Journey into the land of cargo pants

Justin "Bubba" Fee looks up from his cards. He's shortish and muscular and going with an unshaven look today. That can be risky for a high school senior, but he's got enough beard to pull it off.

"If you don't put peanut butter in the refrigerator, it separates," a friend says over a game of spades.

Another card player, Peter Dunning, smiles. He smiles a lot, which is easy when you're outgoing and handsome and your ride through Naperville North has been the time of your life, so far.

"I have no diamonds," says Dunning. The light flooding through the lunchroom windows makes the spikes of hair on his head look like matchsticks.

"Reese's Peanut Butter is the best," says Bubba.

"Come on, just play," says somebody else.

Talk bounces around the circle of friends, then accelerates into a kind of conversational whirlpool.

"Back up."

"Words don't bother me."

"You can never leave an ace."

Laughing, someone scatters the cards. They float in the air, faces blinding white in the sun. For a moment it seems they will actually rise. Then they settle to the ground in sweeping arcs, moving as slowly as a teenager's hours.

In America, high school is where you Begin to Play in the adult league of life. Freshmen enter knowing that they know nothing. Seniors exit thinking that they ought to know everything. In between are a lot of firsts that parents never hear about. Much about this experience remains the same, generation after generation. The prom is still the prom - though today getting the date can be an elaborate ritual, as choreographed as the event itself. The trophies in the trophy case are still dusty. Hot lunches remain smothered in cheese, and kids still sit quietly in the library, studying paperback copies of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher In The Rye."

But outside those double doors, the rules are changing every day. Drugs are everywhere. Weapons are common as cars. Parents divorce like they're changing long-distance carriers.

On television everybody is richer than you, and having sex. Online there's always someone promoting a new and personal brand of hatred.

And then came Columbine. A year ago today, two disaffected students shattered the lives of classmates in Littleton, Colo. Since then teens and teachers alike, all across the country, have walked the halls between classes and studied faces passing by, looking for a glimpse of someone they think they know, but don't.

Columbine changed the way the nation looked at the experience of high school. Internal danger - not some sort of external threat - became parents' and schools' primary security concern. Yet it would be wrong to say that high schools have become wary, suspicious fortresses. Most of them, and most of their teenagers, are too resilient for that.

The high schools of this generation have for years gone far beyond their predecessors in their attempts to deal with the reality of student lives. To enter the life of such a school today - a good school, a school to be proud of - is thus to enter a florescent-lit caldron of preparation.

Trig and typing are only a tenth of it. Administrators look hard for opportunities to go beyond textbooks and impart lessons about respect and human connection. Students - to a surprising degree - reach out to one another for help in handling their most sensitive adolescent problems.

"I don't think kids have changed. Their problems have changed. They are under a lot more stress than we were 25 years ago," says Gayle Wolf as she wipes down tables in Naperville North's senior lunchroom.

Ms. Wolf is a cafeteria supervisor in this large suburban Chicago public school. She's the motherly type of lunchroom lady, as opposed to the get-your-feet-off-that-table-this-instant type.

She can draw you a clique-based map of her territory (Goths in the low-ceilinged corner by the Snapple machine; Abercrombies grouped in the larger open area). She can tell you that seniors have been playing spades in small groups for years.

Students flowing by in the between-class rush lean toward her for a murmur of conversation and a wave. They're checking in, looking for a smile of acceptance from a sympathetic adult.

"I've got great hope for these kids," she says, looking out over the humming room. "The majority do just beautifully. But these kids are going to high school in really, really difficult times."

The morning crush

At 7:45 a.m. teenagers descend on Naperville North like an invading horde of the Cargo Pant Liberation Army. They hop from wave after wave of Passats and Explorers and dash inside the front doors, with few good-byes directed back toward the drivers.

Once inside, they press through the crush toward first-period class. Locker doors slam, making a sound that can instantly transport any American adult back to their own high school years.

The school itself is a jumble of salmon-brown rectangles spread out over an open site near I-88, the high-tech corridor of western Chicagoland. Built in the 1970s, it has very few windows, giving it a forbidding exterior leavened by a large mural of a Huskie, the school symbol.

The surrounding town was settled in the 1830s and was still a farm community at the end of World War II. Now it's exploding exurbia, the sort of place that defines turn-of-the-century American growth. Downtown, a row of old storefronts has been remodeled into a single Eddie Bauer. Out near the highway there are so many strip malls, it looks like they're growing them for harvest.

"We're pretty rich here," says sophomore Suzy Oloier, laughing, when asked about the town.

"Every kid in Naperville is spoiled," adds junior Chais White, who's hanging out with Suzy in study hall.

By some definitions, "spoiled" includes Chais himself. "My mom buys all my clothes and my car, but I have to pay for my pager, my phone, and going out on weekends," he says.

In its sheen of info-age prosperity, Naperville resembles nothing so much as Littleton, Colo. Naperville's demographics are similar to Littleton's. Naperville parents say that if their firms moved them to Denver, Littleton is where they would live.

Thus the shootings at Columbine High "probably hit home here more because it was a common situation," says assistant principal Jim Dollinger.

That doesn't mean that Mr. Dollinger views the kids careening through North's halls with a new sense of trepidation. He's been an educator for 33 years, which means, by definition, that he's seen a lot.

Long exposure to the teenage mind hasn't dented his avuncular optimism. But he also knows that one of the key attributes of a good educator is to identify who needs your help in the first place.

"See that girl in the black shirt over there?" he says as he walks through the lunchroom. "I wonder if she is back on the cheerleading squad. She was failing a class and had to get her grades up."

He points to another in the sea of young faces.

"That boy in the green shirt. He just transferred here from a magnet school and was having trouble with some of his classes. I wonder how he's doing," says Dollinger.

The middle child

Here at Naperville, administrators say that the biggest effect of the Columbine tragedy was that it made them look more closely at what they call the "middle student" - the teenager who can fall through the cracks in a school with almost 3,000 attendees.

Top performers have long received lots of attention. The many problems of those at the bottom are at least addressed by everything from church groups to federal government grants. But it is the ones who just float through their four years, not flunking, doing nothing special, who might benefit most from a little added effort.

The formula of the moment for many districts is to make the big school seem small. It is to control class size as much as possible. Schools have started programs to make freshmen feel more connected, as opposed to simply bewildered. Educators try to ensure that every kid feels they have a good relationship with at least one adult at the school - any adult.

Such efforts don't have to take a lot of time. Speech and rhetoric teacher Karen Quinn recalls a kid from last year who always wore black pants and shirt and sat in the back of class. He never spoke to anyone.

His first class speech was on mysticism and the supernatural.

Ms. Quinn worried that the other students would find the boy weird. Through journals they were required to keep, she found that in fact many of his fellow students had loved his topic and learned a lot. She copied some of the best journal entries and one day handed him the stack.

"There was a total change of attitude," says Quinn. "It can be as simple as that."

The school can't mount 3,000 individual programs to reach each student. Administrators say their goal is to be welcoming and provide recognition and respect.

"That can make the bitter pills [of adolescence] easier to swallow," says assistant principal Brad Swanson.

Threat from cyberspace

Mr. Swanson is the new kid in school, assistant-principal wise. This is his first year at Naperville. Two months ago, at 7:15 a.m. on a Thursday, he took a phone call that changed North's emotional atmosphere as much, or more, as news of the Columbine shootings.

An administrator from the town's other high school - Naperville Central - was on the line. He'd heard from a parent that a bomb threat had been posted on North's computer system. What was going on?

A quick search revealed that the story was true. Within hours police had arrested a North student and charged him with computer tampering for posting this message on a far corner of the school's system: "If you think what happened at Columbine was serious, that will be like a joke compared to this."

The quiet, tech-oriented 17-year-old said that he was sorry and claimed that he thought only a few security personnel would see the threat. But in the post-Columbine world such words are taken seriously.

At a meeting following the incident some parents demanded a new security regime for the school. They wanted metal detectors, security cameras, more uniformed personnel - everything but Rottweilers.

But most administrators - and many parents - don't want North to be run like a police state. The school has 40 or 50 exterior doors and adult visitors floating in and out all day. Clamping down would rob the school of some of its vibrancy, they feel.

North isn't open-access now. Most doors are locked, and radio-equipped greeters sign in and badge all visitors. The school is in the midst of a security review, which is considering everything from increased pay for guards to call boxes in each classroom.

Still, massive tightening is unlikely.

"Kids would feel less safe with metal detectors and wands," says Lynn Widerstrom, dean of students and member of the School Security Committee. "Prevention comes from a better understanding of people."

All this is not to say that the Columbine tragedy is the signal event around which all life at Naperville North revolves. It was a tragedy, a cautionary tale. But in the life of a teen there are many such dramas, and some - such as the death last November of a popular senior girl in a joy-riding incident - hit closer to home.

Residue of Columbine

Consider Katherine Lin's experience. On April 20, 1999, the junior was home getting ready for a soccer game. While she dressed, she glanced at the TV and saw the Columbine tragedy unfolding in front of her, live.

One of her first thoughts was that the school on the screen looked just like hers. The kids wore the same Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap clothes. The cars in the parking lot were the same makes and vintage, which is to say largely imported, not cheap, and not old.

"It made me think, 'That could happen here.' I mean, in a community where material goals are emphasized and not everybody gets the same support I do," says Katherine.

By that she means parental support. Her parents are Taiwanese immigrants who came to the United States in their 20s. Now they are part of Naperville's substantial Asian-American minority. They believe that making the most of your high school years is very, very, important.

So their daughter has a 4.67 grade-point average, which ranks her second in the junior class.

Among her seven classes are calculus, chemistry, European history, and Latin - advanced placement courses in which an "A" counts for more than 4.0. She is co-president of the National Honor Society. She is on the speech team, the math team, the cross-country team, and the soccer team. Every week, she volunteers at a local hospital.

Did we mention that she plays violin in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra?

"Hopefully, I will get into an Ivy League school, but I don't really know what I want to do," says Katherine. "That worries my mom."

Naperville is a competitive school, but also one where there is a lot of mixing between groups of different ethnic heritage or academic persuasion, according to Katherine. For instance, she knew the senior who roiled the school with his computer threat prank.

He was smart and shy, she says. (He probably still is those things, but since he was expelled for his actions he is spoken of at Naperville in the past tense.)

"He wasn't a bad person. But kids were always making fun of him," says Katherine.

This knowledge has made her wonder what kind of people the Columbine killers really were and what their environment made of them.

"Columbine scared us," she says. "But that faded. I mean, we're in high school. We've got other things to think about."

*Next: How Naperville North is reaching out to its students.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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