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 talks about how the kids are right between childhood and adulthood.

Double secret boyfriend

One piano. Two voices. The same three words, sung again and again.

Thank you, Lord.
Thank you, Lord.
Thank you, Lord.

Jackie and the girl beside her pause for a moment, waiting for instruction from the man behind the piano.

"Softly, again," he says.

Jackie collects herself, then projects.

Thank you, Lord.
Thank you, Lord.
Thank you, Lord.

Next he leads them through a series of exercises.

"Breathe in four counts," he says. "Hold for four counts. Breathe out."

The other girl inhales, Jackie with her.

One. She is quiet now. Two. She is trying to focus. Three. She's not used to holding her breath this long. Four.

Jackie and the other girl are two-thirds of a teenage gospel trio called Angels of Mine. They meet in this room at Jackie's church, the Cathedral of Faith, on Thursdays after school. The third girl hasn't shown up today, but that's all right. Jackie has high hopes for the trio. The man at the piano is their producer and he's talking about recording a CD, booking their debut.

"Breathe in 10 counts," he's saying now. "Hold for 10 counts. Breathe out."

The two girls inhale again, holding it, counting, then releasing the air with a long ssssssssssssss.

Jackie loves singing, especially with the other girls. The way their voices rise and fall together. Three becoming one.

"Breathe in 15 counts ..."

She's been singing for years. Her family -- her mom and dad, her two older sisters, 17 and 29 -- love all types of music. She and her sisters play the piano; in the car, Jackie and her mother Cynthia and sister Jessica, the 17-year-old, turn up the radio full-blast and sing together. Jackie's also a dancer; last Christmas, at Ruth Eckerd Hall, she joined the company for the annual run of the Chocolate Nutcracker.

"... 20 counts ..."

Jackie knows her mom is in the back of the rehearsal room, watching her cycle through her breathing. Her mom is always nearby, keeping track, paying attention. Jackie knows her mom's just looking out for her. But sometimes it's hard.

There are things she doesn't know how to explain to her mother. Not so much about her classes or her homework. About boys.

Jackie's mom is old-fashioned. She's always telling Jackie how she can't date until she turns 36.

"She moved it to 40 one time," Jackie says, smiling.

Her mother's only kidding, sort of. She has announced that Jackie can't go out on a date until she's 17 or 18, and only then with a chaperone. One time, when Jackie was out somewhere, her mom noticed her checking out a cute guy.

"Why are you looking at him?" she said.

"I can't look?" said Jackie.

Her mom disapproves of the kids at school who talk about how they're going out with their boyfriends and girlfriends. Jackie has tried to explain what that means.

"It's not like we're going out on dates," Jackie tells her.

Her mom scoffs.

"I don't know who's going to take you if you were," she tells her daughter.

The situation requires the finesse of a diplomat. Jackie's solution, for now, is to follow the spirit if not the exact letter of her mother's edicts. She calls Byron and Nelson her boyfriends. She talks to them at school, on the phone, through e-mail; she contemplates kissing one or the other. But that's it.

She hopes her mom will understand.

At 13, Jackie has no illusions that she's ready for adulthood. In many ways, she enjoys being a little girl. A fan of Barney from her preschool days, she still watches the purple dinosaur if he pops up while she's flipping channels. At school, when her teachers tell the kids to pick up their books, Jackie likes to sing the cleanup song.

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.
Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.

Sometimes, in her room, Jackie plays with her Cabbage Patch dolls. She has always loved her doll collection -- no Barbies, thank you -- and still talks about how she used to feed them, change their diapers, even take their temperature and listen for a heartbeat. More than once, she got in trouble because she washed a doll's hair with her mother's shampoo and conditioner.

Jackie thinks about being grown up, having kids of her own. Not any time soon; first she wants to go to college and medical school, so she can become a pediatrician or a neonatalogist. She sees herself with two children sometime in her 30s. She envisions herself as an understanding parent.

"Everybody makes mistakes every once in a while," she says. "People need some freedom to do what they want sometimes."

Jackie's already started her wedding plans. She sees herself at the altar, a long train flowing behind her; her best friend Briana, she says, will design her dress. She sees the groom and groomsmen all in white, her bridesmaids in their dresses. For them, she leans toward purple and gold.


Cynthia Robinson knows her daughter is a work in progress.

With Jackie, there is always a catch. She loves to play the piano and compose her own pieces, but doesn't want to bother learning music theory. She wants to be a doctor, but can't make it to class on time. She knows she's not allowed to get mixed up with boys, yet when her mother picks her up after school, different kids keep introducing themselves to her as Jackie's boyfriend.

Boyfriend. The word makes Cynthia shake her head.

"Supposedly," she says of Jackie, "she doesn't have any."

Cynthia remembers what it's like to be young. She knows that something is tugging on her daughter with such force that nobody else -- not her, not her father or her teachers -- can get through. Cynthia knows she can push her daughter only so hard.

"I can't say, 'Jaclyn, turn off your emotions.' I can't do that."

Jackie has such promise. Her mother sees the spark inside her, the possibilities. She watches her
daughter on stage, dancing, and is in awe of what she can do. Jackie's so fearless. And she has such a good heart.

Last summer, just before Jackie started seventh grade, her mother discovered that Jackie had befriended a homeless man. Every day, while walking from a summer program at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to the downtown library, Jackie would see the same man sitting outside the library and share her lunch with him. Half her sandwich, her chips and cookies, whatever she had. When Cynthia heard what her daughter was doing, she wasn't surprised.

"She's the most generous of my children."

Sometimes, at night, Cynthia goes into Jackie's room and watches her youngest daughter sleep. She sits beside her, strokes her hair, asks God to keep her safe. Stretched out in the bed, Jackie looks so tall. Her mother thinks back to holding her as a baby. The lightness of her. How much she looked like a tadpole.


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