"When this courtship thing was first presented to me, I was like, 'Are you kidding? I am not gonna allow my dad, who is 40 years old, to tell me who I can like and who I can't like.'"
But through her experience on the dude ranch, Sarah--whose parents met on a blind date in college while drinking green beer on St. Patrick's Day--has realized the need for her father's protection.
One of the joys of her late teens, she says, has been getting back under her parents' authority after a mild rebellious spell, and eliminating from her life certain sources of temptation, such as the girlfriend with whom she'd sneak out of the house and run around the neighborhood.
Now, she spends her free time at home in innocent pursuits--hanging out at the mall, playing basketball with her younger brothers, sitting at the doughnut shop, and doing homework. She's considering becoming an interior decorator, and hopes to marry some day. She is a virgin.
"We're going back to the dark ages," she says, laughing. "But y'know, can you be too pure?
"What I want is a guy who hasn't had sex with another person--who hasn't given himself emotionally to other girls. So what does that require of me? My grandma has a saying--'Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?' And the question is, how much are you willing to pay for it?
"Are you an heirloom that's gonna be given away some day for no price--because you're a treasure? That's what I want to be. Because that's what the person I fall in love with would want."
In the evening, just before 9 p.m.--time for the girls to retire to their rooms--the sounds of stampeding feet and girlish squeals fill a hallway, then dissolve into sighs and gasps as the girls attempt to compose themselves.
Lights-out is 9:30 p.m.
Joy Branch is in no hurry to get to bed.
"EXCEL is almost like heaven to me--it's just the innocence that's here. The purity. The joy," she says. "There's no spirit that it's cool to be cruel.
"Maybe the world thinks it's bizarre. Maybe it's like we're all standing on our heads. We see life from a totally different perspective.
"But I think it's funny," she concludes. "Sometimes I think the world is standing on its head.