In Atlanta: Basketball, Friends, and Worry About What's Next

IT'S Friday night and Whitlow Wyatt and his friends are engaged in their usual quest - finding the perfect video. He leads the group over a brick wall that separates the video store from the condo complex where he lives. After a vigorous debate in the store, with Whitlow acting as peacemaker, the group chooses ``Miami Blues.'' Whitlow is not a typical teenager. Tall, kind, and cheerful, as well as wacky, he breaks the stereotype of the moody, uncommunicative teenager. One teacher at Pace Academy, the private school he attends, calls him ``the gentle giant,'' and everyone seems to have a nickname for him: Whiplash, Whitebread, Whiteloaf....

Pace Academy (K-12) is one of many built in the South after 1954. That was the year the US Supreme Court outlawed, in Brown v. Board of Education, state-imposed racial segregation in public schools. While Pace may have started out all-white, today it prides itself on aggressively recruiting minorities. Blacks and whites at the school seem to have an easy familiarity that's reflected in Atlanta as well, a city with a strong, black middle-class active in government.

Whitlow's life is typical of many middle-class US teens - extremely busy. Four of his five classes are honors courses, and the line-up one day looked like this: math, English, physics, Spanish, lunch, more Spanish, history, free period, and then a class meeting, which he led because he's sophomore class president. Then, two hours of basketball study hall (he says he doesn't get much done), then basketball practice. Basketball takes up his life - so much so that friends rib him about falling asleep in cl ass, which he hotly denies. If he had time to read, it would be techno-thriller author Tom Clancy.

``This year is much harder,'' he says over lunch in a deafening school lunch room littered with candy wrappers. ``Last year I used to be able to get by just doing work in class.'' He says his grades have slipped a bit this year, due mainly to basketball.

``I'm starting to worry about college,'' he says. ``It's 10th and 11th grade they really look at. Sometimes my Mom takes the phone out of my room when I'm studying. I'm kinda glad she does.''

One night, Whitlow sat through the junior varsity basketball game, then the girl's basketball, before his own. He was there to support the other teams, ``but also because you can tell about a school from their JV teams.''

Whitlow, who plays center forward, is nervous. He's the youngest player on the team, and coach Ken Jaffe is having him start - in the hardest game of the year. That's unusual, and he knows it. Whitlow scores four points, but he's not in the game long, and Pace loses by 3 points.

At home after the game, his mother Claudia fixes steaks for Whitlow, his 14-year-old sister Sloan, and herself. The family eats together almost every night, even if it's at 9:30 p.m. But the social life never stops. The phone rings frequently before and during dinner.

Mrs. Wyatt manages an art gallery, and their well-decorated condo is filled with antiques. The family is close. Both she and Whitlow think it's because of the divorce ten years ago. Whitlow is protective of his sister; his mom is a little protective of him. Evidently Mrs. Wyatt is a bit concerned about his relationship with Heather, a year-older girl who goes to a public school across town. During the game, Whitlow's friends had ``smuggled'' Heather in, and kept her out of his mother's sight.

Whitlow's father, who remarried and started a new family, is an investment banker who owns a company that's been very busy cranking out desert boots for soldiers in the Gulf.

Despite his father's peripheral involvement with the war, which made Whitlow a bit hawkish, the conflict is far from his world. The family lives on what is considered one of the most elite streets in Georgia, a narrow suburban road turned speeding thoroughfare. It's lined with columned mansions, including the Governor's. Pace Academy is up the road.

Whitlow knows he's privileged. He describes his family's status as ``Well-off, not super-rich. We don't have to worry about being thrown out in the streets.'' But he seems not to be out-of-touch with those in need. Public service is a family tradition, he says, and he's helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and last year got his class to make Easter baskets for the homeless.

``I look at poor rednecks with no education, the thought of being a mechanic for the rest of my life: That's scary,'' he says during a break in the library between classes. ``To have a dead-end life. It's harder to find a good job these days and tough to be successful. There are lots of people fighting for top positions. I don't want to be like everybody else.

``The scary thing is, I haven't been able to picture myself as an adult,'' he says. ``I can see myself in college, but can't see myself as a pediatrician. I'd like to be married and have kids, but I don't want to get married too early. I want to make sure I don't make my parents' mistake.''

There are two sides to Whitlow, say those who know him. There's the reputation for good manners and niceness, and another as a ``wild man,'' as his good friend Charlotte puts it. ``He's hyper, like off-the-wall.''

He's not perfect. He was grounded for coming in 10 minutes late New Year's Eve - even after calling to say he'd be late. ``I think my Dad grounded me because I woke him up, not 'cause I was late,'' he says. ``I was too responsible and it backfired. But no doubt about it, I was late, I know that.''

Whitlow and his friends don't hang out at malls. They have a better place to go: Whitlow's house. That Friday night, he invites the usual 20 or so friends over. ``We're into groups,'' he says. Eddie, Jason, and John are the first to arrive, and start in on the Cheetos and tortilla chips Mrs. Wyatt has set out. They talk about a six-point buck John killed. Later, a delivery man brings pizzas.

Whitlow lives in a newly painted basement called ``The Cave'' that is designed specifically for these gatherings. It consists of his bedroom, with a dressing room and bath, and a living room lined with three single beds that serve as couches. He's got a CD player, a large color TV, and a VCR. An extra refrigerator in the garage is stocked with Gatorade and sodas. Industrial-strength carpet is on the floor.

Mrs. Wyatt is happiest having her son and his friends in her home where she knows they're safe, she says. Atlanta has a curfew for teens now; 11 p.m. on weeknights, 12 on weekends. Whitlow says his male friends all have the same curfew he does, ``because our Moms are all friends,'' but that some of the girls he knows get to stay out later.

While there is a casual camaraderie with the handful of blacks at Pace, the races don't seem to mix much outside of school. All the kids at Whitlow's house are white. ``I'm not racist or anything,'' says Whitlow. ``We get along really well; I hope they think so. There's not really cliques, but blacks do tend to hang out with each other more.''

At one point in the evening, Whitlow bursts into the room. ``Heather's coming over!'' His friends all congratulate him, holding out their hands for ``high fives.''

As more friends arrive, several pile out to look at John's new car stereo in his Land Cruiser. Whitlow doesn't have quite as much money as his some of his friends: He drives his grandmother's 1980 Toronado. No one seems to care about things like that, though. He works in the summer as a lifeguard and is saving money to buy a new car.

He and his friends say they don't drink, smoke, or take drugs. ``I don't drink 'cause I'm an athlete,'' he says. ``There's not a lot of drugs at Pace - the consequences are too tough. I'd get kicked off the student council, and the coach said he'd be the first to kick anybody doing drugs off. I don't think it's worth it.'' His friends agree.

After the trek to the video store, Whitlow pops ``Miami Blues'' in the VCR and everyone settles down to watch. That lasts about 10 minutes. Then they leave one by one to see what's going on in Whitlow's room where more people are gathered. About five loll on his bed and listen to music.

``I don't like Madonna,'' Whitlow says. ``I'm more into heavy metal: Metallica, Colt, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and Drivin' & Cryin' [a Georgia group]. But nothing satanic.''

Heather finally arrives, in honor of the reporters' visit, one suspects. She's a soft-spoken, confident brunette with deep dimples. The friends who crowd the beds switch places so Whitlow can sit next to her.

And then it's over: Around 11 p.m. a steady procession of parents' cars drive up, each letting out a eager sibling to collect older brothers and sisters.

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