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.
 
 SINCERELY, NELSON RENDEROS
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


The lowest point ever for the Pink Dinos comes when Brett and the others decide they need to get rid of one of their vocalists. There’s Gio and there’s Ricky. One of them has to go.

“I want you to reflect silently,” the principal says to Jackie and the 32 other students gathered in the lunchroom, “about why you are not passing seventh grade.”

Sincerely, Nelson Renderos
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SURPRISES Kirsten Austin (top, in overalls) waits to sign up for the talent show auditions. The Pink Dinos are about to find out the landscape has changed. Nelson Renderos (bottom), with Danielle Heffern, has a surprise or two up his sleeve, too. Could he really be thinking of dumping two girlfriends within the space of 24 hours?

Back at school, an early morning fog hangs over the green of the P.E. fields. A breeze, surprisingly chilly for spring, moves through the tops of the palm trees. Students, waiting for the first bell, huddle in the courtyard, shivering and clinging to one another for body warmth.

Soon the gates open, and the masses shuffle in, making their way toward first-period homeroom. In one of the science labs, boys take turns shooting crumpled pieces of paper at the trash can. They're still at it when their teacher appears.

"Guys," says Ms. Kasey, "I'm not in the mood."

At Booker T. Washington Middle School, barely two months remain in the semester. Not nearly enough time to do everything that needs doing.

In the halls, a multitude of faces and bodies surges forward. Watching them flow past in wave after wave, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by their size and number, the tang of their hair gel and perfume, the random cruelty of the herd. Then a bell rings, and suddenly the corridors are empty. Almost peaceful.

In the lunchroom, a table of girls sit with their eyes closed, their hands linked through a chain of entwined pinkies. Together, they are humming the same sound.

"Ommmmmmmmmmmmmm
mmmmmmm."

Down in the band room, Carlo Ottanelli whiles away his lunch period practicing his trumpet. Carlo plays in the school band. They've got a competition coming up, and Mr. Dickson, the band teacher, wants them to be ready.

Hard as Carlo tries, though, he can't get his mind off Kalie Wells. She's going out with Gio Molina, one of the lead vocalists for the Pink Dinos; when Carlo, the band's manager, sees them together, he turns his head. It was bad enough when she was just avoiding him. But to watch her walking with a member of the band is almost too much to bear.

Carlo lowers his trumpet.

"This morning," he says, "she said that she doesn't want me to hate her."

Carlo didn't hear those words directly from Kalie's lips. He has been sending communiques to Kalie through a messenger, a girl who's a friend of them both. Kalie's words of encouragement were relayed back through the same girl. This friend tells Carlo to be patient. She seems to be under the impression that Kalie won't be with Gio for long.

"I want to keep on trying," says Carlo. "I'm not going to let a year and three-quarters go to waste."

His friends despair when they hear him say such things. Hope has enslaved him.

"He watches too many movies," says Sean Simpson, the Pink Dinos' bass player. "He thinks everything will work out."

For all the Pink Dinos, April is indeed turning out to be the cruelest of months. Their second concert is approaching, but they are banned from practicing in the band room. They also can't seem to persuade Kirsten Austin, the hippie girl, to join their lineup. She keeps deflecting their advances. It's beginning to feel as though they're being rejected.

The low point comes when Brett and the others decide they need to get rid of one of their vocalists. There's Gio and there's Ricky Reed. The band likes both of their voices, but the two of them just don't seem to sing very well together. They've been out of synch ever since the debut concert. Now the boys have decided to make a change. It's either Ricky or Gio. One of them has to go.

A meeting is held. Votes are cast. Afterward, almost none of the boys can agree on what happened. Some say the vote was friendly. Others describe it as decidedly hostile. But when the deliberations conclude, Gio is no longer a Pink Dino.

Officially, one of the main reasons cited is that the band wants to play more Blink-182 songs, which requires someone with a higher voice, which would be Ricky. Unofficially, it also bears remembering that the band's upcoming concert is at Ricky's church in Brandon, which would make it difficult to show up without him.

One more possibility worth noting. Just a theory, mind you.

Consider the subterranean dynamics of conflicted loyalties. Brett and the other boys are friends with Gio. But they are best friends with Carlo, who has suffered since Gio and Kalie became a couple.

These are nice kids, all of them. Carlo certainly didn't seek Gio's removal; he wasn't even around for the vote. Most of the Pink Dinos insist the Carlo factor played no part in their decision. Still, it's hard not to wonder if inside the boys, somewhere beneath their awareness, personal considerations didn't seep into the mix of motivations.

Only a week after he made his approach on Kalie, Gio has been shown the door.

"I'm already out," he says a day or so later, his jaw clenched. "I don't get to practice with 'em."

***

Jackie Robinson is working on a personnel change of her own.

She is torn between Byron and Nelson, not sure whom to pick. The strain of it all is wearing on her, making it all the more difficult to focus in class. She has to do something, and soon.

One Thursday morning, she is in class when the P.A. system hums to life. A disembodied voice asks teachers to please excuse the following students from class for an assembly. The voice reads a list of names.

"... Jaclyn Robinson ..."

Jackie heads out into the hall, joining dozens of students who have been summoned to the mystery meeting. All of them are looking at one another. An assembly? For what?

Into the lunchroom they file, hushed and watchful. They find a registration table waiting, with teachers ready to check names off a list.

A list. This can't be good.

Jackie, silent for once, finds a seat at one of the round tables. Mrs. Harrell, the principal, greets them without a smile.

"Okay, good morning," she says. "I want everybody to turn your seat and face me."

The sound of plastic chairs scooting on the floor breaks the silence. The students -- there are 33 here in all -- look toward their principal.

Mrs. Harrell pauses for a moment, then gets to the point.

"I want you to reflect silently," she says, "about why you are not passing seventh grade."

In a second, Jackie's usual exuberance is gone. She sits with her face in her hands, her body deflated. Suddenly she knows why she's been called to this room. The F in Mr. Arnold's language arts class.

Mrs. Harrell's voice, usually a caring lilt, is stern.

"This is about you," she says. "This is not about the person next to you. This is not about me. This is about you."

Jackie doesn't really have an excuse for her failing grade. She comes from a solid family. Her mother Cynthia is a contract manager for the Department of Children and Families. Her father George teaches GED classes. Her oldest sister is a lawyer and her other sister is about to graduate from high school with honors.

"The next thing I want you to do is look around you," Mrs. Harrell says. "If you're sitting next to someone who is possibly causing you to not focus on your work, I want you to get up and move."

One boy pushes his chair from the table and walks to another.

Mrs. Harrell makes sure her students hear her well. Those who fail seventh grade can't attend Booker T next year, she tells them. There won't be any retakes.

"I don't have seats for you," she says.

There is no summer school anymore, not in this era of budget cuts. If these students want to come back to Booker T next year, she says, they'll have to do it as eighth-graders.

No, no, no, thinks Jackie. All of her friends are here; she actually likes some of her teachers. She can't allow herself to be sent away in disgrace, all because she can't pass language arts.

The assembly of doom is almost over. For the grand finale, Mrs. Harrell unleashes her weapon of choice: a note home.

A copy has been made for each student. Jackie reads hers quickly.

We are quickly approaching the end of the academic school year. As a result we have analyzed your student's progress from the beginning of the school year through the end of the third quarter, and have determined that Jaclyn Robinson has not yet met the requirement for being promoted to the next grade level.

The notes are to be shown to their parents. No excuses, no exceptions. Each student is to take the note home that very evening and have it signed right away and bring it back tomorrow.

"If you don't do that," Mrs. Harrell warns, "I'll be looking for you."

She looks them over carefully. She tells them she sees potential in all of them. She lets them know there is still a chance.

"Raise your hands if you're going to eighth grade," she says. "Raise both hands if you're sure."

Jackie raises two hands up high.

***

 
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