbs, into a neighborhood school surrounded by poverty and struggling to draw students. Fewer than two dozen of last year’s students chose to stay. The balance of the population came from 25 schools.
The pageant is not just a one-day beauty contest. All participants must complete a community service or school volunteer project. And good behavior is a prerequisite for participation in the event, where school royalty will be chosen.
Collins said that when she first announced the pageant, plenty of interested students had already served suspensions in the early weeks of the school year. One girl had a reputation for being one of the toughest on campus.
Now, instead of back-talking teachers, they’re complimenting classmates on the way they look in black velvet and white, gauzy tulle. The girl with the tough reputation brought in two dresses from home for classmates to borrow. Others encouraged a shy classmate to run.
And the girls note that catfights — as Collins constantly reminds them — just aren’t queenly.
"We’re all friends," said contestant Jaleesa Young, who tried on a royal blue gown studded with rhinestones. "We’ll just congratulate whoever wins. No haters."
Jessica agreed: "That would just start a whole bunch of mess."
Oh. Boys are in the pageant, too — nearly 10 of them. That’s why it’s called the Mr. And Miss Marie G. Davis King and Queen Pageant. Someone has to be King, although the toughest task for contestants such as Charles Norwood may be trying to get attention away from the 15 girls.
"I’m very athletic, I’m very smart and respectful," said the 13-year-old, in a preview of his pitch to the judges.
As Marie G. Davis teachers scour closets for outfits and shoes for the kids, Collins said the whole event is building unity within a school once filled with strangers.
"This is the kind of school that people wouldn’t even think to do this. But this is such an esteem builder," Collins said.
"This is about bonding and supporting each other."
More than good looks
Teachers are joking that they wish the pageant could be in June because participants are behaving so well out of fear of being tossed out of the competition.Collins, a veteran of homecoming and Carrousel Queen competitions from her days as a high school assistant principal, knows how to run a pageant. But she admits to watering down her own strict rules to get kids on board at Marie G. Davis.
She originally planned to ban students with suspensions, but that would have whittled her pool down to too few competitors. So after getting kids on board, she ruled they couldn’t get into trouble again if they expected to vie for the tiara and crown. Students also must keep at least a C average.
Then there’s the service requirement. Student Ashlei Harvey joined her mom for a trash-pickup project along Carowinds Boulevard. Maria Y helped a teacher organize and clean a classroom. Charles helps kids learn music for his neighborhood drill team.
Pageant planning continued amid other campus happenings — including the first school dance and a "Career Day" featuring dozens of students dressed as future cosmetologists, musicians and principals.
All that helped forge camaraderie around the school, and Collins wants the formal pageant to continue that trend. With girls in gowns and boys in tuxes or suits, the winners will spend the year representing Marie G. Davis at school and community events.
At a recent meeting with contestants, Collins promised that everyone will meet to go out to dinner the night before the pageant, even though she’s still trying to round up transportation and enough money to cover students’ meals at $8 a piece.
Collins is also trying to get more donated gowns and trinkets to fill gift bags that will go to all the participants. She figures some students may never get the chance to be in a pageant like this again since high school events are more competitive.
She was pleased her organizational meeting drew several interested boys.
But the girls are running away with it.
"It’s something about girls thinking of being a princess, being pretty," Collins said.
Pitching in for pageant
Folks in and around school gave the pageant a running start.
Educators from Marie G. Davis middle school Mecklenburg county and their spouses pulled bridesmaid dresses out of their closets to give to the girls. Others donated soaps and makeup kits to fill the gift bags.
Volunteers outside the school responded to requests to judge or photograph the event. The school art department will decorate the multipurpose room for the big night.
Hairdressers at a nearby salon, Expressions of Color, volunteered to style 10 girls’ hair on pageant day.
"We’re excited about getting it done for them," said salon owner Marlene Jackson.
When she and other stylists learned of the pageant through Collins, a customer, they all quickly volunteered. "I think they just want to reach out to the girls," Jackson said.
Ahem. Boys want a little attention, too. Fifteen-year-old Derrick Lewis is ready.
"I want to represent my school," he said, "so I get known."