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
 HAPPYTRAILS
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 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


Some of the zombies Kirsten recognizes. Justin from ’NSync is there, along with one of the Dixie Chicks. The weirdest part is that the zombies’ leader turns out to be Mr. Lefler.
Thomas French on Kirsten and the Pink Dinos

Mrs. Borchers studies the girl’s face, so full of possibility, and tries to understand. Seventh grade and already pregnant. How does that happen?

Happytrails

The end-of-the-year tremors won't leave Kirsten Austin alone.

Kirsten, Dana and Clarissa -- their trio is called KDC -- are fighting for a little respect from the Pink Dinos. But the boys keep making fun of them, meddling with their practices for the talent show. Kirsten's starting to wonder if she and her group can pull this off, especially when she's secretly longing for Clarissa's boyfriend, Brett Gardner. Just being around him makes her nervous.

One day, sitting in the cafeteria, Kirsten brings it all into focus. She talks about a project she did in critical thinking class, when Mrs. Borchers asked her students to build a shadow box representing their personalities. Kirsten decorated hers with a drawing of a large eye looking over a landscape; populating this landscape were a toy cougar she got at Lowry Park Zoo and a tiny mouse she'd glued together back in third grade.

Kirsten deconstructs the shadow box and what its symbols mean. The eye, she explains, represents God within her.

"The cougar in there means courage," she says. "The mouse is me when I'm timid."

Inside her, the two forces fight for dominance. When she's feeling strong, the cougar wins. When she's not, the mouse takes over.

As the talent show approaches, Kirsten wrestles constantly with the mouse. She has noticed a tentative quality to her trio's rehearsals. They are singing way too softly; they're having trouble finishing a song without losing their way.

Self-doubt is creeping in. At night Kirsten keeps having these terrible dreams. In one recurring vision, clowns are chasing her. In another, she sees a swarm of hornets -- interesting, since Booker T's mascot is a hornet -- pursuing her and other students through the halls. Worst of all is the one where she and her girlfriends are in the countryside somewhere, fleeing an army of zombies.

Some of the zombies Kirsten knows, or at least recognizes. Justin from 'NSync is among them, along with one of the Dixie Chicks. The weirdest part is that the zombies' leader is Mr. Lefler, one of Booker T's assistant principals. In these dreams, Mr. Lefler guides the other zombies toward their prey.

"And they're going to eat us all," says Kirsten.

It's strange, the way Kirsten's subconscious casts Mr. Lefler as an arch-villain. Ask the faculty at Booker T, and they'll tell you that Henry Lefler is a good guy. Still, he's in charge of discipline for the seventh grade, which means that the kids view him as the enforcer. While she's never been called down to his office, Kirsten has the impression that Mr. Lefler has tagged her as a troublemaker. She thinks he glares at her in the lunchroom.

Now he haunts her sleep as well. The ordeal goes on and on. Kirsten and her friends are running through a meadow and a forest, and they have guns, and they are firing at the zombies. Finally the girls end up in a shack, where they make a last stand against Mr. Lefler and his dark minions.

"And they're coming for us," says Kirsten, her voice rising toward the awful climax. "And we only have one bullet left, and it's in my gun. Mr. Lefler comes in, and ..."

Suffice it to say that Kirsten puts her bullet to good use and that Mr. Lefler goes hungry.

Whatever the rest of the semester brings, Kirsten has clearly had enough. She doesn't need any more stress or aggravation. Not from the Pink Dinos, not from any flesh-eating administrators.

***

At Booker T, these last weeks are one long escalating study in chaos theory. Couples are breaking up. Former friends are waging vendettas. Everyone, it seems, is either crying or yelling or stomping away in furious silence.

One day, Mrs. Borchers walks into another classroom and finds the teacher curled on the floor in the fetal position, crying about how obnoxious the students have been.

"I can't do this anymore," she tells Mrs. Borchers. "These kids are horrible."

Rumors are swirling. Some of the teachers have been talking about a seventh grader who may be pregnant. For days, the women have been studying the girl's stomach, trying to discern if it's true. The teachers have no desire to stigmatize her; it's part of their job to notice such things.

One day the girl comes to Mrs. Borchers. In the quiet classroom, just the two of them seated together, the teacher asks if she's expecting.

"Yes," the girl says, looking away.

As the student begins to talk, Mrs. Borchers studies her face, so full of possibility, and tries to understand. Seventh grade, and already pregnant. How does that happen? How can it be prevented from happening again?

Mrs. Borchers doesn't know. She thinks it has something to do with paying attention, with parents learning to open their eyes. Not just so they'll know what's happening with their kids. But so they'll be able to gauge it in context, with some awareness of what's going on in the lives of other kids. So they'll know the difference between when their child is truly in trouble and when they're just going through the normal upheaval of growing up.

So many parents think if they just set hard and fast rules, they can simply demand that their kids follow them. But it's not that easy. And any adult who tries to say they never tested the boundaries, especially when they were a teenager, is a liar. At least that's what Mrs. Borchers believes.

"When we get older," she says, "God shows us divine grace by erasing those incredibly awkward and insane years called adolescence. We all claim we were never that way when we were growing up."

Mrs. Borchers thinks about the pregnant girl and what the next year of her life will be like. Then she thinks about her other students -- Carlo, Danielle, Nelson, all of them -- and the kinds of things that worry them, make them doubt themselves.

She wishes she could hold their hands and guide them every step of the way. But she can't. It just doesn't work that way.

***

Seventh period, Mr. Watson's class. Once again, Jaclyn Robinson walks in after the bell. When Mr. Watson calls her up front, Jackie tries to explain that she was down the hall, talking to Mr. Arnold, her language arts teacher. Mr. Watson no longer cares to hear her reasons.

What's stopping her from getting to his class before the bell? She only has to walk down one hall. The time has come to wake her up.

Mr. Watson pulls out a pen and paper and consigns Jackie to a day of SOS. The acronym stands for Second Opportunity for Success; it's what used to be called detention hall. Jackie's heart sinks.

He is sending her to SOS on the coming Friday, May 3. The day of the school dance.

***

 
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