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
 

Krystal Kinnunen on the challenges of taking photos of the kids.

Happytrails

That Friday, Jackie sits in a small upstairs classroom. She and the nine other SOS students are not to talk, sleep or move from their seats. Mr. Green, the teacher in charge, has informed them that there will be only two bathroom breaks. They are to be quiet and do their school work until the final bell.

All of this is bad enough. But for Jackie, even worse is that she is required to write an apology to Mr. Watson.

Jackie is a proud girl. Independent, full of fire. She tells herself that she has done nothing wrong. The only reason she was late that day was because she was talking to Mr. Arnold. It was important; she's trying to pull up her grade in his class. When else was she supposed to talk with him?

The minutes drag on. Jackie sits and sits, refusing to surrender.

Lunchtime arrives.

"Ladies and gentlemen, do not talk," says Mr. Green. "Please take your work and place it under your desk."

The SOS students are escorted to the cafeteria before the other students arrive. Jackie and the others buy their food, then carry it back upstairs to the SOS classroom, where they eat without a word.

"Once you finish lunch," says Mr. Green, "you may continue working on the assignment you were working on before lunch."

Moments later, the bell rings. In the corridor, students are heading to the cafeteria for first lunch. Jackie can't see them; the window on the SOS door is covered with paper. But she can hear them laughing and talking.

More bells follow. More voices. Jackie hears them all, and still she resists writing the apology.

Finally, with less than one hour remaining, she takes out a piece of notebook paper. There is nothing else to do. Right now, it doesn't really matter if she agrees with Mr. Watson's punishment. If she wants to get out of this room, she has to let Mr. Watson know she has heard him.

Pen in hand, she bends over the paper. In the first paragraph, she explains what happened. In the second, she acknowledges she was wrong. And in the third and final paragraph, she says she is ready to change.

Next time, I will be on time and save my questions for other teachers after your class.
Regretfully,
Jaclyn Robinson.

Downstairs, in the lunchroom, the preparations for the dance are almost complete. The posters have been hung; the floor has been cleared of tables and chairs.

Jackie's not going. Maybe next year. Not today.

***

At the door, Kalie hesitates.

She cups her hands against the window and peers into the lunchroom. She can see kids milling around. She can hear Trick Daddy pulsing from the speakers.

Kalie has been looking forward to the dance. She even got her mom to sign the permission slip, allowing her to stay after school. Now that she's standing here, feeling the vibrations of the bass through her fingertips, she is not so sure. She's not big on the mix this DJ is playing. Too much hip-hop for her taste.

She turns from the door and runs away.

***

The chaperones are watching the kids watch one another.

Hardly anyone's dancing. Most of the girls are against the far wall, pretending not to be waiting for the boys to notice them. Groups of boys are running around the lunchroom, pushing and chasing and wrestling as they pretend not to notice the girls.

"Hey, hey, hey," calls out Mrs. La Rosa, one of the assistant principals. "Settle down!"

The tableau that stretches before her is every middle school dance that ever was, distilled to its most awkward, ungainly essence.

In an attempt to approximate the intimacy of a club, all the lights have been turned off. But since it's only 3 in the afternoon, and one wall is covered with huge windows, the effect is moot. Along the walls, banners have been spray-painted with curving whorls of neon orange and green and pink; taken together, the banners look like something Jackson Pollock might have considered, and rejected, at age 13.

Two girls sit in the back, playing pattycake. A boy -- Carlo's friend Eric -- parades around the perimeter, his arms and torso swaddled in toilet paper.

In the corner, someone is sobbing.

"Are you okay?" says a friend.

"No," says the crying girl.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No."

"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"

"No."

In the midst of this wasteland, Carlo wanders. With Kalie nowhere in sight, he looks forlorn, defeated, empty.

Mrs. La Rosa can take no more of it. Seeing a few brave souls dancing, she decides to venture among them. Just as she reaches the center of the floor, the DJ cues up the Electric Slide.

Mary Anne La Rosa is the reigning authority figure in the room. She is 55, and carrying a walkie-talkie, like so many administrators do these days. Still, she has no trouble showing off her moves for the kids. Soon they are following her lead, forming lines behind her, swiveling their hips and clapping.

The holdouts stream on the floor. Eric, still wrapped like a mummy, is dancing. The sobbing girl has dried her tears and has joined them, too. Someone drags out Carlo, and suddenly he is dancing.

Still in front, Mrs. La Rosa has just enough energy left to smile. On her face, tiny beads of sweat glisten.

***

 
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