An Unsentimental Education

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

Financed by the recent passage of a $64 million levy referendum, this is the largest high school construction project under way in the state, and will, by the time it opens in 1997, accommodate a total of 3200 kids, grades 9 through 12. Counselor Barbara Donley says the new school will of course have room for open enrollment students, though she admits, "I don't know if parents from outside the district will realistically want to drive out that far."

"Scared. That's what the new high school's about--parents running scared as far as they can get from the dark city." Tracy, a senior at Wayzata, props her elbows on the table at Denny's and picks at her fries and hot chocolate, her standing breakfast order between morning classes. She lights a cigarette and fiddles with a ring on her finger that she says she ripped off a while ago at the mall.

"I've seen some of my own friends who've tried leaving here, but they come back to their parents' house and just, like, go nowhere. Pregnant girls drop out all the time. My ex-boyfriend's so strung out he can't even think. That new high school won't stop this stuff. It's part of the craziness you never hear about out here," she says, twisting a strand of long blonde hair between her fingers.

"Right now, I sit in class reading books and getting lectured about the way America works and it seems like dream crap. Next spring, I'm heading out to Hollywood where my agents and my manager live--see, my mom got me into modeling early. Eventually I'm gonna be a star. I'll have a bodyguard with me all the time. I'm outta this town. Cool."

Tracy tells me her current boyfriend's in jail. Her parents don't like him. "But then, they hate everything about my life. A few years ago, we were down south on vacation. I got home, like, 10 minutes late from this dance and they went ballistic. They called in this whole--what's it called?--intervention team, that's it. Shrinks, big guns, the whole works. I guess their pretty baby was going bad. See, they were, like, Mr. Straight and Miss Poodle Skirt in high school, even though my mom got pregnant. Ha. Anyway, they locked me up for a week in the psych ward. That's where I met my boyfriend. He's crazy too."

"That's why you're so hung up on him," her friend in the next booth says.

"That's total bullshit. I love him since he's the only one who really, like, understands me. And he's coming with me to L.A. It'll be great. We'll be together. It'll never snow. Everybody out there's got it goin' on. Sweet cars. Great sunsets. Not like here, where it's like all those people in the city probably hate me because I'm white and all. Plus they kill each other all the time. I'm scared to go in there since maybe I'll get shot."

This draws several nods around the group collected at our table. The waitress comes by to collect plates, and everybody lights up one more before heading back to school. The talk turns around to the Simpson verdict, hailed as "a defining moment in American history" just yesterday on the cafeteria TV, and greeted with a general shrug in the rush to class.

"Reasonable doubt," one of Tracy's friends says on the way out. "Hey, I'm down with that. Like I said yesterday, I've got reasonable doubt about everything."

"This country's full of reasonable doubt and unreasonable violation all over the place. Seems like the level of hostility's been rising since the 1980s. And us kids, hey, we're getting a lot of the blame for it." Nate is giving us his rap about the way things work.

"Adults are scared," he says, pulling at the hem of his T-shirt. His friends circle in close, punctuating his impromptu comments with amens and nods.

"Like I say, adults get off on the tension in all these news reports. Our image at Central and down in the 'hood is like the freaks in the National Enquirer, like the man with three heads or those alien babies. It's all hyped up, it's big money. Comin' off the O.J. verdict, it's like a black-white war zone's been drawn. Crazy. Crazy. And one more reason those kids out in the 'burbs won't want to mix with us around here."

"That's right," Matthew says. "Man, you can't even look somebody in the eye anymore."

"Which used to be a sign of respect," Carlos tells him.

"I figure all that fear benefits the 'burbs a lot," Nate goes on. "Tell you what, if I was a mom out there, see, and heard about all the hyped-up violence around here, I'd try to keep my kids sheltered away too."

"All the same, there's getting to be so much more noise and heat in this neighborhood--not the way it was planned," Matthew says.

"Maybe it was," Nate tells him, turning toward his friend. "Think about it. I don't know how to say it without sounding racist, 'cause I'm not, but... OK. It's 1995. The city's got public housing and minorities, and the suburbs've got new mansions. That's what I hear. So the way it works is this: They're trying to keep one class of kids away from the other. Even in school. The white kids get taught to be scared, but man, they didn't come up with that idea. It was set in them by parents, by the media, by the way school works.

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