By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
"Seeeeeeniors!" The cheers ricocheted through Fort Thomas Monday morning as dozens of teenage girls barreled down the avenue in cars decorated for the first day of school.
At Highlands High, tradition dictates that the senior girls raise a ruckus to announce their arrival on campus. But this year, there was a twist to the usual celebration: More girls than ever took part, because the informal leaders of the class made up their minds to include everybody.
Thin girls and plump ones, tomboys and fashion plates, bubbly cheerleaders and shy teachers' pets - all were invited to an early-morning breakfast at the home of classmate Brittany Robinson. About 65 young people showed up, almost two-thirds of the girls in the Class of 2004. By arrangement, they wore green shorts that tested the limits of the dress code and T-shirts that demanded, "Kiss me, I'm a senior!"
Their camaraderie stands out against a torrent of bad news about girls.
The new movie Thirteen, based on a true story, portrays a fresh-scrubbed adolescent descending into self-mutilation and drug abuse under the influence of a female peer. Senior girls at a Chicago high school were suspended this year for punching juniors and dousing them with excrement. So-called "Alpha girls," who researchers say control their cliques with strict, punishing rules, can be the meanest bullies of the age.
Like any school, Highlands still has cliques. Girls can still be heard cutting other girls down. But from their new vantage point as the wise elders of the school, the seniors can see how far they have come. Fitting in and looking good used to be so important.
Now, in their 12th and last year of public school, they have a little perspective. If not free of exclusive groups, they can at least vanquish them temporarily.
"I just don't like leaving people out. I wouldn't want to be in those shoes," says Ashley Twehues, a senior who helped plan the first day.
The matching T-shirts, she says, send a message to underclassmen "that we get along and not to worry about anything else - popularity, what sports you play, who you know."
Pressures of popularity
These young women well understand how painful such pressures can be. As freshmen at Highlands, in a sheltered suburb known among insiders as the "Hyde Park of Northern Kentucky," they experienced their share of angst.
Some thought certain classmates hated them. Some insisted on re-curling their hair after every gym class. Some especially dreaded the lunchroom, where sitting at the "wrong" table - i.e., one already claimed by a clique - was fraught with the potential for cold stares.
Three years ago, "We had these cliques where it was six girls who wouldn't talk to anyone else," senior Raven Fausz says.
The good news is that things change.
For this year's graduating class, the loosening of the social order began last spring with junior prom. Instead of electing the usual football player and cheerleader as king and queen, the students chose two underdogs: Bud Stross and Jamie Schultz, who are best known for their habit of "talking to everyone."
At the end of last school year, a handful of soon-to-be-seniors dealt another blow to the hierarchy. Two cheerleaders, Kaitlin Grosser and Maggie Fennell, invited every girl in the class of 2004 to their houses for a giant sleepover. Agenda: Dress in camouflage, drive around Fort Thomas and "decorate" boys' cars.
Tricks without cliques
This was a radical proposition. Surely the shyest girls wouldn't show, some people said.
But Kaitlin was determined. A slender, composed young woman who will be editor of the school newspaper this year, she made a point to personally invite several classmates who rarely attend parties.
"We didn't want it to be like, 'Well ... I guess you can come,'" Kaitlin said. "It was, 'We want you to come.' "
And come they did. Almost the entire class of girls.
"I was really shocked," senior Lindsey Patrick said. "There were no cliques that whole night. Everybody talked to everybody."
To prepare for their mission that night, the girls went Rambo, wrapping bandannas around their heads and smearing black paint on their faces.
Somebody had a list of all the senior boys' cars. They divvied up their targets. Then came a moment of truth: Would popularity determine which girls rode with whom?
Not if the leaders could help it.
"Girls that came by themselves, we were like, 'Come with us!' " Kaitlin recalled. "And they were like, 'OK!' "
That's when the fun started. Teams swooped in on boys' vehicles, draping toilet paper, spraying shaving cream and planting lipstick kisses on the windows.
Somebody's little brother chased them with a water pistol. A senior boy yelled, "Who is that?" from his window, sending the culprits running in all directions.
"It was so much fun," Lindsey said.
The good will spilled over into the summer. Working from names on the senior class list, a handful of girls managed to figure out where each of their female classmates lived.
Then the group - Kaitlin, Ashley, Jamie Schultz, Jamie Warren, Jennifer Ball and Kristin Stratton - hand-delivered to every house the order forms for the "Kiss me" T-shirts. Seventy were purchased from Miller Imprints of Newport.
On the first day of school Monday, a stream of decorated cars wove through town, with girls honking and yelling. Before classes began, they plopped on the steps leading up to the first floor of Highlands - a perch traditionally claimed by seniors.
"I'm a first-timer," Leann Caudill joked as she settled onto the cracked and scarred stairs. "It's pretty exciting, because (the stairs) are so nice," she said wryly.
A few boys wandered by, looking a bit overwhelmed by the show of female solidarity. The girls had offered to have T-shirts made for their male counterparts, but the guys declined, saying no one would buy them.
For the girls, Monday was a promising start to their last year.
"Half these people you won't ever see again," Kaitlin said. "You want to look back and say, 'Remember when we did this?' "
And the girls of 2004 will answer: Yes, we remember. Almost all of us.
Highlands High School
Public district: Students in grades 9-12
Address: 2400 Memorial Parkway, Fort Thomas
Academics: Average ACT score: 23.3 out of 36 possible points. Average for Kentucky schools: 20.2; average for Ohio schools: 21.4
After graduation: Seniors who go to college in-state: 66 percent. Out-of-state: 20 percent.
Myth told to freshmen: The high school has a fourth floor, and there is a swimming pool on it.
Join this series
For 20,000 teenagers in Greater Cincinnati, this is it: the 12th year. Last shot at landing a date for prom. Last chance to live with your parents and still be considered cool. First taste of adulthood.
In a series of articles over the next year, the Enquirer will ride the senior roller coaster with students from schools around the region. We'll follow seniors as they plan post-graduation adventures and apply to college. Get in or get rejected. Carry out the perfect prank, ponder whether to break up with longtime loves, say goodbye to Mom and Dad.
It's all part of the drama of the 12th year.
Confused about what to do after high school? Struggling to write the perfect college-application essay? Facing other issues in your senior year? To participate in our yearlong series called "The 12th Year," contact education reporter Karen Gutierrez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 578-5584.
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