An Unsentimental Education

A week on the inside with the students and teachers of Wayzata High and St. Paul Central.

"Play time!" yells the kid in his mom's nylon bathrobe and slippers, shouting across the school parking lot to no one in particular. He heaves an orange teddy bear into the air and drop-kicks it through the open window of a nearby car.

"Get in, idiot," his buddy behind the wheel yells back between drags on a cigarette. The other two in the back seat blow smoke rings out the sunroof, a series of neat, white zeros. The engine's running. Rain's in the forecast but it's clear now. It's Friday. School's out.

"Yeah, yeah," kid bathrobe says, climbing in. "Crank the tunes. Gimme a light. Let's cruise."

"Where to?"

The last cut off Nirvana's last disc cranks up. Someone flicks a butt out the side window. The car idles in neutral.

"I said, where to?"

"Wherever. Just drive."

They take off fast, snagging a curb with the front wheel before turning right at the gate and speeding off toward the mall, the lake, the field south of town where they party on weekends in some abandoned old house. The driver sticks his head through the roof hatch, lets out a long, wild laugh in the wind, and heaves his buddy's teddy bear into a pile of dry leaves blown against a fence.

The students' 1995-96 handbook opens with greetings from Dr. Craig Paul, principal: "Valkomna till Wayzata High School" it reads, in a language all but a few students recognize. Here in a sprawling, circa-1960 building just inside the limits of Plymouth, the kids of corporate Minnesota mix and match with the children of working class parents who remember the rural feel of this edge town even 25 years back, before second-ring sprawl overtook it.

This year, open enrollment for kids from outside the district--nearly 100 the last time anyone checked--shut down when the school reached a critical mass of 1600. In the lobby, every trophy case--tennis, golf, dance squad--is packed with gold. This afternoon, teachers direct traffic and kids decked out in blue and gold war paint, black leather, pajamas, and bandannas are figuring out how to kill some time before tonight's homecoming game. Whose folks aren't home? Who's got a car? We're outta here.

Down the hall, head counselor Barbara Donley is straightening files in her office. Business on this Friday is slow. "A hectic week, yes," she says, "but don't be fooled. These are good kids, maybe a bit wilder than we had in the '80s, who behaved so well it started to worry us. These are more like the early '70s bunch--high energy, not into authority. We're cracking down a bit with the rules, but overall they're good, tuned-in kids."

With nearly 80 percent of its seniors heading for college and a dropout rate below 1 percent, administrators at Wayzata Senior tend to dwell on a bragging list that makes this school the envy of, if not exactly a plausible model for, its urban-core cousins. The mantras among teachers and staff are the standard ones by which schools these days mark and market their success: National Merit Scholars ("I can't give an exact count, but we're always right up there"), SAT scores (well above average), alumni placed at Princeton and Harvard, a fair number of kids in the Gifted and Talented courses. Little reminders about "achievement" are everywhere, from the well-stocked college guidance office just inside the front door to the rotating list of recruiter visits--Bryn Mawr, Brown, Pepperdine next week--hanging in the bright hall. It's important at Wayzata, Donley points out, to say you're going on to college, even if you're not. It's important to go, even if you don't stay.

"But keep in mind," she adds, "that these kids, while they may not say it out loud, do have their share of problems." Just five years ago, she says, a rash of teenage suicides--three in a couple years' time, one other before that--cracked the mirror's edge, and prompted a quiet upsurge in support services and psychiatric referrals for kids who looked like they might be unraveling. From her vantage point, staying one step ahead of the dry, mean season predicted so often for America's kids is a tricky dance, even out here.

On homecoming night, the Trojan cheerleaders warm up in the gym. One girl stretches against her reflection in a wall-length mirror; the rest of the squad circles up to braid each other's hair, fix uniforms, and practice cheers. "What's that one about fingerbanging an orangutan?" another girl asks, elbowing her friend. "How'd that rhyme go?" They fiddle a new verse around and fix their ribbons. Susan, who's late, runs in with her jacket on and plunks down on the floor. "Hey you guys, listen to this," she announces, but the other girls keep chattering, worrying over their skirts and tights. "Listen, you guys. My dad finally came home." No break in the buzz. Kristin's voice trails off. "Hey..." She rolls over and leans against the wall. The others gather up their bags, late for the game, and start in on another cheer as they crowd out the door. The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire--we don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn...

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