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.
 
 GLADIATORS
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


In fourth-period critical thinking class, there’s a cleavage emergency. A girl has shown up in a low-cut blouse that has no buttons. Mrs. Borchers grabs a roll of masking tape.

Gladiators
photo
BACK FROM NEVERLAND Brett Gardner, Carlo Ottanelli, Cameron Jones, Sean Simpson, and Jourdan Jayashekaramurthy skirmish for position after the movie Return to Neverland lets out.
Story by Thomas French, Monique Fields and Dong-Phuong Nguyen

Photos by Krystal Kinnunen

© St. Petersburg Times published May 19, 2003


Inside the Cathedral of Faith, the handkerchiefs have finally come out.

Almost an hour into the service, after both choirs have offered up their hymns, after the dancing and the shouting and the blessing, the air inside the church has grown thick. Now the women in the pews are dabbing their cheeks with lace hankies and cooling themselves with paper fans adorned with the face of Dr. King.

A hush falls over the Tampa church as a preacher climbs into the pulpit to deliver his report.

"Jesus," he proclaims, "is alive and well."

He looks out over his congregation, at the parents and children, and tells them not to worry too much about their troubles.

"Don't be afraid of the rumble," he says. "It's just God shifting some stuff in your life."

The man's just getting started.

"If something ain't right in your life," he continues in his booming voice, "you better get it right."

Six or seven rows back, Jaclyn Robinson sits with a handful of other girls, quietly listening to the sermon, while her mother looks on from another pew. Jackie shows no restlessness, no distraction. Her eyes are trained forward. She is still.

In church, she doesn't have to think about her grades. She doesn't have to hear her teachers, asking her where her homework went and why she can't focus in their classes. She's so tired of all the lectures.

Here, on the soft purple of the pews, Jackie feels peaceful. God loves her, no matter what. So do the honorary aunts who pull her close before and after every service. Their hugs, bathed in perfume, linger long after their embrace. Their kisses, wet and emphatic, leave traces of magenta and crimson on Jackie's cheeks.

School is far away.

***

Sunlight streaming through the lunchroom windows. Kids hunched over their sandwiches and Fritos, their voices rising and falling and rising again.

Danielle Heffern sits at her table, suffering.

Since she arrived at Booker T. Washington Middle School this morning, Danielle has been thinking about almost nothing but the $1.55 in spare change she took from the table in the family room. All she wanted was a piece of cheese pizza. Now that lunchtime is here, she doesn't care about the stupid pizza anymore. She keeps seeing the look on her parents' faces if they knew. She can't bring herself to spend the money. She has decided she is a criminal.

"God, Danielle," says Isela, her best friend for life. "Take the money and buy some food. You have to eat."

No amount of coaxing can persuade her. The coins just keep burning in her purse. She tells Isela she knows what she must do. She has no choice, she says. When she gets home, she has to tell her parents the truth. She'll apologize and give the money back.

Maybe it will help.

In the far wing of the school, Mrs. Borchers is responding to a cleavage emergency. A girl in her fourth-period critical thinking class has shown up in a blouse so low cut that it could make an entire school board blush. Problem is, the blouse has no buttons.

Always prepared, Mrs. Borchers grabs a roll of masking tape and begins taping the shirt together.

"You're not ready for this," she says, laughing as she covers up the curves in question. "You're too young."

The girl smiles along. She knows Mrs. Borchers is just playing with her, being Mrs. Borchers. She also knows she's lucky her teacher isn't calling her parents, getting them to take her home and make her change into something more suitable.

"I'll make it pretty," says Mrs. Borchers, reaching for a felt tip pen. "I'll decorate it."

Two strips of tape - one applied horizontally, one vertically - are now pulling the shirt together over the girl's skin. Down the vertical strip, Mrs. Borchers scribbles:

I
love
Mrs.
B

But the center will not hold.

"It's opening up!" cry the other girls, who are getting into the drama.

"We've got to pull together and help her," says Mrs. Borchers.

"More tape!" says someone else.

Now they're all laughing, even the girl with the covered-up cleavage. As she and the rest of the class get back to work, she leaves the tape on. If another teacher had tried something like that, the girl might have been offended. But not with Mrs. Borchers.

Around the room, the students have split into small groups. They're working on their latest assignment, a demonstration speech each of them will have to make in the coming weeks. This morning they're writing, rewriting, practicing. Being seventh-graders, they are also talking quietly among themselves.

The room hums with their conversations. They're talking about their cheerleading routines, about whether it's acceptable to eat pizza after it's been dropped on the floor, about the boring Greek myths they're studying in language arts, about their hair and whether they prefer it layered or not, about the latest breaking news from their families.

"My sister wrote a poem called Scrumptious," one is saying. "It's about a boy. She said he looked like chocolate cake."

One topic spins into another. They're going on about their boyfriends and girlfriends, their favorite singers, when they can and cannot wear thongs, the intricacies of making banana nut bread, about whether a certain teacher on the Booker T faculty might be gay.

Have you ever called at his house? says one girl. "His answering machine is freaky."

"He's married!" says another.

"That's a cover-up."

 
 
 
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