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Ninth or never

Chapter III: Synchronicity

By RON MATUS
Published December 10, 2006


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photo
Surging hormones and impulsive brains make high school tough enough. Now add marijuana blunts, a Buick LeSabre, a hovering mom and a chronic toothache. Four kids. Four complicated lives. Can they survive the hardest grade?

Quetta is giggling.

It's her third day at the Oak Park alternative school, and she's sitting at a new desk, leaning forward, engaged. She's playing chess.

Neither she nor the six other girls in the room have ever played before. But after a brief introduction to the game from an administrator, they're making their first awkward moves. Quetta slides a pawn. Then a pawn. Then a pawn. The girl across from her: pawn, pawn, pawn. The administrator looks down, amused: Why not move a different piece?

"Because we're scared," Quetta says.

"Take a risk," the woman says. "Don't be afraid."

Oak Park is just 6 miles from Northeast, but it's in a different galaxy.

Classes start about 10:30 a.m., more than three hours after they do at Northeast. There are two teachers in every classroom. And as soon as they get off the bus, 400 students - including Quetta and 110 other ninth-graders - go through a security check.

Quetta takes off her shoes, untucks her shirt, turns her pockets inside out. She walks through a metal detector. A woman traces her head to toe with a metal-detecting wand. Another woman pats her down. Quetta lifts her tongue with her fingers, so her mouth can be inspected. Her shoes and socks are checked. Her waistband is checked. She pulls her bra away from her body. No drugs? No weapons? No candy?

Okay, then. Go to class.

Back at the chess match, the administrator gooses Quetta again about moving her power pieces. Quetta loses a bishop, then exacts revenge by killing a knight. But her opponent quickly puts herself in position to checkmate Quetta's king. The end is near.

Fate intervenes: A teacher tells the girls to line up for their next class.

Quetta will get another chance.

***

John Klarides flies into Faith Assembly's parking lot in a black Volkswagen Jetta, a hip-hop beat throbbing through open windows.

It has only been a few weeks since John got the keys to a Buick, but his life has shifted into hyperdrive. John has fallen for a girl in his GED class. And tonight he's driving her car. He pulls up to where the church youth group members are hanging out, then cuts off the engine, but not the stereo. Two girls about 10 years old gravitate to the car as if caught in a tractor beam. They start dancing and singing the lyrics to My Humps by Black Eyed Peas.

What you gonna do with all that junk?

All that junk inside that trunk?

I'm a get, get, get, get you drunk,

Get you love drunk off my hump.

A deacon walks over and tries to say something, but John doesn't turn the music down and the man walks away. Moments later, John gets out, well-dressed and well-gelled as always. He pretends to sniff the air and says in a cartoon voice, "I smell some mara-ju-wanna."

The older kids look at John in disgust.

"Loser."

"Double loser."

"He needs a wakeup call."

"He needs a smack."

One girl says she saw John earlier in the day and he insisted, citing some nonexistent passage from Ephesians, that there is no hell. "I was like, 'You're stupid.' "

But the harshest words come from John's best friend, David. He watches John coolly and makes an ominous declaration:

"He's gone to the dark side."

***

Ronnie Jean's niece is a sunflower: bed-head blond hair, long lashes, eyes as blue as a hidden spring.

Hayle is 15 months old, the daughter of Ronnie's 16-year-old sister, Mary. "Baby's up," he says one morning at 11:45, when he hears stirring in Mary's bedroom.

Ronnie is home, skipping school. His sister has already dropped out. In a few minutes, she'll emerge, crusty as the hard sleep in her eyes. She'll down pills for a bladder infection, light a cigarette, hack up a string of profanities. Her daughter will sponge up everything.

But first, Ronnie retrieves Hayle and showers her with kisses. He scrubs her high chair and sits her down.

He breaks a Pop-Tart into bits.

***

For millions of years, our ancestors spent a lot of time with their kids, if only to shield them from hungry predators. For the past few hundred, we haven't.

It's staggering how fast instinct can fade.

Many of us no longer know how to be good parents. We guess. We pray. We watch Supernanny.

Maybe it's reassuring that many parents still try. At Northeast, there's a divorced dad who's partial to Harley-Davidson T-shirts. Once a week, he brings a Domino's pizza to campus and has lunch with his daughter, a ninth-grader who's friends with Alex Wert. In the stands at football games, there's a patient care tech whose son, a freshman running back, went to middle school with Ronnie Jean. When the boy gets tackled for a loss, mom shouts, "KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!" - just like she told herself when she was a student at Northeast and gave birth to him.

But it's impossible to ignore the other parents.

In Ronnie's Freshman Experience class, a discussion about lying leads one girl to tell her classmates about the time her father missed her birthday party. He was on some kind of binge.

In Marquetta Moore's reading class, there's a boy who says he hates his dad for leaving him and one of his stepfathers for beating him. Northeast officials suspend the boy after teachers hear him say he's going to bring a gun to school.

Another ninth-grader - a chatty girl who works at Chick-fil-A - tells a stranger in her class that when she was in kindergarten, a guidance counselor asked her to draw pictures of family. The little girl drew mommy and daddy smoking from a marijuana bong. By the time the girl was in third grade, mom was a crack addict.

The last time they talked was right before Thanksgiving, when Mom called from Orlando. Mom promised to come over.

Mom lied again.

***

Alex Wert's mother can't help herself. A stranger visits and she has to show off the bugs. All kinds of multi-legged things, pinned neat beneath clear plastic: Deerflies, dragonflies. June bugs, shield bugs. Even a rhinoceros beetle, purple-black as eggplant.

Alex groans when she sees her mother's collection. "Mom," she says. "Nobody cares about bugs like you do."

In her youth, Sherry Wert, 44, discoed to Donna Summer's Last Dance and waited tables as a Playboy Bunny in St. Petersburg. She followed her high school sweetheart into the Marines and fell in love with the muddy, belly-crawling rush of boot camp. Four years later, she retired as a gunnery sergeant.

Now Sherry drives a Dodge Caravan with a Buddha on the dash. She likes flannel shirts and stale Oreos. She keeps pet rats. When they lived in California, Sherry, Alex and little sister Torrie buried dearly departed rats near ant piles, in Tupperware containers with holes on top. Six months later, they'd inspect picked-clean bones.

It's hard to meet Sherry and not think: Earth Mama.

But Alex probably thinks: She Bear.

Sherry might as well be Alex's shadow, or a tick on her bum. Where Alex goes, Mom goes. Alex was so tiny that Mom carried her in a backpack until she was 3. No day care for Alex. Riding a bike, buying groceries, vacuuming - whatever it was, Alex and Mom tackled it as a duo.

But now? Now Alex wants to go solo, and Mom refuses. This year, she went with Alex to all the football games. She went with Alex's science class to a sewage plant. She went when the band christened a new Chick-fil-A.

Mom even plans to chaperone the upcoming band trip to Disney World.

Alex can only cringe: "She's so on top of me." At a New Year's Eve party, she thinks, "Can I shove her in a closet and leave her there?"

Mom decided, as soon as Alex was born, that she had to inoculate her. The one-time Miss Hilton Head South Carolina always resented being misjudged because of her looks. So in preschool, Sherry told Alex's teachers: Don't tell her she's cute; tell her she's smart. Even now, she tells Alex that teachers sometimes judge based on appearances. And so do boys: "If you walk around with a tight shirt, with your belly hanging out and your boobs hanging out," she says, "they're going to care less what you have in your head."

Now Mom thinks she should impart another hard-learned lesson. Two years after divorcing Alex's father, Sherry hauled her kids cross-country to her parents' townhouse in Placido Bayou. She thought it would be temporary, but six years later, she and her daughters are still living upstairs, still feeling like squatters. Sherry has had four jobs in six years, all part-time, two as a janitor. Now she, Alex and Torrie are living on Medicaid, food stamps and $461 a month in child support.

"I've never learned to pick myself back up," Sherry says. So the next time Alex stumbles, "I'm stepping back."

Sherry says her situation isn't all bad. Unemployment has a priceless upside: More time to be Mom.

The downside: Alex can't stand it.

***

In English class at Oak Park, the girls are discussing who they admire.

One says Pink, the feisty pop singer. One says Oprah.

Quetta picks one of her group therapy counselors, a 20-something white woman. She likes the woman's clothes, hip but tasteful, and the way the woman rolls with the girls' clowning. But mostly she likes how the woman proved her own teachers wrong. The woman told Quetta and the other ninth-graders that she used to cut up in school but shaped up so she could go to college.

"Teachers said she wouldn't amount to anything," Quetta says in class. "And she got two degrees."

Something is happening at Oak Park.

Quetta is coming to school, doing work, earning praise from teachers. It's not perfect: A fight on a bus leads to a three-day suspension; a confrontation with an Oak Park administrator includes the phrase "rat-faced b----." But all things considered, this is not the same girl who earned a stack of referrals at Northeast.

One morning before school, Quetta sits on her living room couch, twisting pieces of weave into her hair. Out of the blue, she riffs on World War I, the period in world history she's learning in social studies. Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary were in the Triple Alliance, Quetta says. Britain, France and Russia were in the Triple Entente.

Quetta's teachers at Northeast would have been stunned, as if they had seen orchids spring from asphalt. But the truth is, Quetta's desire for academic success isn't new. She has thought about being a lawyer. She thinks she would make a good teacher. She volunteers that she won a science award in middle school and liked dissecting stuff: a frog, a baby shark, a cow's eyeball. It's easy to hear these things and imagine: Maybe Quetta in a lab coat, staring into a microscope, closing in on a cure for cancer.

Teachers at Oak Park can't daydream like that. In class, a girl reading aloud from a play stumbles on the word "machinery." She says "mack-uh-chee-nee." Some 92 percent of Oak Park ninth-graders, including Quetta, failed the FCAT in reading.

The company hired by Pinellas County schools to run Oak Park, Community Education Partners, doesn't see zero tolerance as the remedy. Despite all the rules here, students are given multiple chances to make the right decision. "In a regular school, it's boom! Referral!" says the principal, Mr. Haley. But Oak Park teachers can ask disruptive students to "take five" outside, or students themselves can ask for a break. Detentions and suspensions are far down the list of options.

Oak Park is surprisingly touchy-feely, too. Ms. Stephens, the administrator who oversees Quetta's four-classroom pod, is both head of enforcement and hugger-in-chief. One day, she sees a girl in Quetta's math class getting up, without asking, to get a facial tissue. You know the rules, she says, firm but not harsh. Then another girl does the same thing, and she responds with a controlled yell: "DO NOT! GET OUT! OF YOUR SEAT! WITHOUT PERMISSION!" Order restored.

But this is Ms. Stephens, too: On a typical morning, she greets one girl with a smile and warbles off-key to another: Oo-wee-oo, I'm missing you.

"Do you think you're beautiful?" she asks the next.

"Yes."

"Do you think you're smart?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you think you got it going on?"

"Uh-huh."

The girl smiles. They hug.

Ninth-graders at Oak Park need hugs and then some. The psychic atmosphere here is several orders of magnitude more raw than at a typical high school, as if all the emotional pain at Northeast were boiled into concentrate.

Personal infernos can't help but flare in class. On her first day on the job, Quetta's social studies teacher is told, "You white b----! You're not going to last!" That night, the teacher cries. Another day in the same class, a girl shouts to a tormentor, "I WAS NOT F------ SCRATCHIN' MY M-----F------ A--H---!" As the girl F-bombs her way out, the room implodes. "Enough," the teacher says.

Quetta complies, then shushes other girls who continue to talk.

By the end of the year, some 40 Oak Park students will be expelled or reassigned because of major infractions, including drug possession, bomb threats and battering employees. And yet, for all that, there are sustained periods of remarkable calm. Times when classical piano notes from a CD drift softly in Quetta's English class, between the bamboo shoot on the teacher's desk and a back-wall print of Salvador Dali's Hallucinogenic Toreador. Times when a dozen girls, scarred but still beautiful, find therapy in fiction.

Quetta remains a riddle. But she leaves clues in class journals:

I tell my friends and family not to make fun of people on the streets, whose pushing carts and strollers full of stuff. I tell them that could be you one day ...

I want it to have my own hair salon get married have 2 kids make good money for what i do ...

i don't like when students disrespects the teachers especially the real nice teachers it makes me so mad if i could i would kicked those rude students out the classroom ...

A perfect parent is a parent who talk you when you need to be talked to ...

I really can't think of a conversation that i had recently with a family member ...

Quetta is making the most of her second chance. But now and then, she puts palm to cheek and winces. It's a tooth. Top left.

The first time Oak Park officials call her mom about it, it's late January.

***

Forget Christian rock.

John Klarides has a girlfriend: curvy, 17.

His first tattoo: tribal band, right arm.

And a hickey on his neck: crimson, big as a dwarf planet.

"What in the world?" Pastor Don asks. "Did you get hit with a paintball?"

In late January, John begins to bail on his GED class. In late February, he starts to skip church.

He's averaging 92 miles a day in his Buick. He keeps a foldout bed in the trunk.

When Grandma talks with John about premarital sex, the boy who signed an abstinence pledge at church pulls a package of Trojans from his pocket.

Church members are aghast. They call John. They invite him to supper. They wonder what's really going on. But John doesn't respond.

Pastor Don tries, too. John once called Pastor Don "Dad," but the minister told him, "You only have one dad." Still, they have many conversations that the pastor calls "father-son talks."

Pastor Don is 68, with arched eyebrows that make him look forever amused. His worldview may flash black and white, but he says his PT Cruiser is inferno red. "When I drive through the neighborhood," he jokes, "I want them to think of hell."

Pastor Don tells John he needs to stay in school. He tells him he's exposing himself to the strongest temptation.

When John says he can handle it, Pastor Don says, "Famous last words. Next thing you know, you're going to be a dad."

***

Little brains program themselves for survival, hard-wired by their earliest experiences. Why do so many ninth-graders struggle in class? Maybe because they struggled in their cribs.

John doesn't remember Mom. But in the one photo he has, her blue eyes are bottomless.

John's grandmother, Mary Sturm, says she realized her daughter-in-law had a problem one night at dinner. John's mother brought her own drinking container, staggered to the bathroom, emerged with a wet dress. "So I knew," Mary says.

Thirteen years ago, Mary returned from a round of golf to find the red light blinking on the answering machine. "I have your two grandsons," said a voice from a family services agency in Pasco County.

Even in a rush, Mary knew to pull blankets off the couch. They were earth-toned, the color of stone and sand. Inside the agency building, 3-year-old John "came flying and jumped all over me," she says, while his baby brother sat crying, red and raw because his diaper hadn't been changed in days. Mary bundled them both.

A caseworker said John's mom had checked herself into a hospital, badly beaten by a man she had been staying with. (According to Mary, John's father wasn't in the picture.) But she left before police arrived. Authorities found John and his brother alone in a mobile home off State Road 52.

Mary and her husband drove there, hoping to pick up a change of clothes for the boys. But the mobile home reeked of urine and feces. Everything was soiled.

In the lone photo, Mom holds a chubby little thing: John when he was about 6 months old. His bib says, "I Love My Dad."

John thinks the photo's in the Buick, in the trunk with the foldup bed.

***

The TV screen keeps flipping flipping flipping, but nobody bothers to fix it because the speakers work fine and they're pumping I'm in Love With a Stripper.

It's early afternoon on a school day, and Ronnie Jean's sister, Mary, is hanging out with friends in the living room. There's a thin blond 16-year-old who dropped out of Pinellas Park High; a preppy boy in a button-up shirt; a man in his 20s.

Hayle, Mary's 15-month-old, pads into the room in diapers just as a new tune comes on: Rodeo, another hit song about strippers.

Ronnie dances with Hayle, then puts a dress on her and sets her free to roam. Meanwhile, Mary holds a cell phone next to a speaker to record.

Suddenly: the flick of a lighter, the crackle of burning vegetation.

From the couch, a cloud rolls toward the center of the room, expanding, expanding, expanding. The thin girl is holding a marijuana pipe and grinning.

In the real world of Ronnie Jean, this is a high-stakes test.

Mary doesn't move. Ronnie explodes.

He can't believe somebody is stupid enough to smoke pot in front of a toddler. For a split second, he thinks about hitting the girl, but instead settles for a threat: "STOP THAT S---! I'M CALLING THE COPS!"

Ronnie cusses at the girl for a few more seconds before leaving.

He slams the front door.

***

On a crisp, winter morning, Quetta is babysitting her 23-month-old cousin, Samaria, the little girl's fresh braids graced with flower clips. The two of them are standing on the stoop when Quetta puts a fat-handled comb an inch from Samaria's face.

"Ugly head," Quetta says.

"Shut up!" the girl replies, laughing.

"Bald head."

"Shut up!"

"Baldy."

"Shut up!"

Without warning, Samaria's feet tangle and she falls, hard. Tears fire from both eyes at once. In a flash, she becomes a wail.

Quetta transforms instantly, too, into a human balm. She picks up her little cousin and cradles her.

"Skinny girl," she says, tenderly.

First at Northeast and now at Oak Park, no one's ever sure why Quetta runs so hot and cold. But patterns offer hints.

Quetta lives in a clean, four-bedroom house near Bartlett Park, a slice of southern St. Petersburg where love and rot duke it out, lot by lot. Oft-swept porches and tinkling wind chimes, next to bow-legged frames and crumbling paint, next to garbage-strewn alleys where wild kittens sleep. Every morning, on the way to her bus stop, Quetta processes the same images: A tattered American flag. African figurines. Tiny handprints in a sidewalk square.

Quetta is the seventh of nine children. Of the six older, one graduated from high school. One's in prison, one's in a juvenile boot camp, one's a teen mom and two dropped out. After 20 years together, Mom and Dad divorced in 2000. Dad works at a dry cleaner. Mom cleans hotel rooms.

In Quetta's living room, a massive flat-screen TV plays BET music videos and a Good News Bible is always open to Psalms 133: "BEHOLD, how good and pleasant it is/For brethren to dwell together in unity!"

For years, Quetta regularly attended church with family. At the All Nations Church of God by Faith, female ministers shout in throat-ripping staccato and the church band punctuates every phrase with a single-note BUMP! Now, Quetta spends Sundays at her boyfriend's house near Gulfport, where the corn bread's from scratch and the greens are seasoned with smoked neck bones. One day, the boyfriend's mother makes an extra pan of mac-and-cheese for Quetta to take home.

Quetta's mother says Quetta barely let anyone else have a bite.

Quetta won't talk about Mom. But if she's a firecracker, Mom's an M-80. "QUET-TA!" Vickie says one morning when a stranger comes to visit her daughter. Quetta's a foot away, under covers on the living room couch. But Vickie's volume control has two settings: one and 10. "QUET-TA!" she says. "THIS MAN'S HERE TO TALK TO YOU!"

Vickie doesn't get as worked up about Quetta's academic performance. Why does Quetta struggle in school?

"You'll have to ask Quetta," Vickie says.

Don't you ask?

"No."

After Oak Park called about Quetta's toothache, Mom says she took action: She bought a tube of Orajel.

But Quetta, she says accusingly, used it all up in three days.

Back on the stoop, Quetta continues to soothe her cousin. "Come here," she says. "I'm a tell you something." She leans close and cups a hand around Samaria's ear. She whispers.

Then Quetta turns her head.

The little girl mimics exactly, cupping a tiny hand and whispering.

***

In Room 511 at Northeast, a wall chart lists the GED kids and a series of nine boxes to indicate whether they've mastered the skills they need to pass the GED test. All but two of John's boxes are marked with red dots.

He is that close.

In the fall, John plowed like a storm was coming. But in January he was in class all of 10 days; in February, six or seven. In late February the GED instructor withdraws John for poor attendance but reinstates him after John pleads with a school administrator. The instructor jokes, "This is his fifth last chance."

One morning, John shows up 10 minutes before the 7:05 bell. He pulls several photographs out of his backpack and arranges them on the tabletop, as if it were his desk in an office. Soon, Mandie, his girlfriend, is sitting on one side of him, and a tiny Asian girl is sitting on the other.

A familiar face peers from the Asian girl's T-shirt: Little Gangsta, the Northeast ninth-grader who was shot in the head in August.

John flips to page 157: Use the Internet to find answers to the following questions and identify the source. "Remember, you're doing research," the instructor tells John, as John moves to a desk with a computer. "You're not going to MySpace.com." John finds the weight of an adult male lion but stumbles on finding the price of a used 1999 Honda Accord. He asks to go to the bathroom.

A familiar pattern is about to unfold. GED kids are supposed to work at their own pace, the instructor says, but sometimes that means "no pace."

After John returns, he retrieves an inch-thick stack of printer paper from somewhere and starts tearing off the perforated edges.

It's 8 a.m. While the instructor works with other students, John methodically eliminates every strip. Rip. Rip. Rrrrrip.

8:19: John says, "Finally." But then he begins ripping individual sheets from each other, as Mandie feeds him the roll.

8:24: The instructor says, "Will you finish?" John laughs: "I've got like eight paper cuts."

8:25: John burps loudly.

8:26: He puts on Chapstick.

8:29: He asks the instructor for help with a math question.

8:32: John adjusts the photos in front of him - one of Northeast High's former principals, a man he calls Grandpa Miller; one of the New York City skyline; and one of kids he counseled in church camp.

8:38: John goes to the bathroom again.

8:48: John returns from the bathroom.

8:51: John tells Mandie he just saw one of the assistant principals. "He said, 'Are you still here?' I said yes. He said, 'What do you got left?' I said math. He said, 'You told me that three months ago.' I said, 'I know.' "

8:52: John and Mandie tug-of-war over a piece of paper.

8:54: The instructor says, "Break time." John: "Thank you, Jesus."

9:15: John and Mandie return from break.

9:18: John puts his head on the table.

***

An out-of-control car launches a man like a rag doll. He flips end over end until he lands in front of oncoming traffic.

Alex's mom, Sherry Wert, can't shake the video a friend just sent her. Dark thoughts dog her as she drives to Osceola High.

"I'm one of those who believes in synchronicity," she says.

Osceola is hosting a high school jazz band competition tonight and the Northeast band will be performing. But Alex, with Mom's permission, is riding with other band members.

"Where are you?" Mom asks Alex via cell, seconds after she parks.

The evening unfolds as expected: Mom videotapes Alex. Alex gives Mom The Look. The band rocks, but Alex thinks she screwed up: "That one squeak was huge."

Afterwards, Mom and Torrie watch other bands while Alex, thinking Mom has left, rides back to Northeast. When Alex doesn't appear, Mom sends a text message. Alex responds that she has been waiting at Northeast but will catch a ride home with other band kids.

Mom gets home, assumes Alex is upstairs, feeds Torrie supper. Then she starts to wonder: Where the heck is my daughter?

She opens the door to Alex's room and it hits: Alex isn't home.

Sherry is sick to her stomach. She checks her cell. A text message reads, "Stay where you are. We're coming back." Alex had sent it from Northeast, but Sherry's cell was set on vibrate and buried in her purse.

Mom is worried: Alex is far away, in the dark, with a bunch of teenagers. And Mom is mad: Alex didn't ask to go back to Osceola. She just up and did it. Sherry texts furiously. She asks Alex if one of the judges is still at the competition, somebody Sherry knows.

Yes, comes the reply.

Ask him how his son is doing.

Alex sends a detailed response.

Mom is relieved - Alex is where she says she is - but now she's conflicted, too. On the one hand, she's happy Alex is stepping out on her own. She insists she glows inside when Alex goes off on her. "That tells me when somebody else is pushing her around, she's going to stand up and go off and they're going to realize, 'Oh s---.' "

But at the same time, Sherry says, "I'm not ready yet."

Not ready to let go of Alex. Not ready to quit being Mom.

***

The duplex is dark, but TV light flickers through the windows.

At 6:20 a.m., a red Saturn zips into the driveway. Tracey gets out, walks fast, opens the front door. Ronnie is on the couch, in jeans, shirtless. Tracey shakes him: "Ronnie, get up."

Eyes open.

Since Ronnie's last trip to court in January, it has been back to the same old get-up-get-up-get-up and nothing. But today, Ronnie will rise. By coincidence, it happens to be the most important day for every school in Florida. A school's grade hinges on its students' FCAT scores. So does its reputation. And today, 1.6-million students in grades 3 through 10 will take the reading portion of the FCAT.

The TV casts everything in a bluish glow. The sound is off.

Still lying down, Ronnie croaks, "Can I have a cigarette?"

Mom plugs a Marlboro into his mouth as if it were a thermometer.

Moments later, the TV beams footage from the inside of a crashing race car. The world spins violently in one direction, and then - BAM! - spins violently in the other.

***

At 9:14, Northeast is dead quiet. Nothing makes administrators squelch distraction like the FCAT. But at 9:15, the kids are unleashed for break. Ronnie and more than 1,000 other kids flood the courtyard in the center of the green. Massive quantities of sugar, salt and fat await.

Cookies, crackers, doughnuts. Pretzels, Cheetos, pizza. All washed down with enough Yoo-hoo, SunnyD and Hawaiian Punch to put out a brush fire.

Ronnie greets a friend with a hip handshake. He's not sweating the FCAT. He doesn't think it's hard.

At 9:30, a bell rings. The center collapses. A kid yells, "FCAT SUCKS!" as the masses head back inside for more testing.

The air fills with wings. A dozen gulls swirl into the courtyard as Doritos bags tumble across the grass. A couple of crows join in. A trio of grackles. Fights break out over a pretzel nugget, a stepped-on cracker, the crusty lining of a muffin wrapper.

Custodians arrive with brooms and dustbins. Within minutes, there is no sign that hundreds of ninth-graders just downed a mountain of processed food on their way to failing a basic skills test, or that the wild kingdom just put on a show, or that there might be some connection between the two.

[Last modified December 8, 2006, 15:35:35]


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