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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Thomas French on why he wanted to work on this story.

Jackie wants to know what Nelson thinks she should do about Byron. Nelson scribbles his reply in a note: “Dump him, dump him, and for the last time dump him.”
Monique Fields reads a note passed between Nelson and Jackie.

Double secret boyfriend
CRUNCH TIME Jackie Robinson waits in the lunch line at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Tampa. Jackie is juggling so much: rehearsals, romance, schoolwork. At home, she still plays with dolls and imagines her life as a grownup.
Story by Thomas French, Monique Fields and Dong-Phuong Nguyen

Photos by Krystal Kinnunen

© St. Petersburg Times published May 19, 2003

The notes. The ones from the friends. Yes. Her daughter hides them under the bed, in the Adidas shoe box.

Sometimes, when Joanne Heffern is walking down the hall at their Brandon home, she sees Danielle in her room, sitting on her comforter, the box open beside her as she unfolds the sheets of paper, again and again, and reads whatever's written there. Even though Danielle's mother knows about the notes and where her daughter stores them, she leaves it alone. She has heard about other parents who feel no compunction about spying on their children, rifling through their drawers, flipping through the pages of their diaries. Not Joanne.

"That has nothing to do with me," she says. "That's between her and her friends."

Still, a part of her is curious about what she would discover if she went digging under the bed. She wonders what her daughter and her friends say to each other, the things they share in that secret language, all those initials and abbreviations. She longs to know what's happening inside Danielle, the way she's changing, unfolding. She wishes she could ride the bus home with Danielle and her friends and just listen to what they talk about.

"I would love to be a fly on the wall of that bus," says Joanne.

It's so hard not to worry. Joanne watches the talk shows. She has heard how some middle school kids are experimenting with oral sex, how they don't think of it as sex at all, how they do it in the bathrooms at school, in a car, wherever.

A few months ago, when Danielle started to show more interest in boys, Joanne cornered her.

"You're not doing anything, are you?"

Danielle looked at her. "What do you mean?"

"You're not doing anything with that boy that calls up?"

Meaning Nelson.

"No," said Danielle. "We're just friends."

Joanne thinks back to her own mistakes -- years of rebellion, pregnant by 19 -- and hopes that Danielle will not repeat them. She doesn't want to over-steer her daughter; she knows she'll need room to breathe, a chance to figure things out for herself. She just wants her to find her way without getting hurt.

It's unnerving how quickly Danielle's transforming. Already people mistake her for a grown woman. At the movies, she has to show her ID to prove she's young enough for the discount. At the salon, the hairdresser mistakes her for a married woman and asks where she met her husband.

She's talking about dating, even driving a car. She has her heart set on a silver Mustang. Preferably a convertible.

Not even in high school yet, and she's slipping away from them, every second of every day.


Most seventh-grade girls, forbidden by their mothers to have a boyfriend, would draw the line at one. Jaclyn Robinson has two.

Byron, a receiver on the football team, is Jackie's official secret boyfriend, the one she walks down the hall with but doesn't tell her mother about.

Nelson, the heartthrob with the sweet smile and a gift for whispering just the right words, is her double secret boyfriend, the one she can't even flirt with except on the sly, the one she keeps private not just from her mother but from her own friends.

As it happens, Nelson also has an official girlfriend. She goes to another school.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Nelson and Jackie have eyes for only each other. Seated side by side in science class, the two are trading surreptitious smiles, sneaking glances, doing the whole verboten love thing.

Up front, the teacher is going on and on.

"Lately," says Mr. Watson, "we've been studying cells."

Today, he's talking about protists, one-celled organisms such as paramecia and amoebae, where they live and how they eat and even how they reproduce.

Jackie and Nelson barely hear a word he's saying. From the corner of her eye, Jackie watches Nelson as he hunches over a piece of notebook paper, writing. He's supposed to be taking notes on Mr. Watson's lecture; Jackie knows better. Soon she feels the paper nudging against her elbow. Without taking her eyes off the teacher, she slides it under her notebook, pulls the notebook toward her, then edges the paper out from underneath so she can read it unobserved.

Nelson, she sees, gets right to it.

I heard from Isela that you have to kiss Byron. You don't have to if you don't want to. Is your life.

Jackie's not so sure. Writing her reply on the same sheet of paper, she points out that Byron is supposed to be her real boyfriend. What will her friends say if she doesn't let him kiss her? Won't that blow her cover?

The paper slides back and forth. Nelson isn't buying her argument.


Over the next few days, in Mr. Watson's classroom, Jackie and Nelson exchange more notes. What exactly, Jackie asks, does Nelson want her to do? Is she supposed to just get rid of Byron? Break his heart?

Nelson scribbles his reply.

Dump him, dump him, and for the last time dump him.


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