Midway through the second semester, the weeks are melting together. March is giving way to April.
Beside the trophy case in the front lobby, two girls stand at a dead stop, idly chatting, not caring that they're forcing dozens of kids to swerve around them. When one boy hurries past, accidentally grazing shoulders, the girls audibly cluck.
"Scuse you, Kareem!" one of them yells, shooting him a look.
The boy glances back, dismisses her with a raised eyebrow, keeps moving.
On a wall in the lunchroom, six clocks hang in a row, displaying the time tomorrow in Hong Kong and Sydney, the time today in Mexico City, Tampa, London and Paris. Should any visitors forget, the clocks are there to remind them that Booker T. Washington Middle School is a magnet for international studies. The students learn about global patterns, cultures around the world, the geography and history of different continents. The seventh-graders are required to take one semester of Spanish and another of French.
The magnet draws students not just from different corners of Hillsborough County but from every corner of the world. This year, Booker T's population includes students from more than 20 countries. Nelson, for instance, spent the first years of his life in Guatemala; one of the boys who sits at his lunch table is from the Philippines. Danielle is from England. Cameron, the drummer for the Pink Dinos, is from South Africa. There is a boy from Pakistan, even a girl from Tonga.
At Booker T, the global village meets every day in the lunchroom. Drift from table to table, and you'll hear kids speaking with accents from Europe, Asia, half the islands in the Caribbean. The mix of backgrounds gives the room a sense of openness, of not everyone being pressured to fit the exact same mold.
Not that the school is some utopia. This is not an attraction at Disney World populated with happy little dolls singing about diversity and sharing. It's a real place, with real kids. Which means the global lunchroom can get pretty raucous.
In their corner of the room, the Pink Dinos have begun another scavenging run, trolling from table to table in search of scraps. Sean Simpson, easily the most resourceful hunter and gatherer of the group, has already snagged an apple-cinnamon Nutri-Grain bar and is now petitioning for a chunk of another kid's turkey sub.
"You gonna eat all that?" says Sean. "It's a big sandwich for a little guy."
It's the oddest thing, watching him work. Sean lives in a nice home, where the refrigerator is fully stocked; if asked, his mother would gladly give him a buck or two to buy whatever he wanted at lunchtime.
Instead Sean prefers to fend for himself, relying on his charm and persistence to fill his belly.
"I don't have any money," he says. "I just get other people's food."
Sean is not alone. Many other boys, not just Pink Dinos, scavenge at lunchtime, too.
Why? After years of depending on their moms, maybe the guys enjoy proving their self-sufficiency. An anthropologist who studies primitive cultures -- and there are few more primitive than middle school -- might tell us that it's a rite of passage, some kind of self-imposed survival test. Or maybe the boys just get tired of slapping together their own baloney sandwiches.
Whatever the reason, Carlo Ottanelli is having none of it. He is carefully guarding his lunch against predation, making sure Sean doesn't swoop in and take something. Always particular, Carlo does not like anyone to interfere with the protocol he has established for himself and the basic food groups. He has begun working his way through one of his favorite lunches: a bottle of Zephyrhills water, a bag of Ritz Bits peanut butter crackers, and a cream cheese sandwich on wheat, the crusts removed by his mother.
Around him, a sea of chaos swirls. Boys are bolting in and out of their seats, grunting, calling out to girls, bouncing around the room like they're all jonesing for sugar, which in fact some of them are. At Carlo's table, one kid has crushed some crackers in his hand and is sprinkling them over someone's head.
Carlo hardly notices. He sits quietly, chewing happily on his decrusted sandwich. He is so serene, so at one with his lunch and his lot in life, he appears to be lost in a trance. Nothing disturbs his calm until Kalie walks into the cafeteria.
She is maybe 20 feet away, gliding between the tables. In case Carlo has not seen her, his good friend Eric jabs a finger in her direction and begins acting as though he's auditioning for Moby Dick.
"Thar she blows!" Eric cries.
Carlo stops chewing. For what seems like a long time -- in reality, perhaps five or six seconds -- he watches her, spellbound, as she floats across his line of vision. She's moving away from him, talking to friends, smiling and laughing.
Eric calls out the play-by-play.
"She's going to avoid him," he says, speaking in sportscaster patter. "She doesn't even look at him."
Carlo seems not to hear a word. Instead he asks Eric to give him an extra piece of chocolate from his lunch.
"You're not supposed to eat chocolate," says Sean, who has sat down for a moment, pausing in his labors.
"I'm giving it to Kalie," says Carlo.
Sean blinks. "Kalie doesn't want it," he says.
Once more, Carlo's friends try to talk some sense into him. This is madness. Really, why does he keep doing this to himself? But Carlo is beyond their help, well past logic. As far as he's concerned, the chocolate already belongs to Kalie.
He gets the candy from Eric and scans the room, trying to lock onto Kalie's current position. But he's too late. She's gone.
No matter. Carlo announces that he'll hold on to his tiny offering until the next time he sees her. Later today maybe. He almost always sees her after seventh period, in the hall.
Eric and Sean look away.
The chocolate plan is ill fated. That afternoon, before Carlo has a chance to deliver his gift, a rumor sweeps through the halls that Kalie's going out with someone new. Worse, it's someone Carlo knows.
One of the Pink Dinos.