`IT'S a good thing it's almost summer,'' murmurs 11th-grader Deedee Graham, hunching over her textbook.On this bright, beautiful afternoon, her greatest wish is for a conference with her English teacher. In junior high, the end of the school year is a time of unequivocal joy. But by senior high, joy is mixed with an awareness of oncoming change.
Juniors here at Jordan High School are worrying about final exams, which will count for next year's college applications. Seniors whoop and moan about college acceptances or rejections, or finding full-time work. Sophomores are looking for their first summer jobs.
``Seventeen seems old,'' says Deedee, looking past the flat, brick walls of the school - and into the future.
``It's getting close to going to college. Each year you get closer to being on your own.''
Seniors at this suburban school of 1,285 greet the end of the year as the long-awaited release from familiar classrooms, musty stairwells, and the routines of adolescence. Heather Havrilesky, a senior, says most of her classmates are ``relieved'' that this phase of life is finally over.
Younger students are both sad and thoughtful as they watch seniors prepare to graduate. ``We move up and they move out,'' says sophomore Erica Holloway. ``It's kind of a cycle. It's kind of scary, because time is passing.''
Most students here have already tasted the routines of adult life. Summer jobs have replaced childhood's leisurely summers.
Working ``gives you a sense of responsibility to be doing something and earning money,'' reflects Heaya Summy, a junior who expects to get a job again this year in a department store. ``It makes you independent'' - a feeling she says teen-agers need.
Heather has been working in a restaurant for three years, earning money for college. Her parents will help with some of the cost, but ``I'm going to be paying for part of tuition and extra things,'' she says. ``That's how my parents can afford for me to go.''
Fifteen-year-old Erica is going after school today to her first job interview. A dry cleaners near her house has an opening for a cashier.
``I don't feel as little now that I have responsibility like getting a job,'' she says, explaining that she will use her earnings to buy clothes and things she needs.
``I like the part about making money, but not how I won't be able to do the things I want,'' she remarks, twisting up her face at the thought of the business world's rigid hours. ``I think I can adjust,'' she adds. ``I think I'm getting more mature.''
These students are fortunate, in that there are plenty of jobs in their area.
But jobs for high school kids aren't exactly lucrative. ``[I'll] probably start at $3.45 a hour,'' says Gus Bass, a junior who is a member of the school ensemble and former sports star.
This summer he is looking for work in a clothing store in a mall. Last summer he worked at a fast-food chain, often staying up half the night to clean up after closing.
Such jobs have sharpened students' views of the future. ``I'm not going to have any job like I've had,'' vows Gus. ``I'm going to go to school and get a good general education.''
``I don't plan to grow up and work for minimum wage,'' agrees Erica. ``I'm planning to get a good education while I can.''
Many of those planning on college or technical school are studying furiously as the final grading period draws to a close. ``I can say my teachers are preparing me for college because it's rough,'' comments Deedee, a cheerleader and student council representative. Recently, she admits, she cried over her grade in English.
This summer she hopes to get ahead in her studies at Project Uplift, an academic program for minorities, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Her motivation, she says, comes from her father, a self-employed plumber, and her mother, an insurance claims inspector. ``My parents push me to do better than a C. They say with a C you're just getting by.
``My parents always let me know they have to pay bills,'' she adds. ``They let me know that education is the key.''
Teachers at this suburban school have high expectations, too.
Mr. Booker, a popular English teacher, gave no A's to a class of juniors in a recent grading period, even though their grades will show up on their college applications.
``I'll be glad he was so tough when I get to college,'' Gus notes without resentment, ``because now I can write.'' The teacher ``has a wide overview of things,'' he adds. ``That's what I think.''
As other students move resolutely between classes, juniors Jeff and Barrett (they didn't want their last names used) skirt the security guard outside of the school, jump over a ditch, and arrive at the park where Barrett has left his car.
``Most of the teachers treat you like you're in preschool,'' notes Barrett, a punk rocker with six earrings and a black leather jacket. ``The place is like Russia in the sense that all they care about is rules.''
But despite his rebellion, Barrett has no intention of becoming a dropout statistic. Education plays a central role in his cleareyed assessment of the world.
``I'm planning on going to college,'' he says rather matter-of-factly. ``That's what you've got to do. You're not going to make anything if you don't.''
Despite their ambitious plans for the future, some students here already feel vulnerable at the thought of leaving the familiar world of school and home.
Heaya Summy, who has lived all over the world as a military child, says she used to be afraid of the changes that come with graduation.
``It's such a big transition,'' she notes. ``There's such a shock to being on your own.''
Now, she says, ``I think I look forward to it.''
At school, says Deedee, ``I try to hide things - disappointments. Home is the place I come back to.''
``I want to be very independent, but I feel like if my parents aren't there, I'll be scared,'' she admits.
``They don't so much tell me what to do, but they give me the pros and cons of what I'm supposed to do. They make things seem so much simpler.''
Erica, her face as fresh and innocent as that of a child, notes how quickly the carefree days of youth have gone.
Last year, when she was in junior high, ``I was just thinking about playing and going out,'' she recalls. ``I didn't care about exams and jobs then. Then everybody kind of decided everything for you.
``Now you have all these choices to make. It's kind of hard. It seems like just a little while ago we were young.''