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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The girls cruise the school in a state of hyper-alertness, every sensor turned up to detect the tiniest piece of fresh data. They are cryptographers, constantly decoding the secret history of the school.
Krystal Kinnunen on Nelson Renderos
Thomas French on Nelson Renderos

Nelson understands that the world reveals itself in fine print. If a girl changes her hair, he comments. When one comes to him crying, he listens. This is his secret. The boy pays attention.

Sincerely, Nelson Renderos
FRIDAY RITUAL Nelson Renderos shaves only once a week, but it is an intricate task. Four layers of foam must be applied before he is satisfied he has it right.

Sometimes it seems as though two different species walk the halls of Booker T.

The boys, at least a large number of them, move through their days in a fog, with little awareness of what's happening outside the bubble of their own immediate experience. Their eyes don't see the subtle shifts in body language across the room, their ears don't catch the conversation between the couple two lockers down. There is a carefully cloistered purity to their detachment. They are oblivious and prefer it that way.

The girls tend to notice everything. The majority of them already qualify as information specialists, skilled enough to work for the NSA. They cruise the school in a state of hyper-alertness, every sensor inside them turned up to record the tiniest piece of fresh data. They are not interested in merely their own agendas. They conduct surveillance on intersecting spheres of influence, overlapping territories of need. They observe the veiled gestures, the things that aren't said. Even more impressive, they analyze their findings systematically, talking on the phone with their friends for hours and instant messaging them late at night to compare notes and to evaluate which pieces of intelligence are meaningless and which deserve to be filed in the permanent record. They are cryptographers, constantly decoding the secret history of the school.

Not that all this knowledge leaves the girls any happier. They see things and worry about things that never even show up on male radar. Sometimes it makes them crazy.

Every day, it all plays out in the lunchroom. The girls cry, rage, dispatch emissaries who carry urgent messages from table to table. The boys practice burping and tell stupid jokes.

At a table near the back wall, Nelson and his friends are revving up for another Flaming Hot Cheetos challenge. As usual, they are daring one of their tablemates -- a kid named Bob -- to ingest an entire bag of the spicy snacks as quickly as possible without throwing up. The rules require Bob to devour the Cheetos straight; no sips of water are allowed, no soda, nothing.

Today Bob is on his game. As the other boys watch closely, hoping for signs of nausea, he crunches his way to victory. By the time he finishes the bag, his fingers are coated with orange Cheeto dust; his lips appear radioactive. Nelson is not satisfied. He tells Bob that a new record awaits: two bags.

Bob isn't going for it.

"I never said two," he says, reaching for a milk carton nearby. His digestive tract is on fire.

Smiling extra sweetly, Nelson advises him that it's not safe to drink the milk.

"You never know where the cow has been," he says.

Another boy joins them, holding a large chocolate chip cookie. They beg him to share it.

"I give you my outstretched hand," says Bob, reaching across the table.

In a remarkable display of benevolence, the boy breaks the cookie into chunks and disperses them. Nelson eats his piece quickly, his eyes taking a moment to study the cross-currents of the room.

Nelson is a boy, yes. He enjoys a Flaming Hot Cheetos challenge as much as any of his tablemates. But he also notices the things girls notice. He understands, as they do, that the world reveals itself in fine print.

Of special interest to him are the habits of every female in the school. Not just the way they look but the way they talk, the way they think and see, the way each of them moves and laughs and acts differently. If one of them changes her hair, he comments. When one comes to him crying, he listens. This is his secret. The boy pays attention.

He also revels in the attention he gets from girls. In the lunchroom, whenever Danielle or Isela beckon, he jumps up and heads for their table.

"I'll be right back," he tells Bob and the others.

His friends shake their heads.

"He's always right back," says one.

Nelson claimed his first girlfriend in first grade, when he and his family still lived in Guatemala; he won his first real kiss in fourth grade, not long after his family moved to America. Since arriving at Booker T as a sixth-grader, he has had so many girlfriends he can't remember them all.

"LaToya," he says one day at lunch, trying to make a list. "Victoria ... Yahaira ... Nicole ..."

He pauses. He knows he's forgetting someone. But who?

"You went out with Lindsay," offers one of his tablemates.

Nelson smiles. "Oh. Lindsay."

With each new relationship, he practices his wooing. He has learned to give stuffed animals and other small offerings. He makes his girlfriends mix tapes filled with favorite songs he has recorded off Wild 98.7.

Last semester, when he was seeing Yahaira, he made her a tape and gave it to her with a note scribbled on the back of a piece of sheet music for his clarinet.

I hope you liked this tape because I made it for a very special, pretty, fine, sexy, and good looking girl. I like you so much I don't know what I will be doing at this minute without you.

At the bottom, he wrote:

Peace, my Homies

Thinking better of it, he crossed out those words and replaced them with:

Hugs + kisses
Your man

He and Yahaira went out for five months or so, an eternity for middle school. Then, on the day the students returned to Booker T after the holiday break, she told him it was over.

"I didn't care," says Nelson, shrugging. "I had other girls I was thinking about. I think about other girls for emergencies."

At home, his parents hear him talking about these romances and tell their son to be careful. His mother reminds him to use his head and think for himself.

"No hagas lo que los de mas hacen," she says. "Se tu propia persona."

Don't do what others do. Be your own person.

Nelson's parents almost always address him in Spanish. His father, whom Nelson is named after, was born in El Salvador; his mother, Silvia, is from Guatemala. Now the family lives in a three-bedroom apartment near Leto High School. His dad's a manager at a McDonald's; his mom works at a day care center.

Nelson is sandwiched between his two sisters. Silvia is 15, Alejandra, 11. Both give him advice, especially Silvia. She helps Nelson pick out his clothes, style his hair, choose which teddy bear to give his latest girlfriend. Silvia even screens Nelson's potential love interests. She knows her little brother -- his openness, the vulnerability -- and she has strong opinions about who's right for him and who isn't. If one of the wrong girls calls the apartment, Silvia chases her away.

"He's not here," she tells the girl. "I don't want you talking to him."

Nelson is equally protective of his sisters. If one of them likes a boy he deems unworthy, he talks about beating him up. Their mother tells him not to worry so much.

"Esas ninas se pueden cuidar por si mismas," she says. These girls can take care of themselves.

Nelson's mother dotes on her boy. She tells him what females like, how they respond to sweetness. She also reminds him of the need to know the proper boundaries. She says he has to learn when it's appropriate to flirt with girls and when it's not. At this age especially, boys sometimes have a difficult time gauging such things.

His father talks about the importance of treating a girl with respect, no matter what happens. In a home filled with females, Nelson relies on his father for guidance on how to carry himself as a man. He likes to wear his dad's after shave, Intrigue. When the two of them watch TV in the living room, Nelson's posture mirrors his father's, his hands folded across his stomach in exactly the same way.

In his room, Nelson lingers in the past and dreams of the future. On his dresser he keeps a collection of Hot Wheels cars; he likes to run them up and down his arms. When he grows up, he wants to be an auto engineer. He also wants to be married, with three kids, just like his parents.

"I want a big house." A pause, then a smile. "And a lot of money."

Over his bed hangs a framed picture of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Both are robed in blue; from under their skin, their hearts are visibly aflame.

At night, just before Nelson falls asleep, he looks up at Jesus and Mary and prays for the poor and the hungry. He asks to be allowed another day of life. He asks to be forgiven for lying to his mother about finishing his homework.

Nelson wonders about heaven. In his mind he can see it. An ocean of clouds, angels everywhere. It sounds like a beautiful place, but sometimes he isn't so sure. He worries that he'll have nothing to do up there, that he'll be bored for all eternity.

There's something else. Nelson has heard that when you arrive in heaven, God gives you a fresh start and makes you forget the life you've led before. Nelson does not like the sound of that. What if he can't remember the people he loves? What if he forgets his mother and his father, and Silvia and Alejandra, and Danielle and Isela and Bob and Jackie and all of his friends?

In the dark, he thinks about this possibility and hopes it's not true. Without his family, without his friends, heaven would be no good. It wouldn't be heaven.


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