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September 21, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
The harder they come?

Short Stor
A day at the
North Country Fair

Fighting teens in drag!
Eureka school officials harsh on the titillating tradition of powder puff


On Friday afternoon, the halls at Eureka High School were pin-drop quiet and empty for a moment before class ended. In the midst of such stillness, you could let your mind wander and imagine what it used to be like in this very hallway — poodle-skirted girls and boys in Levis and loafers making plans for homecoming. There is a lot of history here. EHS opened in 1915.

EHS powder puff cheerleaders of 1976Then the 12:40 lunch bell rang, and herds of reality came squeaking across the tiled corridors in big white sneakers and ill-fitting pants. They laughed, chattered, slammed lockers shut with an echoey bang and adroitly flipped open little cell phones.

It was a Friday like any other at Eureka High, except that dozens of students with blue slips of paper were filing toward the auditorium. Their names were checked off by clipboard-wielding Assistant Principal Brooke Warren. About 75 students were being punished for walking out of class earlier in the week. They shuffled into creaky theater seats and quieted down. This was detention; 20 minutes of silent time. About 150 more students would serve their time Monday morning or afternoon.

Right: The EHS powder puff cheerleaders of 1976.

What got them here, exactly? What was so important that a mass walk-out was orchestrated via e-mail and MySpace, inciting 225 students to leave school at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12? Powder puff football.

Sounds trivial already, right? But for students, the gender-bending springtime flag football game, where girls from the junior and senior classes square off and upperclassmen boys cheer from the sidelines, is the highlight of the school year. For some, it's the pinnacle of their entire high school career, and accordingly it evokes maniac fits of school pride among participants. One senior cheerleader was so overcome at the game last May he shed his clothes and raced across the field after a school authority figure cut the explicit music (no one could remember which song) that accompanied their equally explicit halftime dance routine.

The stunt was far too ballsy for Eureka High Principal Bob Steffan, and he and other administrators came to a consensus that future powder puff games would need a serious redressing. When he explained as much to this year's senior class, they freaked out.

On Friday, Steffan, a handsome man with perfectly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, said EHS students may have overreacted to his proposal. He maintains he never actually canceled the game. He just wanted to ax the cheerleading and address some other concerns. Semantics aside, to students those are fighting words. Not only is powder puff considered a rite of passage, it also rakes in the cash.

Students say they make between $8,000 and $10,000 from ticket sales to the game. (Steffan places the figure closer to $7,000-$8,000.) Whatever the exact figure, the money goes to fund class activities like the prom, and powder puff football is by far the students' biggest fundraiser.

Hello. Don't mess with the prom.

So on Tuesday, students stormed out of math and history classes brandishing posters that declared "Powderpuff = Tradition." They scrambled up each other's shoulders and rambled down J Street waving at their rabbity peers looking down from classroom windows. The Channel 3 cameras were rolling. In unison they chanted "Bring it back!" over and over. Eventually Principal Steffan stood atop the entryway stairs and told students he was willing to listen to them if they went back to class. Student Body President Katie Kramer,wearing a baseball T-shirt that read "Savage," urged students to go back inside, obviously not wanting to foul future negotiations with Steffan. But she also made it clear that the students intended to have their powder puff game whether the administration liked it or not, even if it meant going off campus to do so.

By Friday tempers had cooled off and they were now paying the price for their departure, though 20 minutes of quiet time hardly seemed like punishment. Among the students, the consensus was that the administration was treating them unfairly. Why should they suffer for one student's error in judgment? Some of them have looked forward to powder puff since they were little kids.

Senior Miranda Leftridge, who started going to the powder puff games as a 5-year-old, was in the back of the auditorium. James Holdner, whose father was a powder puff cheerleader at EHS in 1988, was toward the front. Holdner, who helped circulate a petition leading up to the walk-out, lamented the fact that he might not get to follow in his dad's footsteps. He still admitted that streaking was taking it too far. But how did it get to this point? Were things really all that innocent 20 or 30 years ago?

According to the Eureka High School's 1988 yearbook, the junior cheerleaders choreographed a routine to the Salt and Pepa song, "Push It," and the seniors danced to Aerosmith's, "Dude (Looks like a Lady)." Do you remember these songs? They were hardly wholesome numbers. Hit it:

Salt and Pepa's here, and we're in effect

Want you to push it, babe
Coolin' by day then at night working up a sweat
C'mon girls, let's show the guys that we know
How to become number one in a hot party show
Now push it
Ah, push it - push it good
Ah, push it - push it real good

Aerosmith's sweet little ditty, goes like this "What a funky lady, she like it, like it, like it, like it," and "Do me, do me, do me all night."

Other students credit powder puff's long-standing success to its tradition of obscenity. Senior Joell Adams, who was also serving detention Friday, said that her mother played powder puff at EHS in the 1980s and that according to her, the festivities were rude and risque back then, too.

"The cheerleaders still did really nasty stuff," Adams said, "and the girls were still mean."

Mean girls. That's the other problem Principal Steffan wants to address. Every year, he says, more and more girls come off the field with broken fingers. Beyond that, he said, the hysteria surrounding the game manifests into pre-game pranks — like toilet papering the homes of opponents and blasting their cars with shaving cream — and post-game feuds between riled-up junior and senior girls. Powder puff originated because girls had fewer opportunities to play sports. When he attended St. Bernard Catholic School from 1966-70, Steffan remembers powder puff as a goofy, low-impact game. But today's athletic high school girls can inflict some serious hurt on each other.

"You want them to have good feelings about their school and camaraderie at the end of the school-year," Steffan said. "So it just seems a little counter-productive."

McKinleyville High School faced these same problems years ago, and decided to put a stop to male cheerleading. Principal Dave Lonn said that several years ago junior and senior boys were trying to one-up each other at a cheerleading practice when some of them "dropped their drawers." The boys wore bras of "enormous proportion," and in Lonn's opinion their behavior was degrading toward all female students and real cheerleaders.

Each year since, McKinleyville students have debated the merits of cheerleading with the administrators but have never gone so far as to stage a walk-out. It seems the energy that once surrounded powder puff has subsequently waned — last year, bad weather canceled the game and the students didn't bother to reschedule it.

As for Eureka High, there is still time o'plenty to iron out the details of the springtime game. But at least in the meantime, they banned together and stood up for what they want; the right to wail on each other, dress in drag and dance suggestively to crass music, just like their parents did before them.



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