13 St. Petersburg Times: Interactive Special Report
Love. Identity. Secrets. Loyalty. Sex. Betrayal. Power. Grades. Rivalry.  Glory. Parents. Subterfuge. Divorce. God. Guitars. Life at the edge of everything.
 
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Buddy Holly
From the album "Weezer," by Weezer.
1994 DGC Records

If parents could see this world, they would be stunned. Not because their children are necessarily doing anything wrong, but because it would become clear they’re not children anymore.

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photo
GIRL TALK: Danielle Heffern (center) revels in a slumber party prank. Miranda Olivier (left) places a call to a boy from school while Mattie Heil listens silently on another phone. To an adult, the world of 13-year-olds can look like a soap opera, an endless series of tiny melodramas. But amid the mess and sprawl of middle school life, these kids are grappling with fundamental questions of what it means to grow up.
Story by Thomas French, Monique Fields and Dong-Phuong Nguyen

Photos by Krystal Kinnunen

© St. Petersburg Times published May 18, 2003


Barely 7:15, and already Carlo's wondering if he'll see her.

He's in the back seat of the family Volvo, headed to school. His mom and dad are talking up front, but he's not listening. He is still waking up. His light blond hair is uncombed as usual; a micro-pebble of sleep dust clings to the lashes of his right eye. Through headphones, a man is singing into his brain.

Woo-ee-oo I look just like Buddy Holly
Oh-oh, and you're Mary Tyler Moore
I don't care what they say about us anyway
I don't care 'bout that

The singer is from Weezer, one of Carlo's favorite groups. He likes to listen to them when he's riding in the car with his parents. It would be nice if he could drive himself wherever he wanted to go. But when you're 13, lots of nice things are far away.

Carlo stares out the window at the blur of early morning traffic, the houses rushing by, the towers of downtown Tampa rising in the distance.

He is waiting for his real life to begin. At least the part where he gets a girlfriend.

Don't you ever fear, I'm always near
I know that you need help

By the time they pull into the parking lot at Booker T, the buses are starting to arrive. Carlo tells his parents goodbye, makes his getaway before they can do anything to embarrass him in front of the rest of the seventh grade.

He walks onto campus, hoping for a glimpse of her, a moment of eye contact, maybe even a hello. His friends are always saying how stupid it is to get so hung up on Kalie. They tell him to find someone else, anyone else. But he doesn't listen.

At the bank of blue lockers next to the science lab, he finds No. 894. Spying him there, another girl runs up and begs to glide her palm across the top of his hair. She does this almost every day. She is fixated on his fluffiness.

"I'm sorry," she says. "Please? Just once?"

Carlo stands still for a moment and lets her do it, then heads for his first class. Through the crowd he goes, searching for a face.

***

The doors to bus No. 4 open with a sigh. Danielle steps off, feeling the sun on her skin at last.

By this point she has been up for two hours, hitting her alarm clock at 5:15, squinting in the mirror as she put on her eye shadow and lip gloss. Now that she has arrived, Danielle is awake and focused, already deploying her cheerleader face. She is wearing her favorite Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, the light blue one she brings every day, even when it's warm. Her bulging black backpack is slung low, weighing her down like a judgment from the gods.

"Hi," she says to one passing friend after another, beaming at them all.

She has a glow. No one could say otherwise. But beneath the unwavering smile, there is something else. A hint of caution maybe. A sense that she is bracing herself.

On the walkway near the band room, the morning traffic slows for a couple of boys engaged in mock combat. In the middle of their shoving and shoulder bumping, they accidentally knock a girl to the ground. She scowls up at them as they stroll away.

"Sorry!" one boy calls over his shoulder.

Danielle tries not to laugh. Boys are such stupid creatures. So rude. And immature. So why does she care if hardly any of them ever look her way?

Part of it, she is convinced, is her size. At 5-8, she is one of the tallest kids in the seventh grade; she towers over some of the boys. Then there's her weight. She's doesn't have a problem or anything, but she knows she looks nothing like the models on the cover of CosmoGirl. One day not long ago, some boys in the library were teasing her, talking about how she's so big she must wear clothes in size 90210.

Her girlfriends do their best. They tell her she's cute, tell her she's funny, say it's okay because she has one of those personalities that shines through. But Danielle knows it's not that simple. When you're turning 13, nothing is simple.

Down the hall she walks, sending out positive attitude.

"Hi ... Hi ... Hi ..."

She is waiting for the moment when all of this will finally make sense. When she won't have to wonder if she really belongs.

***

Jackie emerges from the back seat of her mother's black Nissan Maxima. For a second, she stands at the curb, gathering herself against the day. Already she has concerns.

On the front of her shirt, she has just noticed a light orange stain. It's small, but not small enough. She doesn't know where it came from; it has simply appeared. She wonders if her friends will see.

Jackie has an image to maintain. This morning, as always, her skin is flawless; her hair is pulled back tight into her signature pony tail. As she heads through the school's front doors, she conducts her usual survey of the day's fashion choices. She notes a boy whose shirt is neatly tucked in - wrong. She sees a teacher in a fancy dress - interesting.

"Looks like she's going to church," says Jackie. "But that's okay."

On her way to language arts, she runs into a girlfriend who has left her textbook in the gym. She wants Jackie to help her retrieve it. Even though the bell's about to ring, Jackie can't resist.

"We're going to be late," the other girl says as they hurry to the gym. "I'm not trying to be late again."

Jackie and her friend have just laid their hands on the book when the bell sounds. The other girl turns and starts in the same direction they came from.

"No!" Jackie screams. "This way!"

They sprint through the girls locker room, out the back door and across the sidewalk to the next building. They are giggling. Their legs are pumping.

Jackie likes shortcuts. She has plenty of brains, rivers of confidence. She is a girl with a plan. She wants to be a pediatrician; she dreams of a house, a car, a husband and two kids. First, though, she has to survive seventh grade. Her tardies are adding up; her grades are slipping. The consequences have been laid out for Jackie, again and again. But she does not seem to hear.

Down the hall she and her girlfriend run. As they approach their classroom, Jackie puts on the brakes. Opening the door, she tries to stop laughing.

***

 
 
 
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