The Rosebud Tea was about to begin, and the crusts were still on the cucumber sandwiches. Rita Fayall wiped her brow - the school basement was warm - and raised an electric knife that buzzed like a chainsaw. The brown edges fell away.
If a middle school boy were very, very lucky, he might get a few scraps of crust. The sandwiches themselves, though, were for the Rosebuds. So were the shrimp salad wraps and the trays of chocolate-dipped cookies. Earlier in the week, some boys, hearing rumors of exotic snacking to come, had inquired why they couldn't be Rosebuds, too.
"Do you look like a Rosebud?" the hostesses asked.
Of course, it's hard to pick out Rosebuds just by looking. The dozen or so elect aren't necessarily the prettiest or smartest or best-dressed girls at Garrison Middle School in northwest Baltimore. Rosebuds, like many of Garrison's 650 students, may sometimes get ready for class without electricity or running water at home. They may not know how to read. And most have never touched a teapot in their lives.
Yet Rosebuds have demonstrated grit, and even grace, in the face of challenges common at Garrison; they have shunned gangs, avoided drugs and kept up their attendance records, at least for the most part.
They are by no means flowers in full bloom. "They might have cussed somebody out last week a little bit," said Fayall, who helped organize the tea through Meet Me Halfway, a mentoring program she runs in the basement with her husband, Bernard, and an army of neighborhood volunteers. But the Rosebuds have all shown vast improvement, which is why teachers and administrators nominated them for the honor. "We want them to know that we see how far they've come," Rita Fayall said.
And so, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, wide-eyed girls in hooded sweatshirts and jeans filed into a subterranean classroom, prepared to be feted. The table was set with real china, pink cloth napkins, doilies and covered with scattered rose petals. A long-stemmed rose lay in front of each seat, the blossom still tightly clenched, like a fist.
"Tea is served!" the girls said in their best British accents.
Some members of this first-ever class of Rosebuds had just returned from a field trip to a skating rink that erupted into a brawl with another middle school: Punches had been thrown along with roller skates. Other Rosebuds were veterans of what Rita Fayall calls "The Battle Royale," a recent all-girl showdown in an alley near the school. One thing that the Fayalls have learned in their five years at Garrison is that girls fight more often than boys. For territory. For honor.
The Rosebuds smoothed their napkins over their laps.
The tea ceremony included a slideshow of accomplished women (Isadora Duncan, Zora Neal Hurston, Oprah) and a presentation of official Rosebud certificates, which the girls studied carefully. A Meet Me Halfway worker shared a poem, and Bernard Fayall made a speech.
It was a peculiar speech for a tea party. "Sometimes they were hell-raisers," he said, speaking so that the mothers and grandmothers who'd gathered in the hallway could hear. "But they got past that. These are our children, from our community. I love these children. I would fight to the death to make sure these children are safe."
Now, he said when he was done, "which side do I serve from?" He stooped to offer the girls tea brewed in coffee pots borrowed from a school lounge. The Rosebuds piled their plates with tomato sandwiches and strawberries squirted with whipped cream.
Then it was quiet enough to hear the clink of teacups on saucers.
The Fayalls believe in blossoming. The Garrison basement used to be a "a cesspool," Bernard Fayall said, where vermin flourished and middle-schoolers took drugs and had sex. Now it is clean and well-lit, though it is still hard to forget the absence of windows. Funded by grants, including one from the Open Society Institute, Meet Me Halfway offers counseling and skills workshops for kids there every day.
And although Bernard Fayall first came to the school to mentor boys, the retired welder now thinks that young women may need him even more. He also counsels at a nearby high school, and has seen unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence and all the rest of what can befall impoverished girls. And yet little things go a long way with them. They love to feel singled out, special. So the Fayalls installed a makeshift salon in the Garrison basement and persuaded their daughter, a beautician, to style the girls' hair. They've offered modeling classes. The Rosebuds are a big hit. Some of the girls wanted to know right away who had nominated them; one called her mother immediately to share the news. The fledgling group will meet every month for luncheons and similarly demure pursuits, and the Fayalls hope that other Garrison girls will get jealous and shape up in order to be selected. Before long, Rosebud recruiting might rival the Bloods and the Crips.
The Rosebuds believed they could get used to such treatment. They sniffed at their flowers and smacked their lips.
"It's good, huh?" they said of the tea, sugared to the point of saturation.
Champagne Brown sipped at her cup, gripping it carefully by the handle. Her other hand lay in her lap, but not for etiquette's sake. The wrist was bandaged in gauze.
"Oh, they got to shooting again," she explained. She had fallen, trying to escape neighborhood gunfire.
She showed her injury to the other girls, peeling back the bandage to reveal deep scratches in her smooth skin, as though it had been raked by thorns.