Why Must I Be A Teenager In Trouble?

SOUTH OF HEAVEN: WELCOME TO HIGH SCHOOL AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

By Thomas French

Doubleday x 365pp x $22.95

Most people who have been to high school think they know what it's about. To some extent, they're right: Pep rallies and proms, SATs and senior cut days remain integral parts of high school life. The curriculum rings familiar, too. Hamlet's soliloquy still starts: ""To be or not to be." Word problems still stump algebra classes. And the laws of the physical sciences, at least at the high school level, remain unchanged--though my daughter tackles chemistry with a scientific calculator, while those of us from predigital times struggled with slide rules.

But the high school life in Thomas French's South of Heaven will probably seem unfamiliar to those at least a generation removed from 12th grade. French, a reporter for Florida's St. Petersburg Times, spent the 1989-90 year at suburban Largo High School, attending classes, staff meetings, and football games, hanging out with students before, during, and after school, even cruising around town with them on nights and weekends.

South of Heaven isn't an expos , nor did French pose as a student to get his story. He gained the cooperation of the staff and, most important, the students. They opened up to him, often with startlingly intimate details, such as those provided by the hapless couple whose first after-school tryst ended with a broken condom and pregnancy. The students, French says, trusted him to be fair and hoped the chronicle of their lives would, as one told him, "do some good."

Do some good? What's so bad about Largo High? It's not the kind of school students must enter through metal detectors. Largo, French notes, even has a good reputation locally, in part because many of its teachers are alumni, deeply committed to the school.

To be sure, life at Largo looks nothing like life at Beverly Hills 90210's upscale West Beverly High, either. The school draws an economically and racially mixed population without resorting to long-distance busing. Some of Largo's students are the children of corporate executives; some dwell in housing proj-ects. Mostly, they're middle-class.

Indeed, because French holds Largo up as a paradigm of "high school at the end of the 20th century," the circumstances that mar many of the kids' lives are disturbing. Despair grips too many of these young people.

French builds his narrative by focusing on five students: Christine, a popular, can-do kid torn between what she wants for herself and what her parents want her to do; John, who hopes his gridiron prowess will be his ticket to college; Jaimee, who goes to school but rarely to class, instead wandering the halls and campus; Andrea, a spirited senior who becomes Largo's first black homecoming queen; and Mike, a brooding freshman whose goal is to drop out.

All five have less than storybook home lives. Three are being raised by single mothers. Mike lives with his mother and her husband, and has little contact with the father who left when Mike was two. Christine's parents are breaking up.

Much of the book is set in the "pod," a school-within-a-school that houses a program for those deemed in danger of dropping out. Classes are small, enabling teachers to give extra attention to students such as Jaimee and Mike, who often spurn it. The pod's teachers also conduct evening programs for parents--few of whom show up. Is there any doubt why these kids are apathetic, lost, and despondent?

Not that some parents don't try to rein in their wayward children. Jaimee's mother, for instance, takes a "tough love" approach. Fed up with her daughter's disobedience, she reports her car stolen after Jaimee drives off without permission. She later checks Jaimee into a residential treatment center, hoping therapists can reach the psychologically adrift girl. Mike's mother seems genuinely concerned with her children's problems--Mike's older brother is a pod student, too--but she's not well and lacks the wherewithal to cope with them. Generally, these troubled teens seem to come from homes where schoolwork competes with marital distress, substance abuse, and unemployment.

Even the kids who study hard and have attentive parents face problems. Consider John, the football star, who risks expulsion--and blowing his shot at college--by taking a gun to school. He's not looking for trouble at Largo, he says, but fears that a gang of neighborhood drug dealers will ambush him when he gets off the school bus.

In one of the book's most dramatic moments, John's partially sheathed gun tumbles out of his locker into the principal's path. By dumb luck, the principal doesn't notice. But later, John's worst fears materialize. In a confrontation with the dealers, he's grazed by a bullet.

While South of Heaven is provocative, it's not preachy. Sure, more money would help. Keeping classes small for the pod students, for instance, means crowding many regular classrooms. And many pod kids drop out, despite sometimes-heroic efforts to save them.

What Largo's--and all of America's--teens need most is something billions of tax dollars cannot buy: caring parents, stable homes, and safe neighborhoods. No book, of course, can provide them. But if French reminds even a few readers of these priorities--and that there are limits to what schools alone can achieve--then the time and trust these students put into telling their tales will indeed have done some good.