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
Page 1
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
Page 6
 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Gladiators
photo
PRIVATE SPACE Danielle Heffern signs a card for her grandmother in her bedroom. Along with the cheerleading trophies and posters of Sisqo and Usher is a photo of her dad back in England, posing with her when she was a baby.

Danielle adores her mom, looks up to her, longs for time alone with her, away from Joe and the little brothers. Sometimes, just before bedtime, Danielle goes into her parents' room and climbs into bed with her mom, just the two of them. They watch TV together, and her mom smooths her hair, and Danielle tells her whatever's on her mind.

The two of them have the usual mother-daughter power struggles. Like with the phone. Since starting middle school, Danielle has developed a whole new appreciation for telecommunications. Her mom got tired of her daughter's calls coming in nonstop, so for a while Danielle was given her own line.

It was the best. She never had to share the phone or feel rushed; also, she loved to use the three-way calling feature. She would call one of her girlfriends, and then the two of them would call a boy one of them liked. One girl would stay quiet, so the boy wouldn't know she was on the line; the other girl, of course, would ask the boy what he thought about the silent girl. Did he think she was cute? Would he ever consider going out with her?

Then one day the Verizon bill arrived, and Danielle's mom saw $75 in three-way charges, and that was the end of that.

Even without the three-way calls, Danielle can always talk to her friends online. She instant messages dozens of them virtually every night. Her IM buddy list is constantly growing; at last count, it held more than 70 screen names. Sometimes it drives her stepdad crazy, watching her at the computer, a blizzard of messages popping up.

"I don't want you talking to all those people," Joe tells her. "You don't know all of them."

"Yes, I do," says Danielle. "I know them from school and from cheerleading."

Of course, just because there's 70 names on the list doesn't mean Danielle's messaging 70 different people. Many of her friends use more than one screen name. One girl has five.

Danielle's always changing her own screen names. Depending on her mood, she can morph into ghettoprep7989, starhottie7989 or englishchick7989. Each name embodies a different part of Danielle's personality, her history, who and what she wants to become. She likes "ghettoprep" because she feels comfortable in both worlds; she loves to listen to Eminem, wishes she could afford the Body Shop. She likes "starhottie" because when she's not contemplating law school, she thinks she might like to become an actor. Her favorite right now is Kirsten Dunst, the girl who starred in Bring It On, the epic of cheerleading movies. The "7989," meanwhile, refers to July 9, 1989, the day Danielle was born.

Just like with the phone, Danielle has to negotiate for Internet time. She and her mom are constantly redefining the boundaries, negotiating what choices are to be left in her hands. At the beginning of this school year, her mom would wake up at the same time as Danielle. But then they'd disagree on whether Danielle's shirt was too short, whether she had too much gel in her hair. Finally her mom gave in.

Now Danielle picks her own clothes. Of course, even though she has a closet crammed with outfits, she never has anything to wear. Not a day goes by that she doesn't wish that she could fit into those cute outfits the skinny girls wear. She can't even shop at the Limited Too; most of the sizes are just too small.

Once, this girl she knows - an extra-skinny girl - wondered out loud how Danielle could be so popular when she was so fat.

When people say things like that, Danielle doesn't know how to respond. Usually she just goes quiet and feels the burning in her cheeks.

Sometimes, Danielle gets jealous of the girls who are tiny enough to wear anything they want. When she and her friends see someone like that, they can't help but make comments.

"Barbie wants her clothes back," they say.

Problem is, the boys like girls who wear Barbie clothes. They actually prefer an ugly skinny girl to a cute one who doesn't fit into a Size 0. Danielle wonders what it would be like to have a boyfriend. A guy to sit next to her at the movies. A guy who would dream about her as much as she dreamt about him.

For months, the boy she has dreamt about the most is Nelson. She and her girlfriends pride themselves on their ability to recognize male talent. Danielle and Isela and her other friends keep close tabs on all the boys at Booker T, constantly updating their opinions as to which ones are hot and which are not. The girls have their standards.

"If they don't have a good haircut, goodbye!" says Danielle, waving her hand.

Early each week - usually on Tuesdays, after she and her friends have had a chance to process any new intelligence from the weekend - they vote on a Boy of the Week, identifying someone who has upgraded his look or snagged a new girlfriend or done something else to earn their admiration. The same boy can be named Boy of the Week more than once. The Boy of the Year, however, never changes.

The girls adore Nelson, utterly. Every day in the lunchroom, Danielle and her friends sit at their special table, talking about him and arguing about him and staring across the room at him, sitting at his own table with his own friends. With his soulful brown eyes and jet black hair, Nelson is undeniably handsome. But for Danielle, the attraction goes far beyond surface considerations.

"He's not the cutest boy in school," she says, trying to find the words. "His personality makes him cute."

She appreciate Nelson's confidence, his calm, the way he notices things. Inside him, Danielle senses a genuine and enduring sweetness.

Danielle doesn't hold out much hope that she and Nelson will ever be a couple. She has seen the girls who draw his special attention, and all of them are skinny. Danielle can tell he likes her. He calls her house, writes her notes, flirts without shame. But he flirts with everyone.

At home, Danielle retreats to her room and thinks it all through. She looks at the photo of her dad. She studies her cheerleading trophies, the pictures of her in uniform, her proof that she qualifies as a girl worthy of notice. Some afternoons she gets out a pen and paper and writes notes to her friends. Other days she goes through the notes they've sent her.

Hey gurlie, I am so bored!

Isela and the others know she worries about her size, about whether Nelson or any other boy will ever like her. So they write her notes, showering her with compliments.

Oh and you really should have more "self"-"confedence" because you're not ugly. I think that you're actually quite adorable.

Danielle keeps the notes in an Adidas shoe box, size 81/2, under her bed, where her little brothers won't find them. She likes to get them out and spread them across her comforter, unfolding them and reading them and rereading them.

Your already pretty and your bubbly, happy personality adds even more to it.

She wants to believe it.

And besides, who cares what other people think, because "Your body's too Bootylicious for them babe."

It would be so much easier to believe it.

***

 
Page 4  
 
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.