Saving the School (cont.)
Back in her office, Anabel offered candy. She scanned the room. Seven kids sat around the table, two girls and five boys. For better or worse, these kids were role models to many of the others. JaQuarius, carrying a bright red backpack, grinned and had good posture, like athletes used to. He loomed half a foot over the next tallest kid and nearly two over her. Anabel nudged one boy's elbows off the table and mimed the removal of headphones and said, "Yeah, doesn't work for me."
The kids ate her candy. Anabel talked about how the teachers had been trying for four years to make the academically acceptable numbers and yet here they were. She was open to ideas.
"Here are the topics, and just fast and dirty," Anabel said. "Our attendance is bad, and if people aren't in classes we're not going to get better. Our benchmarks are 10 percent better than last year, but we will have to cross the finish line together. So the ones who are doing better have to help the others along."
She looked around the table. The kids kept eating candy. JaQuarius spoke up.
"When we're in class," he said, "don't just let us pick what groups to be in. Let the teachers pick the groups, and put the different races together. And make them get along with each other."
Anabel took notes. These were not new ideas. People had taken them to the Supreme Court more than once.
"JQ, what makes you want to do well?" Anabel asked.
"Seeing my momma, how she struggled when she was younger."
Anabel went around the circle. All the kids repeated JaQuarius' remarks, inserting their own mothers. One of the boys said: "We're all divided, Hispanic and black, and that's wrong. They don't do a thing to us and we don't do nothing to y'all, so why don't we hang out together? And the other thing is, teachers can't control the classes."
JaQuarius said, "Sometimes it's not the case of teachers not wanting to teach the class. They're just scared to say certain things to the students. Sometimes I think the teacher makes it worse. They just fail them, and they don't go up and talk to them, and so the student just keeps it up."
Anabel said high school was an important time in life. She talked about how quickly it would pass and how a bad decision could ruin things.
"You are very powerful," Anabel said. "You don't know how powerful you are."
She went on: "I didn't have that burden on me when I was in high school. I didn't even know high schools closed. But financially, there's a burden on everybody now. And they're trying to push us toward excellence, which isn't a bad thing. But we didn't have it together last year, and now this is the year to make it happen. Those of you that play sports, it's like we're in the last few minutes, and it's, 'Are we going to make it or not?'"
The bus idled in the parking lot. The marching band had a solid rhythm going with mallets and drumsticks on the seatbacks. Anabel stood up front and counted heads. Her star athlete turned up in sandals.
"Where are your tennis shoes?" Anabel asked.
"I don't have any," JaQuarius joked.
"You're going to wear mine. You better wrap them around your feet. What size do you wear?"
The bus pulled out of the lot, carrying a passenger manifest chosen by an imprecise amalgam of grades, profile and charisma. The kids bounced in their seats, riding toward middle schools they'd once attended, on an errand to convince at least a few of the more capable eighth graders that Reagan High might have more to offer than four years of standardized test cramming and the avoidance of getting stabbed.
Anabel draped her arm across the seatback, tucking a leg to achieve that position at her stature. The band kids had been an easy choice, the drum line in particular. They drew a crowd wherever they went, from the bank parking lot to formal competitions; they'd been called up to play on the Friday Night Lights TV show; and this morning they'd dressed up their uniforms with headbands that said, "Soul in Columbia Blue."
Still, JaQuarius was the main attraction, Mr. Reagan High. On the football field he stood out just by showing up. Some college programs were looking at him, Baylor and a couple bigger ones too. As he told it, that had been his plan all along, to shine against the backdrop of a fallen dynasty. But the lesson of the losing season was hard to miss: JaQuarius couldn't do it alone. "His delivery may seem long, but he is also having to throw off his back foot a lot, which leads to a lot of inaccurate passes," one college scout wrote. "When he has been able to stand up and deliver the ball, he looks like a different player."
And for all his devotion to football, JaQuarius was starting to draw more attention on the basketball court, with the boys who'd been together since middle school. The Raiders had made the local paper's pre-season list of 10 teams to watch, at 10, and the sportswriter had said they "could surprise some people." Burned by the memory of last year's regional quarterfinal loss to L.B.J., the team was drawing crowds to its open practices, where there wasn't even much to watch but drills -- outlet, shovel, bounce pass, layup, outlet, shovel, bounce pass, layup, with Coach Derrick Davis calling, "Stay low, stay low." The Raiders had opened their season up in Killeen, where people were still reeling from the shooting at the Army post. Playing Harker Heights, a 5-A school with 2,536 students and a "recognized" rating from the state, the boys had won by three points, 57-54. After the Christmas break, district play would bring two chances to avenge last year's loss to L.B.J.
For now, the education commissioner's decision loomed in the distance of summer, a teenage eternity. The bus driver parked behind the cafeteria at Webb Middle School. The drummers and dancers gathered their things. The band director went to make arrangements. JaQuarius took the chance to give the principal a hard time.
"This is illegal, recruiting," he said.
"We're not recruiting," Anabel said. "We're showing off."
She changed the subject to standardized test prep and his smiled faded. His first look at the Exit Level TAKS test was coming up. His girlfriend, Ashley, had already passed the tests her junior year. She was applying to Baylor and some places even farther away too. No TAKS, no college, and no college football.
"When I get to the test," JaQuarius said, "it doesn't translate. I act like I haven't been studying."
Anabel looked for some encouraging words. A buzzer sounded from the middle school cafeteria. The eighth graders were starting lunch. It was time to put on a show.
"Alright, chicas," she called, giving the dancers a roundhouse wave. "Are you ready?"
The girls in their sparkling blue followed JaQuarius up the delivery ramp, past a sign tracking the progress of a Thanksgiving can drive and into the cafeteria with their principal close behind, calling, "Where are my strutters and my dancerinas at?"
The bass drummer smashed an opening salvo, the echoed resounded from the concrete walls and somebody called, "Hit it, Reagan!" The drum line teased a march beat but soon dropped into a low shuffle, doing exaggerated tucks and chair steps. The Soul Strutters took to the floor below the stage, hips shaking, and the drum line hushed to stick clicks for the call and response:
Everybody say ...
The drummers called out their parts. The Soul Strutters did a suggestive twist. The middle school kids perched on their cafeteria stools, rapt and maybe a little overwhelmed. Somebody introduced the woman responsible for this lunchroom spectacle, the principal of Reagan High School, Ms. Anabel Garza.
"We are hearing fantastic things about you," she told the eighth graders. "We hear how smart you are. We are here from Reagan today to identify our future Raiders."
She asked for a show of hands.
"And those of you who aren't coming to Reagan," she went on, "we hope we can change your minds today."
"I'm good," one kid called, and some others laughed. They were only 13, but they'd already seen their middle school go through the same desperate race to make the numbers. Anabel went on with her pitch, introducing the band, the Strutters, the cheerleaders, the yearbook photographer and the quarterback.
"As you can tell," Anabel said, watching the eighth grade girls watch JaQuarius, "we have the best-looking kids in Austin, the most beautiful girls, the most handsome boys ..."
The drum line took over. The band played on, a deafening clamor in that unacoustical lunchroom. The Reagan kids worked the room, circulating fliers that told of auto shop and drama clubs and sports. The middle school girls competed for the attentions of this fine and towering JaQuarius, who made his way up and down each aisle before returning to his place by the stage. When the music stopped, JaQuarius held the door for the drum line, the Strutters and everybody. Last came the principal. The middle school girls didn't stop staring until JaQuarius let the door close behind his back.
"I don't know what they see," Anabel said, shaking her head at JaQuarius, "in a boy with no shoes."
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