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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Nelson gives a speech on how to win over a girl. Specifically, he advises whispering into a girl’s left ear. Whatever is spoken into that ear, he has heard, goes directly to her soul.

FINDING SOLUTIONS For Danielle (bottom photo), the unsettling experience with the braided hair is over, but there are still other things to grapple with, like her friendships with Isela and Nelson. Shakyra and Nelson remain an item. Nelson (top photo) holds up the phone so that Shakyra can hear a love song playing on his stereo.

The days are moving faster now. Entire weeks are vaporizing right in front of the teachers' eyes.

In Mrs. Borchers' critical thinking classes, the students are ready to present their demonstration speeches. Nelson Renderos gives one on how to win over a girl. It's a topic in which so many boys at Booker T could use considerable help. And who better to teach them than the master? Of course, Nelson is still just 13. In the days leading up to his speech, when he is practicing in front of the class, Mrs. Borchers is startled to hear him talking about how to make a girl horny.

"God help us," she says.

Mrs. Borchers recognizes the sweetness that runs under Nelson's bravado. She pulls him aside and tells him that he has to exercise a little more self-control. To think before he speaks. To remember where he is and who he is.

Nelson hears her. And when his turn comes to give the official version of his speech, he tones it down.

He lists his tips. He talks about the importance of complimenting a girl, of noticing little things about her, making her laugh, speaking to her at her locker in a soft voice.

"Confess something sweet or wild," he says. "It will send a girl to your loving arms."

He says it's best to whisper such things. Specifically, he advises whispering into a girl's left ear. Whatever is spoken into that ear, he has heard, goes directly to her soul.


In the lunchroom, someone mentions Ophelia.

"Who's Ophelia?" asks Danielle.

One of the other girls at the table lays out the basics on Shakespeare's tragic heroine: her doomed love for Hamlet, her decision to end it all with a plunge into the water.

Danielle's eyes get big.

"That's stupid!" she says.

She knows her friends have dropped Ophelia's name into the conversation to make a point about her and Isela and their fixation with Nelson. But Danielle and Isela are beginning to get over it. Yes, they still love the boy. But just because he doesn't love them back in quite the same way doesn't mean they're contemplating anything drastic.

"We're not going to kill ourselves," says Danielle, laughing at how silly that sounds.

By now she and Isela have accepted that they will never know who wrote the anonymous message in the bathroom, and that not knowing is okay. Of course there are other girls out there, pining for Nelson. Why shouldn't they pine?

Isela has just learned she is leaving Booker T. This summer, her family's moving to the Dominican Republic. Danielle is heartbroken. Already she is writing notes to Isela, wondering how she will make it without her.

With the semester almost over, the girls see so clearly all they've shared. They understand that what defined their year was the way the two of them got through the ups and downs together, holding fast.

Wonderful Isela, with her stillness and her knowing smile. When Danielle sees herself through her friend's eyes, she knows who she is, who she can be. She sees that she, too, is beautiful beyond words.

Best friends for life.


Walking through the halls, Kirsten sees Mr. Lefler and shudders.

Her anxieties are multiplying. Every day, as she tries to pull things together for the talent show, she feels the mouse inside her gaining ground over the cougar. She and Dana and Clarissa have decided not to perform one of Kirsten's songs, but instead to cover a Michelle Branch song called If Only She Knew. When they practice it, though, they sing so softly it's almost impossible to hear them.

The half-playful, half-serious tension between KDC and the Pink Dinos is intensifying. One Thursday at lunchtime, Kirsten and the girls arrive in the band room before the boys so they can have more room to practice. Usually the boys rehearse here; today, the girls would like to use this space. They're supposed to audition for the talent show the next day; this is their last chance to practice.

The girls are just getting started when the Pink Dinos arrive and begin taking over the rehearsal space. Kirsten puts down her Stratocaster for a second and Brett picks it up. Cameron takes his usual seat behind the drums and pounds away, making it impossible for the girls to sing.

"Come on," he says. "Let's play some speed metal."

The girls keep asking the boys to stop. They explain that they've only got this one day left to rehearse. But the boys are too busy messing around.

"We've already auditioned," says Cameron. "We've already made it in."

The girls storm out. They're so mad they're almost crying.

"Brett's life is in danger," says Kirsten.

"He's on thin ice," says Clarissa.

They head outside so they can practice in peace. In the grassy area in front of the school, the three of them do their best to work on their song. Clarissa counts them down.

"One, two, three, go."

By now the boys realize they've stepped over a line. Brett emerges to try to make things right. But as he tries to apologize, Clarissa and the others plug their ears.

After further entreaties, the girls are persuaded to return to the band room. The boys promise not to interfere.

Something remarkable now occurs. Other girls have heard about the boys' power play and show up in the band room to protest on behalf of their sisters. They shove the boys out of the area.

"Move!" one girl tells Ricky.

Finally Kirsten and Clarissa and Dana can rehearse. They're going through the opening count again when they hear a terrible sound.

"Was that the bell?" says Clarissa.

A sick look comes over all three girls' faces.

"Great," says Dana.

"Oh my God," says Kirsten, packing up her guitar. "This is, like, really bad."

The three of them head for their next classes, wondering when they'll get a chance to practice. How will they make it through the audition?

Kirsten does her best to sound confident. But underneath, an awful dread has taken hold.

The mouse is winning.


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