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Ninth or never

Chapter I: Chaos

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?

By Ron Matus
Published December 10, 2006


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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?

It's endless, the things ninth-graders do to annoy.

In class, they chatter. They cuss. They whistle. They make squeaky mouse noises. They snork up phlegm. They burp and fart, interrupt and talk back, interrupt again: "Sorry." They don't say the Pledge of Allegiance. They say, "That's gay." They blow bubbles - pop - and blow them again after being told not to. Pop! They crumple paper for maximum crunch. They draw penises on work sheets.

Chaos feeds itself: One day, a rookie teacher at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School tries to engage her ninth-graders in a discussion about the 2001 terrorist attacks. She asks what happened on 9/11.

"A building blew up!" "

Bin Laden, I think his name is!"

"People jumping out of buildings!" HAAAAAA!!!!

When the teacher asks one girl - a girl with dreams of becoming a hip-hop video honey - if there is anything funny about the twin towers falling, the girl says, "I wouldn't be laughing if there wasn't." The girl gets a referral.

On the way out, she flicks the lights.

Northeast High. August 2005. Day 3.

In a Freshman Experience class, Mr. Lynch calls roll through the cuckoo din of 28 ninth-graders talking. In the back left corner, a lanky boy with garage-rock hair turns to the kid next to him.

"Guess what?" Ronnie Jean says. "CHICKEN BUTT!"

Ronnie grabs his T-shirt as if he's in cardiac arrest and topples to the floor.

Even under optimal conditions, teaching responsibility and good study habits to 14-year-olds is tough. But 3rd Period in Room 1-160A often resembles a fight scene from The Matrix.

"The first rule is respect," Mr. Lynch tells Ronnie. "Stop, okay?"

Let's talk fear, he tells the rest: Are you worried about the FCAT? About failing? About the future? From white noise, he ekes out a rhythm. A discussion begins to take shape.

Then words crash like bricks through a window. It's Ronnie again, reading aloud from a health clinic pamphlet: "Are you ... concerned ... about ..."

Heads turn. The room quiets. With perfect timing, Ronnie drops his punch line:

"MASTURBATION?"

The teacher looks at Ronnie, but Ronnie doesn't flinch. The clown shtick fades, replaced by something unexpectedly jagged and sharp.

"Listen to the teacher," Ronnie says sarcastically. "He has words of wisdom."

***

In a ninth-grade reading class two buildings away, a sign above the marker board reads: "Do you need to apply makeup? Please do so in the bathroom at home."

In the second row, a 15-year-old with beaded braids brushes polish on her nails, then holds her arms away from her sides. Wrists, limp. Fingers, spread. The smell is faint but chemical.

A week into the school year, Marquetta "Quetta" Moore already has been sent to the assistant principal's office, already made it clear she wants to be at Dixie Hollins High, where she was a ninth-grader last year. She can't explain why she hates Northeast, but she does.

She just does.

As Mrs. Watson begins her lesson, Quetta wiggles her fingers: "Oooh!" she purrs. "I got my nails did."

***

In the band room, snares pop, marimbas ping, tubas boomp boomp BOOMP! Thousands of fugitive notes dance free. But since they can't escape, they collide and crash and come to rest in a rainbow of backpacks strewn across the floor.

The band geeks are warming up.

And here among them is a Pikachu-sized freshman with a shiny flute, Harry Potter glasses and long hair as wavy as the riffle in a creek.

Ninth-graders are prone to lock step with American Eagle, but Alex Wert, all 4 feet 11 1/4 of her, dares to wear thrift store jeans and a T-shirt that says Piledrivers Union Local 2375.

Ten minutes into class, Mr. Urban marches to his command post and slowly arcs his hand from left to right. As if hit by an invisible ray, the musicians stop their warm-up exercises, row by row, and hold tight to a single note. B flat is the first note many of them learned.

Just like that, the band geeks fall in line. Alex, too.

Wayward notes return to center.

***

Ninth grade is where it all falls apart.

It's a wall, a window, a mirror. It's where thousands of 14- and 15-year-olds, blindly hurtling toward adulthood, run smack into something they can't knock down and can't climb over. They fail. They turn 16. They quit.

No other grade offers such an honest view into what our schools are like, who they're trying to teach and how badly they're foundering. At the same time, no other grade so brutally forces us to consider the flip side: how we raise our children.

In Florida, nearly 40,000 ninth-graders are held back each year, enough to fill every school in Sarasota County. Three in five ninth-graders can't describe the main idea in a magazine article. Two in five can't do basic math. According to state figures, about one-third of all high school dropouts in Florida, which has one of the worst graduation rates in the country, are ninth-graders.

Recent education laws have attempted to shock the system into change. Both the federal No Child Left Behind Act and Gov. Jeb Bush's school grading system demand that all schools ensure that all students succeed. Schools that fall short are stigmatized. They are told: Find a way.

In their present form, they have no chance. It's hard enough to deal with ninth-graders as they naturally are, primed to copulate and clash with parents. But schools must also deal with disintegrating families and warped brains, hardwired from their earliest experiences to suspect adults will ignore them, berate them, hurt them. In many ninth-grade classrooms, it's hard to avoid the feeling of being in an alternate universe, where natural order is turned on its head and mutants rule.

Never before have public schools been ordered to do so much. To not only teach, but to try and make whole.

It may be unfair. It may be impossible.

But as you meet some of these ninth-graders and their parents, ask yourself: What other option is there?

***

Northeast High. 7:04 a.m.

TOOOOOT!!!

Ms. Peak, the campus monitor, is making her rounds with one very loud, very shrill, get-your-butt-to-class whistle. She's counting down the moments until 1st Period begins at 7:05 and sonically prodding 2,200 students who seem to suffer from perpetual jet lag. Among them: 813 ninth-graders, including 122 who were held back.

The muddle is especially bad for the new kids. In May, they were coasting through middle schools that began at 9:50 a.m. Now some of them board buses at 5:13. Science tells us ninth-grade brains weren't made for this, but the competing interests that shape an urban school district have conspired against them. Under full moons, they sleepwalk to Algebra 1A.

"Hey girl, what's up?" Ms. Peak chirps to one straggler.

"Thirty-five SECONDS! THIRTY-FIVE SECONDS!" she yells to the rest.

The buildings at Northeast are scarlet and cream, surveilled by 70 security cameras, clustered around a lush lawn. Administrators do their best to shoo people off the green, but the kids, especially the ninth-graders, can't help themselves.

They are thoroughly mainstream.

Northeast earned a C grade from the state in 2005 and a D in 2004. Since 63 percent of Florida high schools got C's or D's, that puts Northeast in the middle of the pack. Same with the neighborhoods around it. Like much of Florida, they trend middle class, but retain a working class grit: More cinder-block than bungalow, more Dunkin' Donuts than Starbucks.

On the surface, Northeast seems like a classic American high school: A Viking mascot, a yearbook full of smiles. The campus cop hasn't seen a gun here in seven years. And yet it's impossible to escape the drone of the interstate, 500 yards away. Or to overlook dozens of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, kids with Old World accents and names like Neven and Natasha.

TOOOOOOOT!!!!

In the darkness, sneakers and flip-flops scuff a little faster: over sidewalks dotted with blackened chewing gum; on to floors that gleam from fresh buffing; past bathrooms where fresh paint repels gang graffiti two or three times a month. Ninth-graders funnel into classrooms where posters trumpet inspirational messages: "If you believe it is possible, it is possible ... You never know what you can do until you try."

There are so many posters, they collectively suggest another message: Help.

Northeast has a part-time social worker and a part-time psychologist. It has anger management classes, meetings for students with alcoholic parents, sessions to deal with "home stress." More than 150 students, including at least 50 ninth-graders, have assigned mentors. A hospice counselor visits regularly. Grief counselors arrive when needed. On any given day, two or three ninth-graders are among the 15 to 25 girls in the teen parenting program. There's even a health clinic that helps treat everything from depression to eating disorders. A dozen or so ninth-graders visit the clinic daily, but most are not physically sick. They just want to talk.

Many of these kids are growing up in a world that "almost reminds me of what happens in war-torn countries," says Fran Mabee, the school psychologist. She's talking about the ninth-graders from sunny St. Pete, not Bosnia and Serbia. "They look like normal teenagers. They dress beautifully. And then you talk to them, and you see the wounds they bring to school every day."

Three weeks into the school year, Northeast is rocked by the death of a popular Asian boy, a ninth-grader some called Little Gangsta. He is accidentally shot in the back of the head by another ninth-grader, in a house full of kids with glittering mouth grills, in a bedroom with a picture of a marijuana plant on the wall. The .22-caliber, copper-washed bullet drills through at least four sections of his brain.

There are no adults around. Cops find a bag of marijuana behind a rice cooker and liquor bottles on a computer stand. The boy who fired the shot lies to police until another friend sends him a note: "Tell the truth n----! S--- gravy. Just be honest!"

For the rest of the school year, the dead boy's face, emblazoned on dozens of tribute T-shirts, will haunt the hallways.

By the end of the year, his face won't be the only one.

***

Ronnie Jean isn't at Northeast much, but when he's there, it's memorable.

One day, on the way back from the pencil sharpener, he suddenly flops to the floor and rolls while another boy sings Secret Agent Man. Another time, he stands during a lecture, walks to the center of the room and proceeds to stroke a girl's hair.

Some teachers write Ronnie up. Some write him off. But for anyone who pays attention, he sprinkles hints of his other sides. He reads the Lemony Snicket books. He keeps fossilized whale bone in a shoe box. Watch him contort his lean face like Jim Carrey and it's not a big leap to see him on stage with the theater kids instead of spacing out in detention.

One morning at home, skipping school again, Ronnie sits on the couch and absent-mindedly rolls a broom handle over his lips. At 14, he's still kid enough to get lost in a moment. Yet hounded by thoughts no ninth-grader should have, Ronnie can get consumed by moments, too, watching smoke curl from the tip of his cigarette, wondering whether he's becoming something he doesn't want to be.

The dirt in front of Ronnie's tiny duplex is a gruel of cigarette butts and tufts of uncut grass. On the stoop, a potted plant sags.

Ronnie steps out at 5:30 p.m. and hops on his bike, a Frankenstein of spare parts. He pedals with purpose.

East on 93rd Avenue, across Fourth Street, through the fumes at the Hess. Past the lawns and canals carved in hard angles on the western fringe of Tampa Bay.

Ronnie fishtails the handlebars. He slurps the remains of a zippy-mart sweet tea and chucks the cup into the road. "The city doesn't clean up my house," he shrugs. "Why should I clean up the city?"

The October sun sinks. Ronnie bikes east on Gandy Boulevard, through the Derby Lane parking lot, behind the Vegas Showgirls strip club. His destination: a rickety building with a pointy roof, half-shaded by clumpy pines.

Ronnie began attending Alcoholics Anonymous in July.

He was introduced to the San Martin chapter by an older friend, a recovering meth addict, and he has been here almost every night since, even on weekends. He usually arrives before the first meeting begins at 6 and stays four or five hours. He is far and away the youngest member.

The other members call Ronnie 50 Cents. Like the rapper, but with an "s" on the end. Not because he raps, or looks like the rapper, or even likes the rapper, but because he's always trying to bum 50 cents for a soda. He does it in a nice way, like a puppy begging for a scratch behind the ear.

"Hey man!" says a muscular man with a goatee.

"What you been doing?" Ronnie says.

"Working. Worked 56 hours this week."

Before the meeting, Ronnie hangs out with other AA members in a room musty with damp drywall and mold. A bare bulb hangs from a wire. And yet, warmth: As members walk in through the back door, Ronnie greets them, hugs them, shakes hands. A woman in her 20s carries in boxes of snacks. A thick-set man prepares to clip another man's hair.

"I'm proud of Ron," says the man about to be clipped. More kids should come to AA like Ronnie does, he says, because, God knows, there are a lot of kids like Ronnie.

Ronnie doesn't drink often, or do a lot of drugs. At least not yet. But now and then, he consumes a beer, a joint, a hit of ecstasy. He says he has tried cocaine. He says he doesn't want to do any of it.

For Ronnie, drug use isn't an abstraction. It's family tradition.

Dad is a recovering crack addict who left when Ronnie was 3, according to Ronnie and his family. Father and son haven't seen each other in three years and haven't talked in months. The last time they did, Dad yelled. "I guess he's trying to straighten me out over the phone," Ronnie says. Not long ago, Mom wrestled her own drug demons.

Now: Ronnie. He says his first drink came when he was 12, when his older brother and older sister began throwing parties. At one party, his sister offered him $2 to puff a joint, so he did that, too. Now he's conflicted: On the one hand, he calls marijuana "nature's goodness" and says with a smirk, "God wouldn't have made it if he didn't want us to smoke it." But at other times, he offers a darker view. In class, when a teacher asks his students how they can be like candles in the darkness, one girl says she'll never do drugs, so police will have one less druggie to worry about. "Wow," Ronnie says. "One less. That'll help."

At AA, Ronnie sits at the center table and offers the standard intro: "I'm Ronald, and I'm an alcoholic." Then he settles in for the day's lesson. Some members say they're homeless because of drugs or alcohol. Some say they're divorced because of it. Ronnie remembers one meeting where a member said he was on his way to AA when a tire blew. The man headed to Wal-Mart for some Fix-a-Flat, only to get pulled over by a cop because his taillight was out. "Nothing's going right today," the man thought. "Why not drink?"

The sad stories go on for hours.

And Ronnie Jean, class clown, can't stop listening.

***

Quetta wants to chat. The reading teacher wants quiet. "I'm not going through this today," Mrs. Watson says.

It doesn't sound harsh enough to spark a meltdown, but Quetta ignites.

If she were a Chinese dish, she'd be Sweet-and-Sour Surprise. She loves Hello Kitty. She still sucks her thumb. In her bedroom she has surrounded herself with taped-up images of friends, brothers, sisters, cousins - 140 giddy snapshots from Walgreens cameras, each carefully spaced a few inches apart, like bricks in a wall. Next to the light switch, she has tacked a pledge to her boyfriend:

Know that

1 couple

1 love

2 share

2 getha

4 eva =

10dr love

Quetta can flash a 1,000-watt smile, more brilliant because it's so rare. But it comes with a temper that scorches like hot oil and hands that once ripped the weave from a much bigger girl's hair. Quetta doesn't back down from fights. She says she's tired of teachers "trying me." Rage can't keep boiling inside a shy, proud ninth-grader without bubbling over now and then.

When Quetta finishes her initial rant, Mrs. Watson asks in a reedy Jamaican accent, "Are you done?"

Quetta fires back, "Is you done?"

"You see," Mrs. Watson says, "that's why you need this class."

The other students laugh. But Quetta isn't finished. It annoys her that Mrs. Watson keeps mispronouncing her name (she says Mar-KEE-tuh instead of Mar-KWEE-tuh.)

No, Quetta tells her, she doesn't need this class. She's "street educated." And she accuses Mrs. Watson, who attended the University of the West Indies, Brooklyn College and the University of South Florida, of going to a "Cracker school."

Mrs. Watson has heard enough.

Sweet-and-Sour gets another trip to the assistant principal's office.

***

Beneath the lights on the football field, Alex Wert and two other freshmen are madly spinning ribbon around themselves. They're trying to beat upperclassmen in a game called the "mummy wrap." As they do, giant speakers bombard the stands with a completely stupid (but catchy) 1980s pop song, Walk Like an Egyptian, and hundreds of classmates cheer.

The freshmen lose. But who cares?

This is Valhalla, the pre-homecoming ritual at Northeast. Only a handful of freshmen have the guts to embarrass themselves before the entire world in these games. Alex Wert is one of them.

She is spunky, scrappy, quirky. The band instructor calls Alex's flute-playing abilities "scary good." And she's a leading light in the Todd Center, a program Northeast started in 2005 to catapult students into the Ivy League. To her core, she is fearless.

After Mom and Dad divorced in 1998, Mom - a Playboy Bunny turned Marine - signed Alex up for karate. This wasn't recreation. This was therapy. Mom wanted Alex to redirect the emotional pain from a ripped-apart family into sanctioned butt-kickings on other kids. She also wanted to cultivate a fighter: If anybody ever hits you, Mom told Alex, hit 'em back. You might be small. You might even lose. But make it abundantly clear you will not go down without a fight.

Now 14, Alex can dig in deep if she doesn't want to do something, or turn as icy as nuclear winter. But when the same girl sees a fellow freshman drifting alone at lunch, she gestures with open arms: "Would you like to join us?"

Alex's comfort in her own skin is remarkable, really, considering how the grind of group-think and pop culture hacks so many teens into cliquey little clones. At Riviera Middle School, she says, "I was the weirdo, in a good way." For Halloween, she was a head on a platter. In her CD collection, there's a place for megaplatinum bands like the Backstreet Boys and Green Day. But Queen's Greatest Hits is in there, too, along with a Radio Disney compilation and John Lithgow's Singing in the Bathtub. There's no question the munchkin who snarled at karate rivals is becoming a strong-willed young woman.

But that doesn't make ninth grade easy. Even the mentally toughest teens can be staggered by peer pressure. In middle school, Mom says, Alex briefly flirted with being a Goth. It didn't last: Alex now jokes that she would be "one of those people who wear all black" if somebody ever ripped music from her life. But it's real - the never-ending tug of other people's perceptions and expectations - and it can be torture for kids.

The band kids are talking about Alex's mom.

She's always watching, always filming. Practices, games, Steak * Shake after the games, it doesn't matter: Alex's mom is there, and so is her hand-held Panasonic. In fact, Mom is at Valhalla tonight, taping Alex having a blast. The other kids are starting to joke about it. They say, "Hey, Alex, your mom's here. With the camera." They grin and thumbs up.

Alex is annoyed. And not afraid to show it.

When Mom zooms in on her face, she flashes the look: Go away.

***

Outside Courtroom 14 in the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center, a case manager with a pen and clipboard is asking Ronnie Jean questions.

Drug use? Suicidal?

"Seeing pink elephants or anything like that?"

Ronnie shakes his head and grins: "I'm stupid, but not retarded." The caseworker laughs.

Ronnie is about to set his size 10 1/2 black Converses into truancy court for the first time. It's mid-November. He has skipped 46 of 73 school days.

His mom, Tracey Halliday, is both dreading and wanting this hearing. Tracey is 35, a single mom with five kids, a grand-kid and eyes that triangulate at the edges, as if weighed down by past mistakes. She dropped out of Robinson High in south-of-Gandy Tampa when she was pregnant with her first child, but she had the gumption to get a GED. Now she makes $32,900 a year as a claims adjuster for an RV dealer. And she's at wit's end.

Tracey says no matter how hard she tries to wake Ronnie for school, he won't budge. She nudges for half an hour. She says "Ronnie" 40 or 50 times. And when 7:05 rolls around, he's still zonked on the living room couch. Tracey insists she can't make Ronnie do anything because he's 5 inches taller. She can only prod, plead, yell and hope. She thought Ronnie had learned his lesson last spring - she called police after he threatened to burn down the duplex, gas can in hand, and he spent 11 days in juvenile detention - but no.

Tracey doesn't want to air her family's dirty laundry. She doesn't want people to think she's a bad mom. Then again, she wants help. She wants somebody to take control. In fact, she's miffed it took this long to get Ronnie into court.

"I try hard to get up with a smile on my face and not cry when I go to sleep," she says. But "everything I've tried to do has been thrown back in my face."

Court was the school's idea.

Once a week, a group of Northeast officials called the Child Study Team meets to discuss a long list of students - the majority of them ninth-graders - who aren't showing up. At one meeting, two-dozen students are on the agenda. One's in drug rehab. One just went to court for illegal possession of a firearm. One nearly aced his finals despite a run of discipline problems.

Team members decide which students get warning letters and which to recommend for withdrawal. They point some toward the GED program or to alternative schools like Oak Park. They funnel others, like Ronnie, into court.

The hard, wooden benches of Courtroom 14 are packed.

The first kid on the docket has been skipping school since third grade. He's not here. The next one, a 13-year-old, isn't here either, and his mom says she hasn't seen him in two weeks. The mother of a 14-year-old asks the judge to put her daughter in jail to "dry her out." The girl has an upcoming trial for possession of marijuana, morphine and hydrocodone. The mother of a 15-year-old tells the judge her son isn't here because he's selling drugs at the corner of 150th and Verona. She saw him there on the way to court.

Three hours into the hearing, it's Ronnie's turn.

The grin is gone. Ronnie wonders if he might be sent to juvenile detention again, back to where he had to ask for toilet paper every time he used the bathroom and his bunk mate kept showing his penis. Worse, he thinks he got Mom into trouble. She works too hard and puts up with too much, he thinks, for me to do this to her. And he knows: She can't afford to get into trouble again.

Behind the lecturn, Ronnie faces Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan. He responds to her politely: "Yes, ma'am." "No, ma'am."

"What is the problem?" the judge asks, direct but warm.

Ronnie says he stays up too late watching TV.

"Well, at least you're really honest," she says.

She turns to Mom. Have you told Ronnie he can't stay up late?

Yes, she says.

And then Mom, who wanted the court to do what she couldn't, folds.

Maybe it's guilt. Maybe it's instinct. But for whatever reason, Tracey begins to defend her son, almost to plead for him. Ronnie's been doing better, she says. In the past week, he has been going to sleep at a decent hour - 11 or so, instead of 1 or 2 or 3 - and he has been going to school, too.

"He is trying," she says.

Mom omits a few details. She doesn't say she stays at her boyfriend's place a few nights a week. Or that she feels she has to because her two-bedroom duplex is so small she sleeps in the living room. Or that she doesn't think it matters because Ronnie does what he wants anyway.

Well, 11 is still too late, the judge says. Be in your room, lights out, by 9 or 10, she tells Ronnie. And no more late-night TV. She schedules a follow-up hearing for January. She tells Tracey, "Be tough now."

Outside the courtroom: relief. Ronnie hugs Mom, tells her he's sorry, gives her a kiss. Their arms crisscross each other's backs as they head down the escalator.

***

When Mr. Urban arrived at Northeast in 2003, the Scarlet Regiment Marching Band might as well have been the creamsicle Bucs.

It had 29 members, a revolving door of directors and, for uniforms, red polos and khaki pants. "The butt of the county," Mr. Urban says.

But the stocky, bespectacled director saw potential. The bands at Northeast's main feeder schools - Riviera Middle and Meadowlawn Middle - had good reputations. And it didn't hurt that Mr. Urban had a shoulder chip as big as a champion cypress. Seven schools turned him down before Northeast said, "You're hired." One more no and Mr. Urban would have been toasting paninis at Panera Bread.

One year later: The Scarlet Regiment is in the ranks of the respected. For the first time in years, it is invited to the state championship at East Lake High in north Pinellas despite little money or parental involvement. Mr. Urban can't forget the gleaming cars in the East Lake parking lot: "BMW, BMW, BMW, Lexus, Lexus, Lexus." But while Northeast is finally on the same field as the elite, it's still in a different league. Of 28 bands, it finishes 21st.

This year: Alex Wert and 71 other band members have high hopes for cracking the state's Top 10. They see marching band as sport. They relish the fight. And they know they're part of something on the rise. If there is a wacky natural law at the intersection of physics and psychology, it is this: Momentum fuels motivation. All fall, band members practice on the football field hours after other students have gone home. Some practices cause so many aches in so many places that Alex crashes as soon as she gets home.

Again.

Again.

Again.

To an outsider, the endless do-overs might sound like a broken record, with Mr. Urban's stingers thrown in for variety:

"HOLY CRAP!"

"NICK, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"

"I SUGGEST YOU GET YOUR BRAINS ON!"

But in short order, the beauty of a pattern unfolds. There is something rhythmically right about the hard work and repetition it takes to strive for perfection, especially when that striving involves kids who have murkier swamps to cross and bigger odds to beat. Mr. Urban might have a snarky edge, but when he sees progress he rises from his critic's nest in the bleachers and claps, "Good job, guys."

Nov. 19 arrives windy and overcast. Perfect for an upset.

There are more than 100 marching bands in Class 3A, but only 20 are good enough to compete at the 2005 Florida Marching Band Championships. The competition is again at East Lake.

The Scarlet Regiment sputters up in three cheddar-orange school buses. Other bands roll up in charters. In the parking lot, one school's color guard breezes past in blue wigs and black miniskirts, while another feels the breeze in black and yellow kilts. After Northeast commandeers a patch of asphalt, Alex and the other flutes try to relax by shimmying to their version of Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl: "These flutes are bananas ... B-A-N-A-N-A-S ... woo!"

After a pep talk from Mr. Urban, band members march single file to the stadium and watch the blue wigs. The wind blows. A crow caws. Finally, it's time.

Northeast looks good, old-school and quietly confident in their black and gold uniforms. In the stands, Alex's mom is getting it all on tape.

The first selection begins with spare trumpet notes and grows into something mighty. Across the grass, human waves fall away, break apart, reconnect. Legs stride in synch. Torsos turn in time. Even the hat feathers seem to bend together. After all the aching legs, all the again again again, this is it. Crisp. Sweet. Nearly perfect.

As band members surge off the field, Mr. Urban slaps high fives. "We always nail it when it matters," a freshman trumpet player says. "Awesome," Alex thinks. Their hopes continue to rise as they watch the other bands, including reigning champs East Lake. Not bad, they think. But borrring.

A few hours later, the rankings are announced in descending order, while Northeast members listen in the bleachers.

No. 20: Cocoa Beach High School.

No. 19: Lake Wales High School.

The Northeast band members are so hopped up on hope they're about to burst. And then:

No. 18: Northeast High School.

Smiles die. Alex doesn't look at anybody. The air is so thick with disappointment she probably couldn't see them anyway. Meanwhile, on the track, Mr. Urban throws a fit.

The kicker: East Lake is No. 1 again. Some of the Northeast kids are so stunned, they think bribes.

Alex is stunned, too, but not down. Not completely. Maybe it's the karate kid in her. Maybe there's a resilience gene in her DNA. But in the back of her mind, another thought is already beginning to nudge aside disappointment: Wait until next year.

Back at Northeast, Mr. Urban crunches a cassette tape - used by a tournament judge to record observations of his band's performance - under the off-road tires of his Mazda Tribute.

The band geeks cheer and fling the pieces.

***

Ninth-graders will hate to hear this, but their brains aren't all there yet.

In teenagers, the part up front that controls what scientists call executive functions - planning, prioritizing, considering consequences - is still a work in progress. Its relative immaturity is the reason teens are prone to impulse. And maybe it explains why they live so determinedly in the moment.

A few weeks after truancy court, Ronnie Jean leaves the Northeast lunchroom en route to his next class, a guaranteed snooze fest.

It's taught by one of those teachers shielded by the warm-and-fuzzy myth that all teachers are noble and inspiring. Chances are, this is what awaits: Work sheets. Textbook questions. Maybe even a movie with monotone narration and a lively topic like early mapmaking.

Most ninth-grade classes aren't like this. But too many are.

Ronnie's brain is seized by an irresistible image: Fresh, creamy, chocolaty. The resulting decision plays out in a nanosecond:

Early mapmaking?

Eclair?

That he might get busted - and Ronnie will get busted - is not part of the calculus. Two minutes later, Ronnie is off campus at Fray's Donut House, salivating in front of a glass case brimming with sugary goodness. He fishes $1.16 from his pocket.

Early mapmaking is ancient history.

***

It's December. The holiday break is days away.

And Marquetta Moore's time at Northeast is fast winding down.

Administrators took her and 40 other ninth-graders aside in October to talk about their issues and attempt a personalized fix. When the problems continued to fester a month later, they proposed more radical solutions. Quetta and some 20 other students agree to enroll at a new, alternative school called Oak Park.

There are uniforms in her future, and metal detectors, and classrooms without clocks. But Quetta hates Northeast so much, she doesn't mind. She'll start after break.

Meanwhile, she continues to smolder.

While Mrs. Watson returns papers, Quetta throws a textbook at a boy a couple of seats away. "Oooh, that s--- bounced back," she says, laughing. Then she pretends to throw the book at Mrs. Watson. "Fat a--," she says.

Moments later, Quetta gets up to grab a magazine. On her way back, she and Mrs. Watson pass in the aisle.

Suddenly, Quetta pivots, her body transformed.

Arm, raised.

Fist, balled.

Teeth, clenched.

Chin first, Quetta lunges silently toward the back of Mrs. Watson's head, until her lips are inches away.

Then, like that, it's over. Quetta drops her hands, returns to her desk.

Rage recedes.

[Last modified December 8, 2006, 15:15:11]


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