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
 

Rollercoaster
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FIGHTING FOR AIR TIME Carlo beseeches his father to be allowed to stay on the phone with Kalie after getting her urgent instant message.

The weeks are tumbling by, and the teachers are tabulating test scores and homework points. With only a month remaining until the final report cards of the year, it's time for another update on grades.

Though they're not as permanent as report cards, these midterm progress reports can wreak havoc at home, since students are required to get them signed by their parents.

The progress reports are filled out on Monday, April 22. Nelson is pleased; he has pulled his grades up enough that his parents are likely to lift martial law and allow him to talk on the phone again. Kirsten's slipping in language arts.

Then there's Kalie.

Normally, she lives on the honor roll. Now she's holding a progress report filled with C's and D's.

"Remember," her homeroom teacher tells the class. "I need these returned, signed."

Kalie has no idea how to explain this to her parents. She opts for strategic delay. After school, she catches a ride with a friend and lingers at the friend's house all evening. She tells her mom she's studying.

The next morning, her mom drives her to school. Kalie is usually quiet during these half-hour rides; today she is volunteering tidbits from her life. Mrs. Wells is stunned. Though they're not engaging in any deep discussions, her daughter is actually communicating with her.

Then Mrs. Wells pulls into the school's dropoff line. Kalie hands her a slip of paper.

"I need you to sign this."

Mrs. Wells reads the report and pulls the car over.

"I don't believe this!" she says.

How on earth could Kalie be getting D's? What happened? Why didn't she tell them before?

No time to discuss it now. First bell's about to ring.

Kalie waits for her mother to sign the paper, then dashes from the car. She knows it isn't over. There'll be lectures, no doubt. But at least her mom will have the day to calm down.

***

On the bus to the Magic Kingdom, the girls have come prepared.

Already, Danielle and Isela and the rest of their seventh-grade friends are enjoying their big day away from school. They're passing around suckers and gum and M&Ms. They're dipping lollipops into packets of sour powder. Overhead, on small monitors hanging from the ceiling of the bus, Whoopi Goldberg dances in a nun's habit. No one's watching the movie, though; they're all too busy talking about the rides they want to hit and how much money is in their pockets.

As the bus nears Lakeland, one of the girls pulls out a bottle of sunscreen. Most of them have bikini tops underneath their T-shirts. The plan is to walk around the park, soaking up the sun and perhaps some attention from the opposite sex.

The girl with the sunscreen takes off her shirt, baring an orange bikini. She slathers the white lotion over her arms, her hands. A friend spreads another dollop across her back.

"Oh, I want some," says another girl, quickly taking off her shirt, too.

From the back of the bus, the boys can't help staring. The girls pretend not to notice. More of them are removing their shirts, waiting their turn with the lotion.

Danielle frets. She calls out to a girl two rows up.

"Amanda, you're not taking your shirt off, are you?"

"No."

"Good," says Danielle, " 'cause I'm not, either."

Someone yells out to Mrs. Borchers, up in the front of the bus. She turns and sees what the girls are doing.

"Shirts on!" she says. "Girls, keep your shirts on!"

"But we're putting on sunscreen," says one.

"Fine," says Mrs. Borchers. "But the shirts stay on."

Across the row from Danielle, the girl with the bushy hair and braces -- the one who sits by herself at lunch -- quietly watches the scene unfold. Her Nano puppy is snuggled in her pocket.

She turns and stares out the window. She doesn't say a word. But when the bus finally rolls beneath the sign for the Magic Kingdom, a grin spreads across her face.

The students have been assigned to small groups and are under orders to stay together inside the park. Most clamored to be with their friends. This girl had to be assigned to a group because no one invited her to join theirs.

The girl with the Nano pet follows her group to Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Then they head to the video arcade. Finding a Jurassic Park game, the girl drops tokens into the slot. She shoots tranquilizer darts at dinosaurs and collects DNA samples.

When her tokens are gone, the girl looks around. Other people mill about, but for some reason, the arcade seems empty. The other kids in her group have left. She is alone.

She leaves the arcade, walking with bevies of tourists with digital cameras as she searches for her group. She buys a soda and returns to the arcade, just in case they have come back looking for her. But no.

Before the field trip, the students were told that if they got separated from their group they should go to a chaperone table staffed by one of their teachers. For some reason, this girl does not do that; maybe she is flustered. Instead she finds a pay phone, calls her mother in Tampa and tells her that she has been abandoned.

Frantic, her mother calls the school and speaks to Mrs. La Rosa, one of the assistant principals. Then Mrs. La Rosa calls Mrs. Tuller, one of the teachers on the field trip, and reaches her on her cell phone.

Mrs. Tuller is furious. Later, she will hear the apologies of the students who left the girl behind, their list of rationales; she will make sure they understand how wrong this is. But for now, her first priority is locating the girl.

The girl has been instructed to wait at the pay phone. Mrs. Tuller finds her there and asks if she's okay. For the rest of the afternoon, the two of them walk through the Magic Kingdom together.

At 3:15, Mrs. Tuller and the girl and the other teachers wait underneath a tree near the entrance gates for the kids to show up. No later than 3:30, they were told.

The abandoned girl sits on a concrete barrier, playing with her virtual puppy. She sees that it has pooped. She giggles.

Just before 3:30, the other kids in her group show up, breathless.

"Are you missing someone?" Mrs. Tuller asks. She points to the girl, engrossed with the Nano pet.

"Oh yeah," they say, their eyes dropping.

As everyone loads back on the bus, the word spreads about what happened. Danielle, who was off in her own group, is dismayed.

"That was so mean," she says.

On the ride back to Tampa, the abandoned girl sits beside the window. She has a jawbreaker, one of those baseball-sized candies, and now she works on it slowly, licking away at the layers of sugar.

Danielle is seated directly behind her. She looks at the girl and her jawbreaker, then leans forward and tries to get the girl's attention.

"I'll be your friend," Danielle says.

The girl says nothing. She doesn't look up. Her attention stays on her candy. The jawbreaker is so big. Who knows how long it will take to finish it.

***

Back at school, Jackie has been sent to the office. She's in trouble; the details almost don't bear repeating. Something about a CD player in class and a forged note, allegedly from her mother, given to a teacher.

Mr. Lefler, another assistant principal, calls Jackie's mother at work. Cynthia Robinson tells him she's on her way. Right now.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Robinson marches into the office. She asks for a room where she can speak with her youngest daughter.

"Send Jaclyn to me."

As Jackie walks in, she feels her stomach tighten. Her mom does not sit down, which means Jackie isn't going to be sitting down, either.

Mrs. Robinson tells Jackie that under no circumstances is her child going to act this way. She announces that she will not stand by while Jackie drowns in a sea of trouble. She says she intends to do whatever's necessary to get Jackie through the seventh grade, even if it means coming to Booker T every single day.

Jackie listens in tears.

* * *

Next
Kirsten confronts the zombies, Danielle gets the message, Nelson shares his secrets, Kalie and Carlo set off some rumors. Part 6: HAPPY TRAILS
 
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