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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Dong-Phuong Nguyen on how times have change since she was 13.

Sincerely, Nelson Renderos
ALONE AT LAST Nelson Renderos rests in his room, a framed picture of Jesus and the Virgin Mary over his bed. Since arriving at Tampa’s Booker T. Washington Middle School, he has had so many girlfriends he can’t remember them all.
Story by Thomas French, Monique Fields and Dong-Phuong Nguyen

Photos by Krystal Kinnunen

© St. Petersburg Times published May 23, 2003

The Boy of the Year is faithful to his weekly shaving ritual.

Nelson Renderos prefers to use his parents' bathroom. The other one's right beside his bedroom, but his sisters are always in there, endlessly beautifying themselves. Whenever he's inside, Silvia and Alejandra pound on the door.

"Hurry up," they tell him. "Hurry up."

Every Friday evening, when he is ready to shave, Nelson moves instead to the sanctuary of his mother and father's room. They leave him in peace.

First he uncaps the shaving cream, then spreads the foam across his upper lip. He is waiting for the day when he will have more of a beard, when he can shape his sideburns. For now, the lip is all that requires his attention. Picking up his razor, he first executes a series of downward strokes. Then he dabs another layer of foam and moves in an upward direction, against the grain.

As he shaves, he thinks about Jackie, his girlfriend at Booker T. He has been pleading with her to break up with her regular boyfriend. Earlier today, he wrote her another note about it.

Do you like Byron more than me? You're going to have to make up your mind.

More foam, then another sweep, this time moving sideways from the center outward.

Youre going to go out with me or him. This is serious.

He applies a fourth layer of foam, then finishes with another round of downward strokes.

I like you alot, more than Byron, and more than you think.

For a moment, Nelson studies his face in the mirror. He looks for flaws, anything that might make a girl not want him. Sometimes he thinks he is ugly. But then he tells himself to accept how he looks, who he is.

He wonders what will happen next. Not just with Jackie. With everything.


In the bedroom, she is assembling her own yearbook.

Danielle Heffern is covering a wall with snapshots from school. Piece by piece, she is putting together the story of her seventh-grade year. There are pictures of her with Mrs. Borchers, and with Mattie and Samantha, and on the bus with Isela, her best friend for life. Naturally, there are several photos of Nelson. In one shot, Nelson and Danielle and Isela are posing together, smiling into the lens.

It has never occurred to Danielle that the Boy of the Year might have insecurities of his own. Such a thing seems inconceivable. Aren't half the girls in the seventh grade in love with him?

No one has it worse for Nelson than Danielle does. Except maybe Isela. The two friends have been struck by the same fever. Lately Danielle and Isela have been beside themselves trying to figure out who left an anonymous message in the girls upstairs bathroom at school. It was scrawled on the side of a stall, in big blue letters.

I love Nelson

"Oh my God!" cried Isela, hyperventilating. "Oh my God!"

The two girls have spent hours debating the mystery. They talk every day after school. About Nelson, their parents, their periods, their grades, their humiliations. Danielle doesn't know how she'd survive without Isela; Isela considers Danielle her guardian angel.

One afternoon, Isela visits Danielle in Brandon and goes swimming with her and her little brothers. They're by the pool, having fun, when Danielle announces that she's hungry.

"Stop," says Rhys, the 7-year-old. "You're going to eat everything, you fat train."

He's just teasing. But Danielle can't take it anymore. Wrapping a towel around her body, she retreats to the other end of the pool and begins to sob. She is shattering. To Isela, it seems her friend is crying like a world without end.

Isela puts her arm around her.

"It's true," Danielle says. "I am a fat train. I'm not good for anything. That's why nobody likes me."

Now Isela is crying, too. She tells Danielle she's crazy, that she's just the way God has made her. Besides, everyone at school loves her.

"If you're fat," says Isela, "then I want to be fat, too."

Danielle hugs her friend, wipes away her tears, composes herself. Then she stands up and heads back to the other end of the pool, ready for revenge.

If he's smart, Rhys will run.


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