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
 


On this final day of the semester, a rumor is spreading through the school. A rumor that could shake the foundation of next year’s social pyramid.
Thomas French on the kid's friendships.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen talks about the fabulous adventure of doing this story.

Happytrails

The final day of seventh grade is spent on a playground.

With their exams completed, many of the Booker T students are allowed to spend the last hours of the year on the sprawling complex of playground equipment that sits in the city park, directly behind the school.

Nelson swings on the jungle gym and flirts with as many girls as possible. Kirsten, wearing a gold wreath around her head, scoots down the slides and talks about the actor playing the young Darth Vader in the new Star Wars movie.

"Oh my God," says Kirsten. "Anakin Skywalker is so hot."

Just in time for summer, Carlo has a new buzz cut. Gone are the wild cross-currents of hair that were never combed, never brushed.

After Kalie dumped him, Carlo was sad for a day or two. But he recovered. He realized that he'd gotten what he wanted, which was simply to be Kalie's boyfriend. Nine days wasn't very long, but it was enough to make Carlo feel that he'd meant something to Kalie. As for the kiss, well, that didn't happen. But it's okay. Really.

At lunch, as Carlo calmly chews his way through another decrusted cream cheese sandwich, a rumor spreads around his table. A rumor riveting enough to shake the foundation of next year's social pyramid.

The Pink Dinos are no more.

"Brett quit," says one of the boys at Carlo's table.

"Why?" someone asks.

"Cause Clarissa made him," says the boy. "That's what I'm told."

Carlo listens without comment. As the Pink Dinos' manager, he already knew the band was breaking up. The talent show, it turns out, was the beginning of the end for the group. With no more concerts on the schedule and the school year wrapping up, the boys couldn't hold it together. Brett was ready to move on.

That's it, then. Even before the final bell of the year, the Pink Dinos are extinct.

***

Throughout that day, Danielle and Isela stick close. They know Isela will be moving soon.

The clarity of departure has made Isela want to reach out to her friend. She knows Danielle so well, knows how much she worries that no one likes her.

Before she goes, Isela is trying to get Danielle to hear one simple piece of advice. She keeps repeating it to her, over and over.

Isela tells Danielle she doesn't have to try so hard to make people like her. All she has to do, says Isela, is be true to herself. And if other people don't like her, it won't matter. Because Isela will be there for her, always.

"Don't be afraid," says Isela. "Just be Danielle."

***

The last 15 minutes are bedlam. The kids are signing yearbooks, taking photos, shooting video, hugging and laughing and calling out to one another. Girls are crying. Boys are crying.

Slowly they make their way out front, where a line of yellow buses awaits. Cameron, seeing Brett, employs his usual mock fury to vent about the disbanding of the Pink Dinos.

"I don't want to talk to you!" says Cameron, glaring.

Brett doesn't know what to say. What can he say? Endings are never easy.

Booker T's teachers and administrators form a line along the curb. Mrs. Borchers is there, dancing, and Mr. Arnold, and Mr. Watson, and Mr. Lefler, and Mrs. Harrell, their principal. All of them are waving goodbye.

The buses pull away. Mr. Dickson, who worked with so many of these kids in the school band and who gave the Pink Dinos a home before they became famous, raises his trumpet to send them off.

The melody is familiar. Can it be? Yes.

Mr. Dickson is serenading them with Happy Trails.

***

Through those long first days of June, Jackie hovers near the mailbox.

She is waiting for her report card. She doesn't know yet if she has passed seventh grade. In her head, she still hears Mrs. Harrell's warning, at the assembly of doom, that anyone who fails will not be allowed back to Booker T.

By now Jackie has begun to wonder about that dire threat. Some students she knows have already received phone calls from the school, informing them that indeed they have failed and must repeat at least several weeks of seventh grade before being promoted to the eighth. But those kids aren't being shipped off to another school; they're coming back to Booker T.

Was Mrs. Harrell just trying to scare them that day? If so, it worked.

Finally, on a Wednesday, the report card arrives. Jackie rips it open, looks down the list of her courses, sees nothing lower than a C. She calls her mother, who immediately asks if she passed.

"Yep," says Jackie.

"That's all I wanted to hear."

***

The legend of the Pink Dinos will live on. Much debate will ensue over why they broke up. Many will point to Clarissa as the culprit, insisting she stole Brett away.

As usual, Sean offers the more measured view.

"She was our Yoko Ono," he says. "But it wasn't because of her."

Clarissa agrees. Brett, she points out, was free to do whatever he wanted. And if he wanted to be with her, instead of the band, then so be it.

Eventually Brett and Clarissa will part ways. Afterward, Brett will blame her for the demise of the Pink Dinos. He will talk about how she came between him and his friends. But he will also acknowledge that, in the end, he and the other boys simply lost interest in the band.

"I guess we just had better stuff to do," he will say. "Like eat."

Does he think of Clarissa as his band's Yoko Ono?

Brett pauses.

"Who's Yoko Ono?"

***

At 13, so much happens that it is easy to forget. We grow older, and the details fall away. We lose touch with what it feels like. What it means to be caught between two worlds.

Nelson Renderos has not forgotten. Not yet.

One day, while talking on the phone with his girlfriend Shakyra, Nelson plays a song for her on the boom box in his room.

He holds up the receiver so she can hear the lyrics. In Spanish, a man is singing about a woman he has hurt; he asks where she has gone, why she hides herself in solitude. He tells her that she is the angel of his dreams.

Nelson holds still, his eyes staring at the speakers of the boom box, his lips pursed together. From the wall behind him, Jesus and Mary watch on, their hearts burning just like Nelson's.

On the dresser, beside the boom box, his Hot Wheels cars stand in a line, waiting for him to play with them again.

* * *

From Perspective: Lessons learned - as a writer and a parent [June 8, 2003]

Letters
The Times welcomes readers’ reactions to this series. Letters should be addressed to: Letters to the Editor, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. They can be sent by e-mail to letters@sptimes.com

Staff

photoMonique Fields, 33, covers education in Pinellas County. She came to the Times from the Tennessean of Nashville, Tenn., in 2000. Some other stories by Monique Fields: The sub, Today's well-connected kid and Insult or inclusive? It's all ghetto   photoThomas French, 45, has been a features reporter for the Times for 20 years. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for the series Angels & Demons, about the murder of three tourists. Some other stories by Thomas French: The saboteur and his son, The exorcist in love, and The girl whose mother lives in the sky
 
photoKrystal Kinnunen, 28, who was a photographer in the Tampa bureau, recently moved to Colorado. photoDong-Phuong Nguyen, 30, is a general assignment reporter in the Tampa bureau. In March, she gave birth to Jonathon Quoc, the first child for her and her husband, Times staff writer John Cotey.
 
 
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