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On the edge of adolescence

These fifth-grade girls are on ''top of the world.'' They play football and bounce on pogo sticks - but middle school looms.

[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Best-of-friends, from left, Morgan Bean, Evelyn Costello and Ali Norman strike a goofy pose.

By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003


TAMPA PALMS -- With the afternoon sunshine surrendering to rooftops on a looping, well-groomed street, a slender woman drags two trash cans and a cardboard box out to her curb.

Down the block, the faces of five bantam girls are swallowed whole by their mouths; it is the look of Christmas morning. As they break into a sprint, the only question among them is who will get there first?

There is more to these girls' lives than rooting around in someone else's garbage, although at this moment, the appeal of such a pursuit is invincible. In other moments, there is yelling, spitting, punching, wrestling, pegging tennis balls at each others' skulls from close range, eating cheese and liver dog biscuits, holding funerals for dead mockingbirds and playing tackle football.

From left, Brooke Zick, Tori Law and Melanie Marques take advantage of a school holiday to play in Melanie's side yard.

They are not above gloating over a victory, which they do by writing their names on cement with colored chalk followed simply by the word "won."

They call their arch enemy -- a quiet boy -- "study freak," "pickle butt" and "gay." They swear on lots of relatives' graves that the last moniker means stupid. Not you-know-what.

Sometimes they cheat, which they regard as an inferior term for changing the rules.

Theirs is a self-contained, self-created world with a population that can be counted on one hand: Morgan Bean, Ali Norman, Melanie Marques, Evelyn Costello and Brooke Zick. Their rules, their traditions, their language all sound fantastical, naive to someone who lives as far away as the planet Earth, and yet to the girls they are as ordinary and as certain as vanilla filling at the center of a Twinkie.

The girls are on the cusp of middle school and their existance is precarious.

Know them for this

The girls show a fair amount of disdain for the global phenomenon of shoes, except those with small roller balls built into the soles which they call "heelies." They consider piping hot rolls a special delicacy. If they could eat Subway for a week, they would. Aerosol fascinates them. Their superpowers of choice are flying and the ability to morph. They finish their homework, sometimes grudgingly. On the athletic field, they are resilient, frank, tenacious and brutal; equals of the neighborhood boys, who know them as Sea Otter, Cry Baby, Shorty, Monkey and Indoor Girl.

The girls of Londonderry Drive, here in their element, are disdainful of shoes and attracted to mud.

Each girl has at least one sibling and they all lead comfortable lives on Londonderry Drive in homes that would command probably three times the price in the Northeast, where most of them were born. Their fathers work late in the fields of business and medicine. Their mothers volunteer at Lawton Chiles Elementary School and play shuttle service between extracurriculars such as soccer and music and church in large SUVs and minivans. When they pass each other in these titanic mobile husks they will roll down windows and talk, as if they had run into each other on a busy street corner in Manhattan.

Fear and the remedy of free time

Morgan, Brooke and Evelyn are in fifth grade, a transitional passage sometimes known as "late childhood," where swirls of adolescence, childhood, and general self-awareness blur together on a palette of messy expectations.

The experts paint a bleak picture of the near-future: Girls' IQ scores dip during middle school, math and science grades plummet. Optimism gives way to risk-aversion. Groups become cliques. A pecking order emerges. Bodies change in unexpected ways. So much happens; not a lot of it good. The famous French philosopher Denis Diderot, in a letter to a young female friend, warned: "You all die at 15."

If the three girls are not terrified of sixth grade, they are at least jittery. Two hours of homework, they envision with dread. Required science fairs. They worry about seventh-graders scarring their forearms with erasers and pinching their throats for a "sissy test." Things are good in fifth grade. They'd like it to stay that way.

"We're on top of the world right now because we're the oldest kids in our school," said Brooke. "When we go to sixth grade we'll be little, itty-bitty nothings and people will make fun of us."

School lacks a formal recess and so the girls, encouraged by their parents, find themselves outside in the afternoons, staving off their anxiety with what one might call pre-adolescent procrastination.

On some days, Brooke will be on her way to tennis and Evelyn will be burrowed in her house studying. Sometimes it will just be Morgan and Melanie and their razor scooters.

"What do you want to do?" Melanie will say.

"I don't know. What do you want to do?" Morgan will say.

On other days, it will be Melanie who is missing. Morgan will bounce on a pogo stick while Ali coats her with soapy spheres from a bubble gun.

"A bubble blizzard," she will say. When Morgan fires bubbles at Ali, the sixth-grader will fall to the ground laughing.

"I've got bubblebite," Ali will cry. "Not frostbite, cause it's bubbles."

The unofficial community field is Melanie's side yard. Evelyn and Morgan will draft Ali's younger brother, Josh, and Evelyn's younger brother, Trevor, into a game of football. They'll play boys against girls and everyone will concentrate more on ranking each other's skill level, using a scale similar to multiplication tables, than on keeping an accurate score.

"I'm 10 times better than you at football," Trevor will say to Josh.

"No, you're two times better," Josh will say.

"I'm five times better at catching, seven times better at juking, and ten times better at running."

"Raise your hand if you think Trevor is better at football," Evelyn will say.

Everyone will raise a hand, even Josh.

Evelyn Costello spies the perfect piece of junk as she and her friends sift through a neighbor's trash bin. In the past, the girls have taken home discarded Beanie Babies, zebra purses, blank notebooks and ceramic clowns.

The game will end when the participants lose interest in the tired concept of teams in favor of a simpler goal: tackling the person holding the ball.

Evelyn and Morgan will walk back to Morgan's driveway and get two spray cans out of the garage. Suddenly, as if they have acquired a telescope's vision, they can spot every small pest within a 50-foot radius. Running to the mailbox they will blast the insects with Off from an inch away. Die, die, die, Evelyn will scream. Then Morgan will tell her they should put the bug spray away because her mother, Ginger, doesn't like wasting it.

"She can smell it in the air," Morgan will say.

Evelyn will put on her Rollerblades to hitch a ride on the back of a teenager's moped.

"You know we're different," Ali will say. "There are those other girls," and here she grins a plastic smile and bends her knees in a melodramatic plie.

What do you think of them? she will be asked.

She will snore.

What do boys think of you all?

"I don't know," she will say. "They aren't brave enough to say anything to our face."

They will be asked to name the world's biggest problem.

"Terrorists," Brooke will say. She will pause. "Or fat."

"Yeah, obese people," Morgan will second. "They have to pay for two tickets when they fly."

Love (in its various forms)

Parents are loving, fearsome, awe-inspiring, confusing, infuriating, beautiful creatures. Ali, in an essay for school, wrote that her father was "full of love like Santa, minus the 300 pounds." Parents are the most powerful people in the world, and their forces can be used for good as well as for evil.

In the presence of a parent, the girls always say "please" and "thank you." Their idea of adulthood consists mostly of opening bills and then, when you are done with those, turning around and paying your children.

Morgan and Brooke and Evelyn are in the same class. When they had a social studies test together their mothers knew. Foiled by the phone. Morgan was busy playing outside, when Ginger asked why she hadn't mentioned an exam on the French and Indian War. Did you forget? her mother asked. Yes, I forgot, Morgan said, before going straight to her room and returning with a study sheet, having just told a fib.

Evelyn's parents should be glad to know that they make her short list of the most important things in the world, along with life's bare essentials air and water. Her boyfriend rounds out the top four. Brooke and Morgan also have boyfriends, although Morgan's doesn't know yet. They are "going" with these boys at school, which usually means they sit together. Evelyn's boyfriend is not her first. He came last year when she wrote about him in her diary.

Enjoying one of their favorite pastimes, the girls sort through trash left by a neighbor who moved.

I have a crush on Sam. He likes me and I like him. It was today when we figured out. I was at lunch saying please don't tell anyone that I liked Sam and Nick & Nick hered me and said I'm telling Sam I'm telling Sam so Sam came over and Nick told him the news and he told me that he likes me. Now people are calling me Ms. Moris.

Hanging out with your boyfriend is fine, just keep your kissing lips to yourself.

"Only weirdos do that," said Evelyn.

The miracle of the Cathode Ray Tube

In theory, this is a generation that is always being watched. In truth, this is a generation that is probably very rarely being watched. But the important thing -- the crucial part -- is that it could be. Such talent for self-observation rises from the guts of a television screen and the free time necessary to imagine how one would appear on it in living Technicolor.

One evening before Morgan and Evelyn's soccer practice at Benito Middle School, a group of boys assigned themselves countries to represent in a scrimmage. I'm Ireland, I'm Pakistan, I'm Afghanistan, I'm Iraq, they called out. Italy, a.k.a. Matthew Lagarce, scored a goal and sprinted to the corner of the field like a World Cup striker celebrating before a televised audience of millions, sliding to his knees and then falling backward to the grass while doing his best impersonation of Andres Cantor's Gooooooooaaaaaallll.

The indefensibility of an anonymous existance, the sheer absurdity of it, is obvious. Take away the audience and television is no different than a library without books.

"What's the point?" said Lagarce. "Without television the world is plain. If you're on TV everyone will see you and know you. Say I'm in Massachusetts and I see a boy on the TV here. Then he becomes that boy from the TV and when we meet I've made a new friend. One day some girl will see me on TV and then we will marry."

The rules on watching television vary from one girl's house to another. But the cathode ray tube's supreme power as a source of nearly all knowledge is ubiquitous. Days later Brooke confirmed.

"Everyone has to watch TV or they won't know what's going on in the world," she said. "Like Ozzy Osbourne."

Forgiveness and revenge/The tricks of language

The Monday after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' near-perfect victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, the mood along Londonderry was not as glorious as one might expect.

The McDonald's ice cream machine was broken.

Over the weekend, Melanie had taken a sandwich made by Morgan's mother and buried it in her yard. She sent Morgan an e-mail on Monday apologizing for the "sandwitch" mistake -- "ur pal mel," she signed it -- but Morgan's feelings remained a bit sore.

Evelyn announced her father might be relocating the family to Connecticut for work. A much bigger boy tackled Evelyn during football, falling on her right ankle and she threatened to sue his family.

And then, in one spellbinding glance, the afternoon's discontentment was temporarily reversed.

"Look," said Morgan, and they did, at a new delivery of treasure up the block.

"She never puts out trash trash," said Brooke. "She's weird."

In the past, the girls have taken home discarded Beanie Babies, zebra purses, blank notebooks and ceramic clowns. Ammonia, disinfectant, black spray paint, laundry detergent, and diamond cleaner can hold their attention until the bottles are empty. From their brothers, the girls have learned that anything gooey or slimy makes for a great ant roadblock when squirted in between the sidewalk cracks. Death by moisturizing lotion is, somewhat unnaturally, an entertaining sight.

The girls consider their neighbor-of-things-unwanted Cool, which in the Londonderry lexicon means Constipated, Overweighted, Out-of-Style, Loser. Kewl means awesome. When spoken, you cannot decipher one from the other. You simply must understand.

In the two trash cans they found a tennis racket, a small shovel and a cooking pan.

"Put it away, it smells like poop," said Melanie.

Evelyn pulled out the shovel and began spontaneously opening holes in the earth. She flung the dirt on the sidewalks and the street. Brooke asked what dirt tasted like but decided not to find out.

"I'll probably puke," she said, "I puke very easily."

Evelyn walked up and down the block spreading earth everywhere. She dug up part of Melanie's yard.

"This is great dirt," said Evelyn. "It comes out of the ground so easily."

"Actually, my parents are trying to keep the ground full," said Melanie.

The sun set and Melanie went inside, leaving behind her football. Morgan promptly began to bury it.

"She always wants to play football," said Morgan. "The death of Melanie's football."

"You shouldn't do that," said Brooke. "Never mind, she did bury your mom's sandwich."

Evelyn and Morgan walked home to a dinner of shrimp, steak, zucchini and piping hot rolls. They walked past the trash bins and a "for sale" sign in front of the house.

Their neighbor was moving away from Londonderry Drive.

-- John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at balz@sptimes.com .

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