A girl named Katy walks up from behind and gives Laura an affectionate hug. Still hanging onto her pal, she expands the color analysis. "If you put a bright purple on her," she says, "she'd look sick."
After eating muffins and high-fiber cereal--Gothard frequently warns against the nutritional evils of white bread--the girls prepare for their morning lecture session in the Ambassador's elegant meeting room.
Lauren Bell, an administrative assistant for the program, leads the girls in "A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord," a Fanny Crosby hymn dating to 1890:
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land...
The teens' clear sopranos ring high above the upright piano, played by a straight-backed woman with a lace doily on her head.
Bernadine Cantrell, a woman with big hair and a thick Southern accent, initiated the day's topic: "Pursuing the practice of hospitality."
"We have had neighbors who moved into our neighborhood, and seven women were standing at the door with a pound cake," she says.
She then leads the girls in a silly ditty, complete with hand motions. Some girls giggle at the line, "I was as happy as could be with my banjo on my knee." But all participate enthusiastically.
The effect is surreal--a room full of American teens putting their hands over their heads and making like a spreading chestnut tree.
Then, on an overhead projector, Cantrell lists numerous suggestions for "entertaining the VIPs in your life--your family." Among them: "A beautifully set table--pull out that china!" "Explore old memories." "Favorite foods." "Cloth napkins/no guests."
The girls follow along on their outlines. "Is your home obviously a place where believers live?" Cantrell asks.
She talks about how virtuous wives adapt to their husbands, and find any way they can to ensure his success in life. "When the men in this world find out how special we are, oh man--there's gonna be a stampede to get these EXCEL girls," Cantrell chirps.
"There's a lot of upside-down thinking in this world," she adds. "There's people who say men should adapt to us. But that's not what the scriptures say."
At lunch, Laura Turke is scribbling verse after verse on a sheet of theme paper while her buddies roll bean burritos. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world..." she writes in pencil, hunched over her paper, pinching her lips in concentration.
The EXCEL girls must memorize more than 100 verses during their eight weeks in Dallas. The verses come in sets: there's the "tongue tamers," for example--scriptural passages that warn about the tongue's "power of life and death." There are the familiar Beatitudes ("Blessed are the pure in heart...") spoken by Jesus. And, of course, the 21-verse description of the virtuous wife in Proverbs 31. The girls and their leaders, in fact, often refer casually to "the Proverbs 31 woman."
Proverbs 31, however, says nothing about cramming dozens of Biblical adages written in Elizabethan English into your head, and Laura got tongue-tied when it came time to recite her verses to Joy. "I get very nervous, and my mind went completely blank," Laura says meekly.
If she can't recite her verses to her group leader by Saturday, she'll be called before Mr. Gothard himself to disgorge her penitential scriptures.
Despite the pressures, Laura says she's having the time of her life at EXCEL. She learned about courtship, and overcoming anger and bitterness. She sewed a dart for the first time, and made good friends. "My goal is to be the best mother and wife that I can be," she says. "And this kind of goes along that line."
When told that few teenagers today seem to share those goals, Laura looks puzzled. "Most of the people I'm around want to be wives and mothers. I really don't know of anybody, personally, who doesn't want to."
In the hallway, just outside the meeting room as the teens are preparing for their daily walk in Old City Park, one girl presents a discreetly bundled baseball jacket to Dolly Brandon.
"Is this OK?" she asks timidly.
"Let me see..."
Mrs. Brandon picks up the jacket gingerly, as though it were a soiled rag or some dead thing, and quickly looks it over, shielding it from the view of other girls passing by.
Then, bundling it up again, she hands it back to the girl.
"That's OK," she says, "if it's the only jacket you have."
The jacket's questionable status stems from a few stenciled words across its back. The words--whatever they were; the girl and Mrs. Brandon kept them hidden--were judged suitably innocuous.