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I scrunched into the shade cast by Jackie Herold’s brown boat of a car—her stepfather’s Chevrolet Impala—and let New Smyrna Beach’s sugar-fine sand sieve through my fingers. We’d driven down the Flagler Street ramp onto the beach and parked near The Islander Beach Resort like we did most weekends.

Jackie smeared another layer of Coppertone on her fair skin and looked up at me. “Enough about my dress. We need to find you a date for prom.”

Lynann Peterson

Lynann Peterson lifted her head from her towel. “Hello, what about me?”

Jackie waved her off. “You’re a sophomore. It’s the junior-senior prom.”

With that, Jackie and Lynann headed to the hot dog stand for sodas and to troll for my prom date.

I stayed put. Carbonation gave me a stomach ache. I could probably say the same about the beach. Living on a sailboat had burned me out on sun bathing and sharks a long time ago. The social perks, however, pushed me to my feet, hazarding an addition to the freckle collection on my nose.

Rich Varano

I jogged over to where Jackie and Lynann waited for their drinks at the window, sidling into the shade cast by the trailer. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to see who’s at the beach.”

Fifty yards down the shore we stopped to admire classmate Rich Varano’s intricately sculpted sand castle, complete with shell-work turrets and a red and white flag cut from a Coke cup. None of us, including Rich, would have guessed he’d wrest an international career out of sand sculpting.

After we walked away, Jackie grabbed my arm. “He is the nicest boy. You should go to the dance with him.”

Mike Nelson

“I’m not asking a guy to prom!”

Lynann sucked in a breath and Jackie and I jerked our heads toward the soft sand where a bunch of guys played touch football.

I recognized Mike Nelson, the hottest boy in our class, and Jeff Smith, the coolest one, darting zig-zags across the sand with familiar faces from the football team.

Those were the guys my stepfather recommended I sleep with. I sped double-time past them as if they could read my mind.

Jeff Smith

Jackie and Lynann scrambled to keep up.

Lynann said, “Slow down already. It’s not like they even notice we’re alive.”

Too true.

We spotted Glenn Gracom and Jeff Boetener in the surf in front of the Breakers, the bar-hamburger joint where Jackie’s mother used to waitress. A Frisbee sailed back and forth between them.

Jeff caught the disc. “Hey, you girls going to prom?” he said, as though he’d been eavesdropping on our conversation.

Glenn Gracom

I burrowed my toes into the sand. “Jackie is. What about you?”

“I’m taking Holly Shaeffer.” Jeff eyed me speculatively.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just had an idea.”

Jackie squinted at Glenn, “So, are you going?”

“Doubt it.”

Holly Shaeffer

Jackie grinned at him. “Aw, come on, you should go. It’ll be fun. I’ll dance one dance with you.”

Glenn chuckled. “That’s the problem. I don’t know how to dance.”

On our way back to her car, Jackie glanced over her shoulder at the boys.

I elbowed her. “You should break your date with what’s-his-face and go with Glenn.”

Jackie laughed. “Yeah right. Glenn would never go out with me.”

Sue Rotundo

I shook my head. Growing up in the projects had done a number on Jackie’s self-esteem. She was smart, beautiful, and had enough backbone for the both of us. I felt happy whenever I was around her. I bet Glenn would have dared dancing if he thought he could rescue Jackie from a date set up by her mother and her sister.

The next day between classes, Sue Rotundo, editor of the Barracuda Newspaper, stopped me. “Are you going to prom?”

I looked at my green Converses. Would my datelessness show up in the school paper?

Kids jostled around us.

Kyle Avery

Lying to the editor—and a senior—had to be a venial sin.

I lifted my chin. “I’m not going.” I tried to make it sound like tons of boys had asked me, but I chose not go on principle.

“Would you go with John Scrivano if he asked?”

Behind Sue I could see John sitting in journalism class, looking relaxed, laughing at something Kyle Avery said. The dots connected in my head. Sue and Jeff Boetener probably dreamed up this whole matchmaking scheme. But a girl could do a lot worse than going to prom with a smart, witty, good-looking guy she already liked and respected. “Um. Yeah.”

Eric Bensen

“Good.” Sue whirled around and ducked into her classroom.

A week later, I woke up in a fairytale, sitting twenty-nine stories above the beach at the Top of Daytona beside John. Sky and waves unfurled before us. Specks of light blinked to life along the coast as the sun set. Fifteen years later, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would shoot scenes from Days of Thunder in this room.

Jeff Boetener and Kyle Avery and their dates bookended us. Across the table, football players Mike Nelson, Jeff Smith, Eric Bensen and their dates filled in the rest of the chairs at the table.

That was about as close to the football team as I ever got.

Kim Swoyer

When John picked me up for our date, I’d cringed as we posed in front of the chipped fireplace for my parents’ snapshots. The paint peeling from the tin ceiling in our living room and the ever-present dusting of pet hair pained me more than they should.  A football player drop-kicked my ego when he called my house a shack. But John loved my house, the quirky tree growing through the Florida room roof. He’d had milk and cookies here with his grade school sweetheart, Kim Swoyer—whose family owned the home before mine.

The evening melted into the warmth and wealth of my New Smyrna years.

Along with house shame, I was a girl with a boatload of Daddy issues, never more evident than when it came to avoiding goodnight kisses. I don’t know if John counted on a kiss, but he was too much a gentleman to complain when I scooted around the screen door before, “I had a great time,” exited his lips.

Me & John posing in front of our cracked fireplace

For years I was mortified that I didn’t kiss my prince charming of prom dates. But, in light of our long, happy marriages, the missing kiss landed in the plus column.

John had his own insecurities—over the lime green tux he rented. When parked beside Jeff’s baby blue version and my yellow polka dots, we looked like we belonged in an Easter basket. The tux never bothered me. Years later I discovered why—I’m colorblind.

But I wasn’t character-blind—something John didn’t take into account when he deemed my “yes” to prom a pity date.

Me & John, prom, 1975

My mother, however, failed to be impressed. Mom cut John out of our prom picture, then scotch-taped him to the back of the photo where he couldn’t be seen. I found the album when she was too far gone to dementia to decipher what she’d been thinking.

John not only delivered a storybook prom, but thirty-eight years later invited me to teach his AP English classes at New Smyrna Beach High School for a day—proving himself a prince once again.

The humility so evident in John at seventeen persists. He sees himself as a sometimes weary, small town language arts teacher with a well-loved wife, two sons, and a house near the water.

The day I visited, three former students stopped in to catch John up on their lives. As he urged them to press on and fulfill their potential, I realized he’d impacted a whole mess of kids who grew up in New Smyrna Beach. Of course he had.

What more could I—or anyone—aspire, but to follow John’s example—work hard, love well, and give a leg-up to the next generation?