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A Ceremony Where Boys Step Up As Gentlemen

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by Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post

Resplendent in a tuxedo, silver tie, vest and polished-to-perfection black shoes, Keith Jones took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold into the ornate ballroom. The crowd of about 200 family members, friends, teachers and school administrators stopped talking and focused all attention on him.

At his side, his mother, Beverly, beamed proudly. They glided forward, arm in arm — Keith, 14, clutching a long-stem white rose, which he presented to his mother under a giant arch of shimmery black and silver balloons.

“I’d like to introduce our next gentleman, Keith Jones,” said co-announcer Christopher Roorda, a school administrator. “Keith is a member of the Kettering Baptist Church, the National Junior Honor Society, a participant in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. . . . He looks forward to attending North Carolina A&T University on full scholarship and majoring in architectural engineering.”

Then came Kendrick King, 13, who wants to be a police officer, and Desmond Lewis, 14, “who aspires to have a basketball career, but if that doesn’t work out, he plans to become an engineer,” Roorda told the crowd.

And so it went last Thursday at Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt, where the 32 members of the Ernest Everett Just Middle School Gentlemen’s Association were feted at the school’s beautillion. It’s an annual “coming out” celebration, the equivalent of the time-honored cotillion for black boys that was once sponsored by social clubs. At Just Middle, the Gentleman’s Association is made up of boys from all backgrounds, and the beautillion is their introduction to society and public recognition for outstanding academic achievement, citizenship, leadership and community service.

Prince George’s County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and his wife, Donna, were among the county leaders who attended the event, “Young Men of Strength, Wisdom & Integrity.”

The event included a formal dinner, presentations by several of the honorees, a stirring rendition of Elvis Presley‘s “If I Can Dream” by art teacher Jacqueline Gaskins and a keynote address by author Michael Miller.

Other musical performances included a solo by Aarif Bradley, 13, an eighth-grader and aspiring preacher, and a vocal tribute to Roorda and other sponsors. The two highlights of the evening were a mother-son waltz and a pinning ceremony with the fathers.

The beautillion at Just Middle started several years ago at the behest of then-Principal Marian White-Hood, who also started the tradition at Kettering Middle School. The beautillion was created to provide boys with the opportunity girls in the Rose Court had been given with their cotillion. The first year the event was in the school cafeteria; the next it moved to Martin’s.

“The purpose of the Gentlemen’s Association beautillion is to give the young men a major event to prepare for each year, then to carry it out,” White-Hood said. “They are in charge of the program. They emcee, introduce the guests. Adults very much play a secondary role. It is the young men’s night. They are the stars.”

Roorda, who worked with White-Hood at Kettering, said the Just beautillion culminated a year of activities for the students, including two trips to the Self Help and Resource Exchange (SHARE) warehouse in Hyattsville, where they helped prepare food boxes for people in need, a trip to a Washington Wizards game, a leadership workshop and a “lock-in,” where the young men and some of their fathers and male teachers spent the night at school playing basketball and video games and getting to know each other.

Preparations for the beautillion began months ago, organizers said. The students had a candy fundraiser to help reduce the $55 per ticket cost of the event. They sold ads in the color souvenir program, and part of that money was used to pay for gift bags for the young men, Roorda said.

A Rose Court father, Ellis Covington, conducted an etiquette workshop for the young men with two midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. A mother, April Haynes, who works for a catering company, conducted a lesson on table manners.

Eighth-grade member Matthew McIntosh, 14, said the Gentlemen’s Association was a “brotherhood where I was blessed to be able to nurture the seventh-graders through the program and show them the ropes.”

At the beautillion, he was accompanied by his parents, Shirlene and Johnnie McIntosh, and many relatives and friends. The etiquette training came in handy, he said.

“I felt like a basketball player at the championship game who has the job of making the ending shot,” said Matthew, a Just basketball player. “I feel we all made the shot because we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

Phyllis Gerald, whose son Caleb was co-emcee of the event with Derwayne Andre Henry, both 13 and in the eighth grade, complimented the youths on their behavior.

“The way they carried themselves was awesome,” Gerald said. “They were so excited about what they were doing.”

Caleb said the best part of the evening was shared with their parents.

“The whole thing was fun, but I really liked the waltz,” he said. “It was really nice being out there on the dance floor with our moms.”

After all the roast beef, baked chicken and chocolate cake had been eaten, all the speeches made and all the congratulations given, it was time for the eighth-graders to turn the organization over to the seventh-grade members with a candle-lighting ceremony.

Each eighth-grader was given a lighted candle. The older boys lit the younger members’ candles. When the candles were extinguished, the seventh-graders were officially in charge.

“I think they will do a good job,” Caleb said. “I know a few of them, and they are already pretty good leaders. We’ll be in high school, but we can always come back to help if they need us.”

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