|TUMULTUOUS DAYS Jackie Robinson (top) dreams of becoming a pediatrician, but her grades are slipping amid the distractions of social life. Carlo Ottanelli (bottom) has dreams, too, including a very immediate one: To win over the girl with the screen name KTigger1011.
At Booker T. Washington Middle School, as at any school filled with hundreds of adolescent, awkward human beings, every day is another episode in an endlessly spinning soap opera.
The whole thing is appalling, and exhausting, and in its own way, rather spectacular to behold. Especially if you're an adult and have the comfort of knowing that you'll never have to live through a single minute of it again yourself.
The modern-day version follows the same basic patterns so many of us remember. Yet much has changed. Every day, 12- and 13-year-olds are pushed to contemplate behavior that in the past was reserved for high school or adulthood. Sometimes, they are pushed to do more than contemplate. Pregnancies are not unheard of. A growing number of kids have begun experimenting with oral sex.
Such behavior is nowhere near universal. Many middle school students retain enough innocence that they still blush when they hear a curse word. Sixth-grade boys have been known to bring their Hot Wheels cars to school and race them across the lunchroom tables. If they happen to have a girlfriend, it may take them weeks to work up the courage to hold her hand.
Even in such cases, many parents would be surprised if they could observe how their sons and daughters talk and act when no adult is around. And if these same parents ever intercepted the notes their kids pass back and forth in class, the ones marked 4 Ur Eyes Only, they'd likely be unprepared for what they would read. Not because their children are necessarily doing anything wrong, but because it would become clear that they're not children anymore.
This gap in understanding is only partly the parents' fault. True to their reputation, most middle school students shut down with adults, guarding their privacy with a skittishness that approaches paranoia. They reveal almost nothing about what they're doing, what they're feeling. Theirs is a secret world.
Parents get glimpses of that world at slumber parties, during trips to the mall, in overheard snippets of conversation. But the heart of their kids' experiences - the place where so much of their lives are defined - is at school.
At Booker T. Washington, it goes like this:
In a quiet corner of campus, a girl who longs for a boy gets out a piece of paper and writes him a note.
Hey Wuz ?
I just want 2 know y u'r mad at me. I didn't say or do anything 2 u. If it's becuz of that letter that I wrote 2 Lauren I didn't know u would B mad at me about it. Besides u don't even like me (from what I hear) so y do u even care about what I talk 2 her about?
She knows she's wasting her time. She keeps going anyway.
U know that I hate writing letters but not as much as I hate it when u'r mad at me. U also know that I get all "nervous" if I talk 2 u about stuff like this so I would appreciate it if u didn't show the whole f***ing world cuz this is between u & me not anyone else. U probably regret ever meeting me, but I don't.
Down in the lunchroom, a boy returns to his table to find that a friend has taken his seat. He wants it back, even though other seats are available. Their conflict plays out like a scene from a Discovery Channel documentary on young male primates skirmishing for position in the rain forest.
"Dude," says the kid in the chair, "what difference does it make?"
"Because I'm a man," says the other. "And that's my seat."
Outside the front doors of the school, a handful of girls stand in the sun, evaluating the romantic potential of a certain boy.
"You say he's too skinny?" says one.
"Yeah," says another.
Several of them shake their heads and issue their verdict in one voice.
"Code Violation 789," they say, then dismiss the boy in question with a long, lingering laugh.
Washington Middle, better known among the kids as Booker T, is a relatively small school, with 650 students. Located on the edge of downtown Tampa, it's a respected magnet school that specializes in international studies. The majority of the students have chosen to be here, which tends to keep them focused, directed, motivated.
Still, these are kids, struggling through the most tumultuous years of their young lives. One minute they are tender, thoughtful, open-hearted; then, without warning, they are obnoxious and almost unthinkably cruel. In one way or another, each of them is a glorious mess.
Especially the seventh-graders. No one is more a mess than the 13-year-olds.
"Breathe," one teacher tells them, again and again. "Just keep breathing."