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 the girls' self-image.

Danielle fans her face for effect, then pulls the sweat shirt over her head and ties it around her waist. “Aaahhh!” says Isela. “You took it off just so Nelson could see your bra!”


Summer hasn't officially arrived, but the temptation to escape the classroom is already growing.

On a warm Friday morning, a few of the teachers decide to take their seventh-graders out to plant flowers in one of Booker T's courtyards. It's a chance to get the kids outside, let them hang out under the sun; also, to make the campus a little prettier.

The teachers quickly put their students to work. The boys are pushing wheelbarrows filled with mulch. The girls are digging in the dirt, making room for rows of marigolds.

On such a fine day, Nelson can't help but admire the girls. Many of them, he notes, are wearing white polo shirts just thin enough to reveal the outline of what's underneath.

"I can see your bra," he says, pointing to one girl.

He goes down the line.

"And yours ...

"And yours ..."

The girls do their best to ignore him. They know Nelson well enough. They recognize that he thinks he's being playful. Like so many boys his age, he has not learned yet how to filter the rush of impressions in his brain. He hasn't figured out yet that not every thought deserves to be uttered out loud.

He's still pointing.

"And yours ... And ..."

At Danielle, he stops. "I can't see yours," he says, "because you're always wearing that stupid sweater."

It's her Mickey Mouse sweat shirt. The blue one she wears almost every day.

Danielle blushes. She doesn't know what to say. "Ohhhh-kayyyy," is all that comes out of her mouth. The other girls give Nelson the eye roll. Danielle goes on with her planting. In her head, thoughts tumble.

She doesn't like the idea of doing something just because Nelson called her out. On the other hand, she's not sure why she's wearing the sweat shirt. It's getting hot; she probably would have taken it off anyway. But if she does take it off, aren't the other girls going to say she just wanted Nelson to see her bra, too? Won't they make fun of her? Is it necessarily such a bad thing, for him to notice that she's a girl? He saw everyone else's bra, didn't he?

Danielle waits five minutes. Then, as casually as she can, she announces, "Oh my God, it's so hot." She fans her face for effect, then pulls the sweat shirt over her head and ties it around her waist.

The other girls pounce.

"Aaahhh!" says Isela. "You took it off just so Nelson could see your bra!"

"No, I didn't!" Danielle screams.

"Yes, you did!"

"You're such a liar, Isela," says Danielle. "I took it off 'cause I was hot."

Nelson grins.

"It's about time you took it off," he says.

For Danielle, there will be no peace for the rest of the morning. Isela argues with her through lunch, insisting she took off the sweat shirt so Nelson would see her. Danielle keeps denying it.

Isela is always saying how Danielle tries too hard to mold herself to other people's expectations. She tells Danielle to decide for herself how to act.

Danielle knows her friend is right. If only it were that simple.


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