January 4, 2008


Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but they were rarely spoken of that way. They were simply “the twins”…even as children, it was obvious that though the two had their own individual faults and imperfections, together they were a single, almost indestructible, unit. A failing in one was compensated by an exceptional virtue in the other. Certain gifted children excel at complicated mathematics or classical violin or competitive eating, but Alexander and Lillian had an innate ability for Life.

As they grew up, it became clear that when the two of them were together—which was almost always—nothing could stand in their way, nothing was too difficult or devious, nothing couldn’t be conquered by the simple force of their indomitable will. Not even high school.

Beaumonde Academy is the most elite private high school in New Orleans: it was probably founded more than a hundred years ago, and I’m sure it has a miniscule teacher-student ratio, and those teachers are probably wise and attentive and better paid than most professors, and the students almost certainly become well-rounded success stories who thank their beloved Latin teachers when they win Nobel Prizes and National Book Awards and Daytime Emmys.

But none of this mattered to Alexander and Lillian. To the twins, Beaumonde Academy was simply another challenge to conquer, another ingenious puzzle to solve, another grand stage upon which to strut.

At the beginning of their freshmen year, if the twins were known at all, they were known only as “that overdressed snob with the hot-ass sister.” Only one semester later, though, Alexander and Lillian commanded the underclassmen and had a fair amount of sway among the rising seniors.

How? What they did was shockingly simple on the face of it. Simple, yes, but also impossibly difficult: instead of striving to excel at the notably fickle rules of high school life, they simply rewrote those rules to reward their own strengths. Alexander was, indeed, arguably overdressed and unquestionably snobby. However, using only their aggressive ambition, the twins made being overdressed and snobby not only okay, but something that all the boys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with.

The twins knew that you didn’t win by playing the game...you won by controlling the game itself.

By the end of their freshman year, the most important underclassmen at Beaumonde were Alexander and Lillian, along with what everyone just called The Gang, the twins’ entourage of closest friends. (“The Gang” is a pretty dull name, of course, but you should always be suspicious of people who come up with overly-cute nicknames for their groups of friends.)

Between classes, as the twins moved through the school’s hallways, Alexander would stop and speak with his fellow students, using that special ability he had to make you feel that, though he knew simply everyone, he was taking the time to say hello to you and you alone.

Always by his side was his stunning sister Lillian, who was quiet and fierce and intelligent and chaste and who looked like a particularly fine specimen of a long-thought-extinct race of ancient beings. Because she looked so different from anyone else at the school—and, it was suspected, anyone else in the entire world—she almost never caused the sort of hatred and jealousy that other women have towards the gorgeous in commercials for low-fat yogurt and diet soda.

Alexander was bewitching and seductive, but his lovely sister was quiet and even vaguely menacing. When Lillian did open up to someone, it was always in a certain tone that implied that she was sharing a great personal secret with you. Her brother could charm hundreds for an afternoon; Lillian could inspire life-long loyalty, one person at a time.

At the beginning of sophomore year, the Budds had become, to use the vulgar and simplistic term, “the most popular kids in school.” But mere popularity was never their aim, it was simply a powerful tool to help them achieve their ultimate goal. Now that the twins and had the attention of the school, they began pursuing their true ambition: it wasn’t enough to run Beaumonde Academy…they had to recreate it from the ground up. Alexander and Lillian, with help from a newly converted Gang, began to spread the gospel of Proper among the student body:

Alexander described for his classmates a nightmare world in which every teenager bought identical outfits at the same three or four stores at the mall. The clothes were poorly made with low-quality material; they were ill-fitting because the fatties of the world had caused an XL of twenty years before to be relabeled a M. The uniform of the American Teenager was jeans that didn’t fit, paired with a cheap cotton T-shirt that was usually adorned with the logo of the store where they’d bought it on clearance.

Alexander apologized for appalling his fellow students with such distasteful talk. (He hadn’t.) Then, in a shocking twist, he revealed that the world he had just described was, in fact, the one they lived in.

There was a time, he said, when the young, wealthy, and reasonably attractive actually dressed and acted as though they were those things. But today the gravest sin you could commit was to look like you stood out from anyone else. Now there were multimillionaires dressing like frat boys. Grown men and women looked like toddlers ready for naptime. Casual Friday had become Casual Everyday, and on the weekends people actually left their houses in sweatshirts and pajama bottoms.

Adults were no longer interested in looking like adults, Alexander told them. When you’re forty and you dress like a twelve-year-old, you begin to act like a twelve-year-old. And so the social fabric was beginning to unravel. Etiquette was forgotten, email replaced stationery, men bragged about how long it had been since they’d worn their one suit.

But there was hope. In a world where every day a tailor went out of business, in a world where every wannabe rebel wore the same t-shirt bought at the same store, in a world where advertisers told you that you could only be a true original by buying their mass-market products...in a world like this, to dress and act like adults from a forgotten age was actually a blow for subversive non-conformity.

If a small and dedicated group of teenagers became passionate about how they looked, how they dressed, and how they acted, then there was little doubt that they would begin to change their school and, eventually, the world. This was the only rebellion left in this ruined world, and—if done right—it would be revolutionary.

Style is substance.

Slowly the twins were able to teach their classmates how to live up to their exacting standard of elegance. They taught them the difference between fabrics, cuts, and styles. They gave out grooming tips, often unsolicited. They demonstrated how different colors and shapes of clothes are best for different colors and shapes of people.

But mostly, they taught their school what was Proper.

Proper didn’t necessarily just cover what clothes somebody wore. Instead, being Proper was more about knowing the when and why and how clothes were worn. Almost nothing one could wear or do or say was universally Proper or otherwise; only the context made it so.

Though Proper often called for somewhat more formal clothing than most teenagers wear, it wasn’t about just dressing up all the time no matter what. A three-piece suit was Proper when out to dinner or at a party, but if worn to school or a movie it only betrayed how little the wearer grasped the concept.

It took almost a year, but by the beginning of junior year, Beaumonde Academy was transformed. Parents were astounded to see their daughters lightly perfuming handwritten notes to their crushes and their sons carrying handkerchiefs and penknives. Other schools had problems with low-slung jeans or belly shirts, but Beaumonde’s students were brutally self-policing. The halls of the Academy looked like a fashion magazine’s photo spread about the return of prep-school chic.

But Proper was no passing fad…as any student would gladly tell you, in the end it wasn’t even about the clothes. It was about discovering a way to live with grace and poise, about always knowing what to say and do without agonizing about it like other teenagers might. It was about believing in and being a part of something that was larger than yourself, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing your small part to make it happen.

Some stories about high school end with a prom…this story begins with one.

It was the end of junior year at last, and the Beaumonde prom was the capping event of the school year. At an exclusive school like Beaumonde Academy, the prom is nothing like the tacky spectacle that you and I grew up with. Traditionally held on the night before graduation, it’s more of a formal dance, where the students attempt the waltz, the tango, and the foxtrot, to varying degrees of success and enthusiasm. The chief attraction of the dance floor, in fact, wasn’t the dancing itself of course but the chance to show off their elegant evening wear, and the air of easy grace with which (they hoped) they were wearing it.

After the jazz combo brought the last dance to an end, it was time for the final and most important event of the evening, the presentation of the McMillan Award. The award supposedly went to the best grade among the Beaumonde student body, but it was only technically a contest: the winners were allegedly determined by a mysterious and arcane set of guidelines that measured school spirit, but in fact it went to the seniors every year.

Well, almost every year. That year, for only the fourth (or was it the fifth?) time in their school’s history, the junior class upset the seniors to win the highest honor at Beaumonde Academy. It shouldn’t have shocked anyone, considering what an impact the Budds, their Gang, and the rest of the class had made on the Academy, but at the time it seemed unfathomable. The McMillan Award is completely meaningless, and is therefore is obsessed over by the students, teachers, and alumni of Beaumonde Academy. The juniors’ win was a Very Big Deal, as it hadn’t been won by a class other than the seniors in over ten years.

As the juniors celebrated their win—tastefully and Proper, of course—there was the feeling that this was the turning point. This was the night that everything would change. Junior year was over…just ahead was the triumph of senior year and graduation.

And then the real work would begin. The students would spread out across the country, doing for their colleges and universities what Alexander and Lillian had done for Beaumonde. Soon, what had begun as a clique would become a movement, as tens of thousands of Proper college graduates spilled out into that coarse society beyond, ready to rebuild it in their own more elegant image.

It was a ridiculous goal, a laughable one, and no one except maybe the twins usually took it very seriously. But on prom night, as the juniors watched the Budds and their Gang line up for pictures, holding the McMillan, it seemed more than plausible. It seemed inevitable.

They said it would be the night everything would changed, and it was true, nothing would be the same again. That same night, just a few hours later, City Councilman Lucas Budd—the twins’ father—would be sitting on a sidewalk just outside of the French Quarter, handcuffed and raving, clothes askew and legs akimbo, as police photographers carefully catalogued the powders and pills being gently lifted from his trunk. The reports that a young man fled from the scene were never proven. Overnight Lucas Budd would go from being one of the city’s only true crusaders to political poison, and within two weeks, Mrs. Budd would announce that she would be returning to her childhood home of Lafayette for the summer, shielding her children from the toxic media environment her husband had created.

But back at the prom, though, no one knew exactly how much things were going to change that summer. All they knew was that they were at the end of an extraordinary year and a triumphant night.

The junior class had just been declared the pinnacle of Beaumonde Academy, and they happily gathered around as The Gang as they held the McMillan Award: there was Alexander’s girlfriend Emily and Lillian’s boyfriend Michael, the twins’ childhood friends Andre and Robert, Robert’s girlfriend Elizabeth and her best friend David, and David’s next door neighbor Josephine.

Everyone was happy, everyone was loved, everyone was Proper. But the junior class, and especially The Gang, knew that none of what they’d achieved—the clothes, the award, the elegance—would have been possible if it weren’t for the brother and sister in the middle of the crowd.

Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but they were rarely spoken of that way. They were better known to everyone at Beaumonde Academy—out of admiration, out of jealousy, out of fondness, out of envy—as simply The Darling Budds.

This is not their story.