|SETTING THE PACE Nelson holds hands with Shakyra Subervi (top photo) at the rehearsal for the quinceanera. This is the night he has chosen for their first kiss. Bob Cal (bottom photo), one of Nelsons closest friends and the champion devourer of Flaming Hot Cheetos, listens to music in the school bus on the way home.
A phone rings in the front office. A student volunteer answers in a voice several degrees too perky.
"Thank you for calling Booker T. Washington," she says. "How may I brighten your day?"
No one has the right to be so relentlessly cheerful. Not at this time of year, when April is disappearing and there's way too much yet to be done in far too little time.
The school is planning a flurry of end-of-the-year activities. A seventh-grade class trip to Disney World. A spring dance. Also something officially called the "Spring Fashion Talent Extravaganza." The details on this last event are vague, but it's being billed as half talent show, half fashion show.
In the lunchroom, Danielle Heffern and Isela Reinberg are holding an emergency council. The girls are outraged. Nelson, it seems, has been bragging about his kiss with Shakyra.
"I can't believe he said she was his best kiss ever," says Danielle. "He's so gross."
"Yeah," Isela agrees. "All he talks about is Shakyra. Shakyra this, Shakyra that."
Danielle and Isela are tired of thinking about Nelson, tired of wondering who wrote the anonymous message about him in the girls' bathroom. Enough. The two girls vow, then and there, to relinquish all romantic aspirations toward Nelson. They're pushing him out of their hearts and minds forever. In honor of this vow, they issue a moratorium on all songs by Shakira, the chart-topping singer from Colombia. They are especially determined to never again listen to Whenever, Wherever, the hit single that's been all over the radio. Nor will they watch the video, in which Shakira shakes her hips while dancing on a mountain.
Danielle and her friends have never laid eyes on Nelson's Shakyra. But they have seen the Shakira in the video, and that is bad enough. They torture themselves, wondering if Nelson's new girlfriend is equally ravishing. Does she have the same flowing blond hair? Is she just as skinny?
"We hate her," Isela says.
Hating Nelson turns out to be more difficult. In the days that follow, he flirts without mercy.
One night Isela has a dream. She sees Nelson and Danielle in a movie theater, sitting side by side. They're making out.
When she wakes up, Isela is appalled that her subconscious has not chosen her to be the one kissing Nelson. But she loyally reports the dream in detail to Danielle.
"Oh my God, Danielle," she says. "You guys were all over each other!"
"Dreams can come true!"
At another table in the lunchroom, a seventh-grade girl sits alone. She has bushy hair, braces, a bulky frame. There is something awkward about her, something that goes beyond her size. She sits at the same table every day, always by herself.
Booker T is the third middle school this girl has attended in the past two years. Her mom keeps moving her, hoping she'll fit in somewhere. But it never works. At her last school, someone threw ketchup on her. Someone else hit her. This year is a little better. At least no one's assaulted her. They leave her alone.
If this were a movie, things would go differently for this girl. She would get a makeover, win over the school, maybe meet a fairy godmother. One way or another, she would be transformed. The truth is, this girl has no idea how to connect with the kids who sit around her. Even if they tried talking to her, she probably wouldn't know what to say back.
Sometimes, here in the lunchroom, she reads a book. Or sometimes she brings a Nano puppy she got for her ninth birthday. She keeps it in her pocket. She says it's her only friend.