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Ninth or never

Chapter II: Highway to hell

By Ron Matus
Published December 10, 2006

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?

At first, it seems like a joke.

When the misfits in the GED class at Northeast High make crude remarks, a clean-cut kid interjects with a confident laugh: "Y'all need to go to church more." When the misfits say they don't need to go to church, the kid raises his eyebrows: "I do. I want to go to heaven." When the boy chides one more time, reality sets in: His faith is real.

John Klarides is a self-styled surfer-prep and a maniac for Hollister clothes. He works at Chuck E. Cheese's. He dreams of being a cop. He's a devoted member of a Pentecostal church.

He's also a poster child for ninth-graders who never get in gear.

Every year in Florida, more than 8,000 ninth-graders drop out of school, far more than any other grade. Florida law allows students to quit once they turn 16. At Northeast alone, more than 40 freshmen are 16, including John, who's in ninth grade for a third time.

Every morning, before he leaves his grandmother's comfy house in Bardmoor Estates, John asks God for help. "Father," he prays, "give my teachers wisdom and the knowledge to deal with me."

A few hours later, when the GED kids take a break, John beelines for his roost by the campus green. If nobody's around, he'll listen to Hillsong United or some other Christian rock on his iPod. But usually, there's family to greet.

"Hi, Grandma," he says one morning to an elderly woman who smiles as she shuffles past. John doesn't know the woman, but he has watched her walk by for weeks, so "Grandma" it is. "Hey, Aun-tie!" he says to a teaching assistant. The woman gives John a hug, asks how his law enforcement career is coming.

And on it goes. There's Uncle Hoest, who heads dropout prevention; Uncle Schoettler, an English teacher; Grandpa Miller, the former principal. At his real grandma's house, John keeps photos of others: A math teacher. An assistant principal. Even the lady at the front desk.

John all but screams it: He's desperate for a family.


One day, a veteran middle school teacher new to Northeast thinks he'll inspire his ninth-grade reading class.

Mr. Rowe introduces them to a book called Harris and Me, about an 11-year-old with alcoholic parents who is sent to live with relatives on a farm. The passage he picks culminates with the boy's cousin getting the shock of his life when he urinates on an electric fence. Mr. Rowe, a Buddha-like figure with a goatee and a belly and a self-deprecating sense of humor, reads with gusto. At the end, he asks, "Would y'all want to read that now?" Responses come all at once:

"That's awesome."


"Sounds like a gay book."

Then, silence, blank stares, slumped bodies. Mr. Rowe crumbles. He looks down and sees a pen has sprung a leak in his shirt pocket. He shakes his head, throws the pen away. So much for inspiration.

But his students' behavior is mostly a front. The who-cares posturing perfected by 14- and 15-year-olds often masks a deep well of pain and confusion, a profound feeling of powerlessness.

Some of it is natural. Teens are hijacked by biology. Hormones surge. Zits rage. Brains re-set. And just to make the whole thing as angst-ridden as possible, everybody's growth spurts are on different schedules. Some of the ninth-grade girls at Northeast look like they could be in college; some of the ninth-grade boys could be in sixth grade. One of the shortest is occasionally picked up by his head as a gag and advised by a muscular classmate to eat more broccoli. The other kids call him "Pre-K."

But being a teenager gets harder all the time. School is an alien place for ninth-graders who never got enough swaddling blanket, that earthy blend of warmth and structure that forever shapes a baby's view of the world. Lashing out at teachers seems inevitable when so many kids rarely eat supper with mom and dad. And how can any kid focus on exponential functions with Ciara sprawled into his head?

In another reading class at Northeast, ninth-graders write poems about who they are. One is a "sad puppy." One is a "baby tiger in pain." There's a "butterfly so helpless and alone" and a "dolphin waiting to fight her enemies." There's even a "brittle flower." These are the same kids whose peers call each other "fat slob" and "crack whore" in the middle of a class discussion.

Every morning for weeks, one of the reading class kids - a short boy with gauzy sideburns - waits in front of the school for the 7:05 bell. When the school resource officer walks inside and out of sight, the boy splits for the McDonald's at Rutland Plaza.

When he was younger, the same boy and his mother moved from town to town on a wobbly carousel of drug abuse and evictions. But one Mother's Day, when he was 5, the boy wrangled a coffee table out of a trash bin - missing a drawer but still cherry - and hauled it up three flights of stairs. Close your eyes and come outside, he told Mom. And he got what he wanted: a smile. "It was one of the happiest days," he says.

But the carousel kept wobbling. Now the same boy is flunking ninth grade a second time and wants to transfer to another high school. He heard the other school has a gate.

He heard once the kids are inside, the gate is locked.


As Ronnie Jean's second court hearing nears in late January 2006, there's cause for hope: Ronnie is back at Northeast. And he's in class consistently. Considering that until now, Ronnie found confessions in Alcoholics Anonymous more relevant than continental drift in Earth/Space Science, this is big.

Credit goes to one of Ronnie's friends, a freshman named Andy.

Andy has his own story: His father is dead; his mother is out of the picture; he lives with two older brothers and a living room full of cockatiels. But so far, he's swimming against the tide: taking honors classes, playing junior varsity football and thoroughly enjoying the fact that high school girls find his big blue eyes irresistible. Andy is disciplined enough to abide by a self-imposed bedtime of 11 p.m. And he's grounded enough to offer Ronnie a tough-love prediction: Keep skipping school and you'll end up a crackhead.

"Ask them their stories," he says. "I bet they dropped out."

One day in November, Andy comes over at 6 a.m. to help Ronnie's mom with the attempted shake-and-wake. No luck. He comes back several days in a row, once even pouring water on Ronnie's head. Still, no luck.

So Andy hatches Plan B: He asks if Ronnie can stay at his place, to make sure Ronnie goes to bed at a decent hour. Ronnie's mom says okay. Andy puts the alarm next to Ronnie's head. And after it goes off at 6, he gives Ronnie a swift kick.


After a few days of Andy's routine, Ronnie returns home and continues to get up on time. Other surprises follow: Ronnie tells Mom he likes school. He shows her a B he earned on an algebra test.

Mom is so relieved she backs off a threat to send Ronnie to a juvenile boot camp. She had signed up for a parents orientation, but says she got a flat tire on the night of the meeting.


Faith Assembly of God is easy to miss, a humble outpost of brick and stucco near the Lealman warehouse district, the kind of church where potlucks mean hot dogs and potato salad and the pastor's wife makes a rockin' banana pudding. A few blocks away, desperate people suck crack pipes and transients scour for places to camp. But here, God willing, sermons are occasionally interrupted by the jangly babble of somebody speaking in tongues. A hush settles. Heads turn. And when the miracle is over, tears fall.

On a Wednesday night at 7, John Klarides and four other teens put on their weekly show for the children's ministry.

The lights are off. The music is loud. The room, a littler bigger than a single-car garage, is packed with 20 kids, most of them 5 to 10 years old. John runs the laptop that flashes lyrics onto an overhead screen while three girls sing into microphones. Their voices are cough-syrup sweet and, with so many amps behind them, almost smothering.

Lord, I lift your name on high.

Lord, I love to sing your praises.

I'm so glad you're in my life.

I'm so glad you came to save us.

John's best friend, a 19-year-old with a ponytail, simultaneously hops and points at the ceiling, encouraging the kids to follow his lead. Meanwhile, the 40-year-old youth pastor scolds those who aren't participating. One boy leans against a wall, arms crossed. Another listens to an iPod.

Even in church, kids are kids. But it's soon clear they're not living in a kid's world.

The youth pastor prays into a microphone: God, help us, he says, with all these divorces and broken homes, with all this drug addiction and sexual abuse. His list is jarring, considering the audience isn't that far removed from Barney the purple dinosaur. But the youth pastor knows these kids. His voice cracks: "Lord, our world is hurting. Oh God, let the revival begin in us."

Not long ago, John Klarides was one of these kids.

At Faith Assembly, he found order to counter the madness he has known since the crib. He heard stories about redemption and resurrection, love and healing, a new life, a better world. He heard about the devil and recognized him. He heard about Jesus and fell in love with him. He listened as the minister, Don Lunsford, prayed for the sick and suffering and tapped the Almighty directly for those in special need. Sometimes it was John in front of the congregation, with Pastor Don's palms on the sides of his head and deacons standing next to him. Each put one sure hand on his shoulder and the other in the air, like antennas to heaven.

"When you're up there, you can feel the power of God," John says. "It gave me hope."

He needed every atom of it. John's mom left when he was 3. And his relationship with Dad, who has done time in state prison, has on occasion disintegrated into pushing, shoving, punches. It's hard to imagine John in the back of squad cars - designer jeans, pre-ripped; L.A. Looks gel in spiky blond hair - but he has been there. He has been in runaway shelters and juvenile detention. He has been asked in morgue-cold rooms, "Did you ever think about killing yourself?"

After a trial in the spring of 2005, a judge ordered John to live with his 71-year-old paternal grandmother. But through the toughest years, including now, Faith Assembly has been his storm shelter.

John was 10, living around the corner, when he heard the church served chicken on Wednesdays. His friends brought him, but they didn't stick around. One dyed his hair blue. One ended up in jail. But John returned alone, again and again. One member, Fran Van Hoven, remembers the first time she focused on the new kid. She was getting the coffee ready on Sunday before other members arrived. The little boy said, "Do you need any help?"

Members have less-than-glowing memories, too. Little John firing spitballs. Little John jumping off the roof. One time, John interrupted a service and Pastor Don made him do 10 pushups on stage. John "wasn't a bad kid," says member Lynn Bowman. But he was "unruly, undisciplined."

And yet, there was something special about him. Something about the way he liked his hair cut short and liked to wear ties. Something about the way he tried to do right.

Members said they could see the shine of God in this one, so they stuck by him. When he went to court, they stood by his side. When he struggled in school, one of their own, a professional tutor, tutored him six hours a week, for weeks on end, for free. For months, John even had his own key to the children's ministry building. Pastor Don says John's father made John give it back, but while it lasted, the building served as John's personal refuge. For all practical purposes, Pastor Don says, John has become "a ward of the church."

Sometimes, John spends the night in members' homes. When he's at the Bowmans, they rent a movie, order pizza. Once, John told Mrs. Bowman, whose own son died in 1995, "I would have chosen you for my mom."

By chance or by grace, John found Faith Assembly at an especially good time. The brain undergoes profound changes during the teenage years, as the connections between 100-billion neurons are pruned and strengthened to cope with the coming realities of adulthood. Scientists say the rewiring offers hope of a new direction.

For now, John still wrestles with powerful, contrary impulses, as if the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other are more potent than most. He wonders aloud if a fellow youth member is gay; calls a friend a "fat pig" behind her back; considers joining the Army because he wants to "kill all these 9/11 people and junk, all these Arabs." Yet the same boy escorts elderly church members to their cars when it rains and earns a commendation at work for comforting a lost child.

John is like "a model train you can't keep on the track," Pastor Don says.

John has his own analogy.

"My life is like a hurricane," he says in Sunday school. "You know how things fly in a hurricane and you never know what's coming? That's my life."


As if ninth grade weren't enough of a maze, Alex Wert and 38 other ninth-graders volunteer to be lab rats. They are participating in an academic experiment at Northeast, a quiet project with big expectations and a mad scientist at the helm.

The experiment is the Todd Center, a school within a school named for late Pinellas County School Board member Thomas C. Todd. Its goal: Take average kids with spunk - kids who didn't blow away the FCAT but have good grades and good attitudes - and through a curriculum heavy on math and science transform them into young turks worthy of the Ivy League.

It is a tall order. Northeast isn't a bad school, but no one would confuse it with a pipeline to Harvard. And yet the physics teacher running the show is supremely confident about his chances.

Mr. McCauley, 59, is the Todd Center's co-director. He's a mechanical engineer by training, a former Tampa General Hospital vice president who drives a red Jaguar and has a weakness for sports analogies. He is physically trim, intellectually secure, a tad monotone. He might even be Spockish if it weren't for the Alabama twang and a reflexive impulse to occasionally rag on bureaucrats with phrases like "those goons." He is, in his own way, edgy and subversive.

Mr. McCauley likens the Todd Center to the 1960s Green Bay Packers. Maybe there were a few stars on those teams, he says, but they won two Super Bowls because legendary coach Vince Lombardi convinced the rest of them "they could run through a brick wall." Mr. McCauley is out to prove that Pinellas County's elite high school programs - Lakewood High's Center for Advanced Technologies and the International Baccalaureate programs at Palm Harbor University High and St. Petersburg High - don't corner the market on the county's brightest kids, that in fact there are brilliant kids under everybody's noses if someone would simply recognize and cultivate them.

Cultivate does not mean mollycoddle. In his freshman experience and leadership training classes, Mr. McCauley doesn't suffer fools. He praises often but doesn't hesitate to zing one now and then: "Some of you couldn't win a debate with a three-legged dog." Some of his students think he's uptight, and there's no doubt a sense of urgency can drive Mr. McCauley to the edge of grumpy. Take, for instance, his barely concealed contempt for the school's Team Challenge course. Northeast administrators say with a straight face that scaling wooden walls for an hour is a great way for ninth-graders to build team-working skills. Mr. McCauley's view: "Play period."

There isn't much play in his lectures. Early in the semester, he starts to explain to his students how they'll learn about the stock market. But within minutes he has rambled far and wide, touching on interest rates, corporate branding, public perception, light waves, sound waves, ectomorphs, endomorphs and the merits of the documentary, Super Size Me. His lecture would have baffled most college freshmen, let alone skittish ninth-graders. But there is method to his madness, a confidence that his students will get it - because they care enough to ask questions, search the Internet, whatever it takes to figure it out.

Some, of course, don't get it. Many grumble. Ten will leave. "There's no point to this class at all," one girl complains on her way out one day. "Sound waves and light waves? It's so stupid! That's so gay!"

Mr. McCauley conferences with those who lag behind, meets with parents, offers solutions. But he's not upset when a few fall by the wayside. Most rise to the challenge.

Alex Wert is one of them. Mr. McCauley worries in the beginning. Alex looks so childlike, he thinks. And he doesn't know she's as plucky as a mockingbird. All he knows, early on, is that Alex's frustrations can get the best of her. One day, stumped by a math problem, Alex cries in class. She tells Mr. McCauley later she didn't want to just muddle through, she wanted to get it right. Perfectly right.

But Mr. McCauley's concerns quickly fade. For one assignment, Todd Center students read Shakespeare's Sonnet 57 and the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V and then write their take. Many stumble: The special bonds experienced by those in love and by soldiers in war - that's heady stuff for ninth-graders. But Alex nails it. For another assignment, Todd Center students design their own houses, and Alex's vision makes Mr. McCauley's jaw drop: It's circular, and structured to complement her interests in band, art and exercise. "When you see things like that come out of her," he says, "it's like: Whoa!"

Despite the compliments, Alex and her mom think Mr. McCauley underestimates Alex's all-around smarts because of her musical talent. The first progress report he sends home confirms their suspicions:

In many ways, The Todd Center is an unusual selection for a student like Alex. Extremely artistic and a very bright student, Alex is typically working and competing with students whose interests are related to math and science rather than music and the arts. To her credit, Alex has been able to hold her own in the more technical classes when she would likely much prefer to concentrate on her music. On balance, if Alex is able to summon the mental discipline to direct her thoughts to her studies while allowing her heart to remain with her music, she may find extraordinary synergy.

Outside the cafeteria, report in hand, Alex quietly fumes.

Unusual selection?

Mental discipline?

The karate kid gears up for another fight.


Inside his mother's lipstick-red 1997 Saturn SC2, Ronnie Jean shuffles through the CD that Mom burned him for Christmas. Korn. Led Zeppelin. Something mellow. No. No. Hell no. He pauses long enough to fire up a couple of Marlboro Light 100s with Mom. Finally, something dark, concussive: Mudvayne's Happy? As the little Saturn glides east on Ulmerton Road, Ronnie flails his head and body as if they're oscillating at two separate frequencies at once. Sunglasses hide Mom's eyes, but her fingers tap the steering wheel.

Today is a good day. It's Jan. 20. Late afternoon. Ronnie and Mom just left the criminal justice center. And all things considered, Ronnie's follow-up hearing went well. The Northeast High official who tracks truants and attends every truancy court hearing tells the judge that Ronnie's attendance has improved. Mom vouches for him, too.

"I can usually tell by the smile on mom's or dad's face if things are going better," Judge Irene Sullivan says. "And also, you. You look proud of yourself, Ronnie. Is that true?"


It's not all rosy. The judge scolds Ronnie for the eclair episode. And Ronnie's case manager prods him to tell the judge what Ronnie thought he was admitting in confidence earlier. When Ronnie hems and haws, the case manager spills the beans: Ronnie smokes marijuana and wants to quit.

The judge tells Ronnie his admission is a good thing. She orders him to take a drug test and get counseling. She sets another hearing for March.

"Good luck to you."

In the Saturn, Ronnie continues to rock, with Mom occasionally joining in. Her favorite band is Korn. Her site plays the metal anthem, Goodbye for Now.

Suddenly, traffic bogs. For some reason, Tracey didn't take the Roosevelt Boulevard cutoff, which would have been the quickest way home, and instead continued east. But just past the cut-off, a mess of mangled steel blocks the road. Three vehicles. Two serious injuries.

Traffic lurches, lags, stops.

The Saturn fills with the blue haze of burning tobacco.


Ronnie was 8 years old and living in Tampa when Mom walked off her job at Breezemaker Fan Co. She was a bookkeeper. She had written dozens of bad checks. She had a cocaine habit. A suspicious accountant was closing in fast.

For four months, Tracey took the kids with her - to Aiken, S.C., back to Tampa, to a friend's house in Pensacola. Ronnie remembers a knock on the door in Pensacola. He thought it was the cops. But it was Grandpa and Grandma, up from Sarasota. They took him and his siblings with them.

For the next 14 months, Tracey was alone. She wound up bartending in West Point, Ky., driving a Camaro with expired Florida plates. She called home every week or two, but only from pay phones and only for a few minutes. She was always looking over her shoulder, always wondering about her kids. Always crying.

As Ronnie's 10th birthday approached, his grandparents asked what he wanted, and he said, "I want my mom." But Mom was terrified about the possibility of prison. Her mother hired a lawyer, who told Tracey she would fare better if she turned herself in. Ronnie was asleep at a friend's house when Mom surprised him at 6 a.m.

"I was like, 'What the! Oh, Mom!' "

Tracey got 15 years probation. Every month, she pays $400 in restitution. And every minute of every day, she pays the biggest price with her kids.

Her authority is gone. If she tried to set rules or enforce them, "they'd throw it in my face that I wasn't there," she says.

"They'd say, 'You don't love me. That's why you left.' "

Her oldest son Orbie set the trend. Tracey restricted him to his room, but he crawled out the window. She nailed the window shut, but once everybody was asleep, he walked out the front door. At some point, she got so tired of the nasty mouth on her daughter, Mary, that she smacked her, sparking a knock-down-drag-out. Tracey says she won, but barely. She decided that wasn't an option anymore, either.

Now, here's Ronnie: Skipping school, smoking pot, going to court.


Back on Ulmerton, traffic flows again. Past the flashing lights. Past the crunched-up machines oozing oil and antifreeze.

As soon as she can, Tracey steps hard on the gas. The engine groans.

Ronnie selects Cold by Crossfade, a moody number heavy on regrets and apologies.

What I really meant to say

Is I'm sorry for the way I am.

I never meant to be so cold

Never meant to be so cold.

Mother and son belt the lyrics together while the little Saturn flies home.

The blue haze disappears, sucked through open windows, replaced by swirling ash.


The first thing Marquetta Moore hears at her new school is a command.

"No headband."

Today is orientation at Oak Park, a new, privately run school in Pinellas Park for disruptive students, including scores of ninth-graders like Quetta. They've been shipped from middle and high schools all over Pinellas County where, for whatever reason, the rules weren't enough.

Quetta arrives at 10:20. In tow: her mother, her 17-year-old brother and her boyfriend's mother, who provided the ride because Mom doesn't have a car. Quetta is wearing khaki pants - that's part of her new school uniform - and a black scarf. The hair extensions she spends hours weaving into stunning braids are not in place. She peels the scarf reluctantly.

In the lobby, grim-faced kids mill with parents. One boy retracts his arms through the sleeves of his T-shirt and vacuums slime from his sinuses. Another asks the principal if he can wear skate shoes. Behind the receptionist's desk, photos pinned on a "wall of fame" show uniformed girls with hands behind backs and uniformed boys with hands in pockets. Beyond the desk, a hallway stretches, lined with 2-D cutouts of giant chess pieces.

An administrator whisks Quetta and company to seats in a conference room. "This is my sister," Quetta says, referring to the short, smooth-skinned woman at her side. She's joking, but Quetta's mother, Vickie, does look far younger than her 37 years.

"What got you here?" the administrator asks.

"I don't know."

Students are sent to Oak Park because they have problems with grades, attendance or behavior. "You got all three," the woman says. "But that's okay."

Then Quetta asks something awfully curious for a kid who is supposed to hate school.

"Are y'all going to get me to my right grade?"

The woman tells Quetta she only has 1.125 credits - in Florida, students need 24 credits to graduate - but Oak Park offers accelerated credit recovery for students who are behind. So the answer is yes - if Quetta is willing to do the work.

Next: the rules.

The woman tells Quetta she'll be separated from the boys. She won't go anywhere without an adult. She can bring a house key and a jacket and up to $5, but beyond that, personal items are confiscated.

No candy. No makeup. No cell phone. And definitely no drugs or alcohol. If Quetta shows up with those, or under the influence of those, she'll be reassigned to another school.

Quetta is told she must sign a contract to stay for 180 days, the equivalent of a full school year, and she can have up to 18 excused absences. But hit 19, and she'll be stuck for another semester.

First thing every morning, all students pass through a metal detector and are frisked and wanded.

"Who?" Quetta asks.

"Wanded," the woman repeats. "Like at the airport."

Lunches are silent.


Next to Quetta, her brother snickers. He's sipping a Mountain Dew, wearing a T-shirt with a face and the words, "In Loving Memory." Mom listens quietly.

"If you talk during lunch, it is presumed you are finished and your food will be thrown away."

"Dannng," the brother says.

Quetta puts her chin on the table. Her brother yawns.

Afterschool detention is 5 to 6. Mom must provide transportation.

"Girl, you better not get in trouble," Mom says. "It's a long walk from here."

A few minutes later, the meeting wraps up and the administrator tries to find a chink in Quetta's armor: "Tiny bit nervous?"

The shield goes up: "What? No."

Quetta pulls on her new shirt, a pine green polo with the Oak Park logo on the left side. Time for class.

"Give your mama some sugar," Mom says.

"This isn't elementary," Quetta says.

Mother and daughter touch fists.


After a decade of war, the Greek hero Odysseus just wanted to go home and be with family. Instead, he wanders from one mess to another. Among them: the one-eyed Cyclops, who eats some of his men; the six-mawed Scylla, who eats some of his men; and the cave-dwelling Charybdis, whom Odysseus avoids because it wants to drown - and probably eat - some of his men.

Some ninth-graders at Northeast read The Odyssey in class. Ronnie Jean lives it.

Ronnie loves his stepfather. Mom divorces him.

He likes the man Mom finds for him at Big Brothers Big Sisters. The man moves.

At AA, he's assigned a sponsor, a person he's supposed to lean on. But the guy goes on a crack binge, loses his job and leaves Ronnie to care for his dog.

A few hours after Ronnie returns from his second truancy court hearing - the hearing where he's praised by a judge - chaos strikes again. The 14-year-old girl who lives in the adjacent duplex is in his living room, partying hard with his 16-year-old sister, Mary, and others. The girl is tiny and blue-eyed, a ninth-grader at Northeast, a co-captain of the junior varsity cheerleading squad. Her mother isn't home. Neither is Ronnie's.

The cheerleader later tells police she drank tequila, smoked pot and snorted white powder. At some point, she says, she asked a 25-year-old man - the brother of Mary's boyfriend - to escort her home because she couldn't walk straight. She says she blacked out in her living room. The next thing she knew, the man was on top of her, asking if it hurt, asking if she was a virgin. She tells him yes and yes. The next day, when the girl and her mother return from the hospital, they see Mary, who reportedly yells, "You wanted it, you wanted to get f-----."

Ronnie wasn't around that night. He's mentioned only once in the police reports. The girl's mom says he knocked on her door and wanted to know what happened. He says later he didn't understand "why all the hate was in the air."

The next night, Ronnie's mom is watching Extreme Home Makeover when she hears a ruckus outside. Her daughter is arguing with a woman in her 30s, apparently a friend of the neighbor girl's mother. Mom says the woman grabbed Mary by the hair and pulled her to the ground. But Mary gained the upper hand and repeatedly punched the woman's face.

Maybe all of this has nothing to do with Ronnie or other ninth-graders. But for whatever reason, Ronnie returns to Northeast on the Monday after his court appearance and leaves early.

He says he's sick.

He won't go back for weeks.


John Klarides never learned his multiplication tables.

His grandmother can't understand how he could have been promoted, year after year, in lower grades. And she can't forgive the teachers who "didn't give a d--- about him." But for John, none of that matters now.

When Northeast officials told him about the GED option early in the fall, he jumped at the chance. He was facing the possibility of not graduating until he was nearly 20. Now he's banking on what comedian Chris Rock once called the "good enough diploma." He expects to get it within a few months.

Some of his teachers at Northeast wouldn't be surprised. John reads at a 12th-grade level. And let him dig into themes of love and loss and what often emerges is an uncanny wisdom. "He's a heck of a good kid," says Mrs. Colbert, John's English teacher his second time in ninth grade. "He's not a student you forget easily."

Other teachers, though, won't forget John because he was so surly. "Nuh-uh," he would tell them. "You can ask me to do my work, not tell me. I don't get paid to be here."

Things got so bad that John randomly filled out the FCAT. Too long, he thought. Too boring.

And yet, in January, John is so excited about his driver's license test he forgets to bring his learner's permit to the motor vehicles office. After a brief delay, he takes the test and passes. He thinks, "I'm free."

A 1992 Buick LeSabre waits.

Grandpa bought it for $600. The odometer shows 113,000 miles, but the inside is near-mint and through a contact at church, John gets it painted for a steal. Reddish orange. Gold flecks. Just right with red leather seats and a peach-mango air freshener.

John and his new car seem to be a good fit. It's big, safe, stodgy as Lawrence Welk. Beelzebub does not drive a 1992 LeSabre.

John's first solo destination is Sawgrass Lake Park, not far from Northeast. He sits in the Buick, in the January cool, next to one of the biggest maple swamps left in Florida. He loves how peaceful it is.

Half an hour later, peace fades in the rearview.

[Last modified December 8, 2006, 15:17:54]

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