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
ROLLERCOASTER
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


The Brandon church concert was a good night for the Pink Dinos. Random boys were seen careening in a Christian mosh pit in front of the stage. And a love offering yielded $17.45.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen on getting to know the kids.

Rollercoaster

Down in the band room, the Pink Dinos are auditioning for the talent show.

Ms. Williams, the teacher who'll be running the show, wants to know what song the boys have picked out. She's asking all the acts; she needs to make sure their selections don't contain anything objectionable.

"I don't want you to do anything you wouldn't do in front of your grandmother," she says.

Brett Gardner explains the band has chosen a Blink-182 song called Stay Together For the Kids. It's about a boy who wishes his parents would stop fighting.

"We can pick another song if you don't like it," says Brett.

"No," says Ms. Williams. "I like songs with messages."

As the boys play it for her, the teacher listens carefully. When they're done, she turns to Ricky Reed, the vocalist.

"You know," she says, "you really have a nice voice."

The Pink Dinos are on a roll. A week or so ago, just before the concert at Ricky's church in Brandon, they appealed to Mr. Dickson, asking him to reconsider the lunchtime rehearsal ban. He graciously said yes.

That church concert was a good night for the band. After bowing their heads for an opening prayer led by the church's youth minister, they played five songs. Random boys were seen careening in a Christian mosh pit in front of the stage. On behalf of the band, a love offering was taken from the audience, yielding $17.45.

Since that night, the Pink Dinos have been practicing hard. The pressure's on for Brett and his friends, especially now that Kirsten Austin has challenged their supremacy. This is no idle threat, and the boys know it. At first glance, Kirsten may seem harmless, with her whole retro hippie persona. But inside the flower child lurks a warrior. Kirsten's versatile; she sings, plays the guitar, writes her own songs. Plus, she's already formed her own trio with her and Dana and, of course, Brett's girlfriend, Clarissa.

A certain tension is simmering between Kirsten's band and the Pink Dinos. At lunchtime, while Brett and the boys are rehearsing in the band room, Kirsten huddles a few feet away with her girlfriends in an adjoining practice booth, strumming her guitar and dissolving Cool Mint Listerine strips on her tongue as she tinkers with her songs. Lately she's been working on that one about the boy who's out of reach. She came up with a title; it's called These Dreams.

Whenever Kirsten practices, the guys pop their heads in the door to make comments, flirt, interrupt.

"What's this band?" asks Cameron, the drummer. "Like, flower power girls?"

Kirsten stares him down.

"That is so evil," she says.

Kirsten gets the distinct feeling that, beneath the joking, the Pink Dinos view her as something between a nuisance and a threat. They seem to have it in their heads that they're the official band of the school and that she and her friends are interlopers, crowding their turf.

One day, the boys get irritated at Kirsten because she won't lend them her beloved Stratocaster. Brett has left his guitar at home that morning, and without it, he and the rest of the band can't rehearse. Never mind that Kirsten is in the middle of her own practice, sitting with a couple of girlfriends. The boys insist that she hand over the Stratocaster.

"I need to play," Brett tells Kirsten.

"It's Kirsten's guitar!" says one of the girls.

"Whatever," says Brett.

Kirsten and her friends tell him to go away. But Brett and the boys won't listen. They keep reappearing, tapping on the door, badgering the girls.

"Let him use your guitar," says Cameron.

"No," says Kirsten.

"Brett needs to play your guitar."

"No."

"It's all your fault," Ricky, the singer, tells her.

"You guys stink," says Sean, the bass player, giving them a look somewhere between a smile and a glare.

"You stink," the girls say back.

Finally the bell rings. Kirsten and her girlfriends gather their backpacks, doing their best to ignore Cameron, who's still standing nearby, accosting them with mock fury.

"Be gone!" he says, nodding them toward the door. "I see how it is! Yeah!"

One thing is clear to Kirsten. She can never let the Pink Dinos find out that the boy she likes -- the one she's writing songs about -- is Brett.

Naturally, Clarissa doesn't know. Kirsten couldn't even begin to explain it to her.

The whole thing's so complicated, it requires a diagram. Here is Kirsten, trying to be a modern independent girl, when all the while she has a secret crush on Brett, who's the devoted boyfriend of Clarissa, who's one-third of Kirsten's trio, which will be playing against Brett and his band at the talent show.

The tension has only started.

***

The shiny blue needle slips in and out of the yarn.

In the Ybor City library next to the school, Jackie Robinson is crocheting a skirt for a doll. She comes to the library after class while she waits for her mom to pick her up. She talks with her friends and does her homework. And on many days, she pulls out a needle and yarn.

Ms. Nellie, the security guard at the library, taught Jackie how to crochet. For years, when kids have come to the library, Ms. Nellie has shown them how to make hats and scarves and doll clothes. It's a way of giving them something to do with their minds.

This afternoon, Jackie keeps her eye trained on the tiny head of the needle and the loops it makes when she turns her hand just so. She is peaceful. She is patient. With every stitch, she is pulling something together.

Ever since the principal's warning about failing seventh grade, Jackie has been determined to turn things around. Two days a week, she goes to an after-school program for extra help with her classes. She still gets distracted sometimes. But she's trying.

Jackie can do this. She knows it.

***

 
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