Barely 58 minutes into the day's first 2-hour 15-minute summer-school class, the vice principal comes over the loudspeaker and punishes everyone.
"Due to the fact that some students lack the maturity," he says, "all breaks have been canceled, permanently, during summer school."
He repeats, "There will be no more breaks."
Immediately Dylan Creighton takes credit for the ban.
"I thought he was just talking to me!" marvels the spiky-haired 14-year-old, telling his language-arts class that, after break the previous day, he had loitered in the hall for five -- maybe 10 -- minutes and got caught harassing a teacher. The vice principal was furious, Dylan says, and yelled, That's it! No more breaks!
"I guess that teacher told on us," Dylan muses, shrinking slightly in his chair.
"Because you were looking in her window," retorts Julie Bodziak, his language-arts teacher, her tone withering every third word.
"I was trying to find someone," Dylan whines, plaintive.
By hiding under the window frame? Bodziak asks. And popping up and down?
He should be more worried: He and the others in Bodziak's class are retaking eighth-grade language arts. If they fail summer school, they risk descending into the lowest circle of teenage hell -- returning to middle school rather than passing into high school.
Behind him, Jordan Kozlowski ingests the news and turns on Dylan.
"I hate you," he spits dryly. "I hate you."
Summer school. You think it'd be unbearable, the assignments and lessons, getting quizzed on "accept" vs. "except" and having to correct sentences like: "A person living at the North pole in Winter wouldnt catch a cold amazingly because its to cold for germs to live there."
It's bleak, too. The classrooms are bare, white, concrete-block prisons. No cheery bulletin boards covered in crimson construction paper in summer school. No mournful kitties dangling from trees, urging "Hang in there." No encouraging quotes: "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. DON'T BE A WEAKLING." Even the bookshelves, except for a few scraggly dictionaries, are empty.
Classes start at 7:30 and each of the two drags for 135 minutes -- straight. School lasts until 12:10 p.m. And if you're there, it's pretty much because you failed. So there's a stigma.
"Are you gonna say we're bad kids?" asks Jordan, who's here "because I kinda messed up last year."
In front of him, Dylan groans. They're at Anne Arundel's South River High, where you'll find about a third, or 480, of the county's middle and high schoolers who are retaking courses they couldn't be bothered with the first time around.
"I still have the toothpaste flavor in my mouth," Dylan observes, slumping his head on his arm on his desk. The kid to his right has zonked his head smack-flat on the desk.
Bleak, bleak, bleak. It would seem.
But no matter how hard you press, that's generally not what you hear. To these class clowns known for telling it like it is, you can pose all the questions you like: What about the horror of this seasonal detention? Aren't they scared they won't pass? Aren't they worried about failing again and returning to middle school with -- shudder -- last year's no-status seventh-graders? They won't bite.
Psshhh, they shake their heads: No. They'll do what they need (though just barely, some admit) to pass. It won't be hard. Points out Dylan, it's actually time-efficient: He got to goof off doing "whatever I want" all school year. Summer school "is only six weeks." (He may be retaking pre-algebra this summer, but he can do that math.)
And that's the thing about this summer-long "Breakfast Club," they say -- it's not that bad.
We'll Always Have Summer School
Through the open door of the social studies class next door, the teacher's stentorian drone blares: "NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. OKAY, LAUREN. HOW ABOUT NUMBER THREE. WILL YOU READ THAT TO US?"
Lauren. The distant sound of her name lands in Dylan's brain and blooms. She is Dylan's latest crush. He calls her "the Paris-Hilton-Look-Alike-Girl." He considers her a happy reason to exult about this summer ritual: "I like summer school!"
"If this is friends," he explains later, slicing the air with his left hand, "and this is girlfriend" -- he slices with his right -- "we're right about here." He moves the "girlfriend" hand inward a few inches and slices a new, nearly there line, grinning manically, buoyed by the elated hormones that control the hopeful, obsessive chase of a crush. He's lucky, too: Because of their shared summer-school status, he gets to see her before school, after school, between classes, and every time she saunters past his language-arts class.
"I'd say that by the end of the day," he predicts, the silver rings in his nose and upper lip winking under the fluorescent lights, "she'll be my girlfriend."
Just as Lauren's far-away voice starts reading, Bodziak closes her classroom's door to it.
"You need to start writing," she says to Dylan.
"I'm thinking," he answers dreamily. "I've got so many ideas in my head."
"You need to pick one."
"I have four sentences," announces Jordan. "Is that good enough?"
"Nope. Keep writing."
Beats Solitude on the Beach
Forget the nostalgia of restful, carefree summers long gone. Forget the romantic expectations of sultry, languorous (look 'em up, kids; give those lonely dictionaries a raison d'etre) ease.
Summer is endless and melting and sweltering days. It's too many games of Burnout 3 on the PS2 -- of conversations like:
"I'm bored. Let's do something."
"I'm bored. Let's do something."
Into this haze comes the entertaining distraction of summer school. Girls preen in shrunken denim skirts. Broad-shouldered guys strut in with orange polos and sun-bleached hair. There are so many unknowns from other schools, so many new crushes, so many possibilities. So many new adults to torment.
Dylan, proudly: "I got a referral within the 15 first minutes of summer school."
Bodziak, infuriated: "Dylan." He has been talking instead of working on his persuasive essay, bragging that usually by now, midway through the class, he's got a disciplinary check or two by his name. "Now go put that checkmark on the board."
"Dylan! Put a checkmark next to your name, otherwise it's gonna be two."
Class continues. Students scratch blue ballpoint pens across their notebook paper, writing about euthanasia ("If someone has a terminal illness and you have there consent then it should be OK to kill them," Jordan scribbles) and juvenile crime ("Violence from teen gangs is a problem in the United States," writes the boy whose face was flat on the desk at the start of school). Bodziak is helping individual students, while the others start whispering about summer school.
"I don't see anybody in the summer because I live in the woods," notes the tragically bored student in the corner, who spends summer at home in a distant, rural corner of the county. He has shaggy blond hair and is writing his essay on Internet file-sharing. "I failed just to go to summer school," he claims. "Last year, summer school was so easy. All we did was watch that old movie 'Roots.' "
Jordan, whose long hair hangs in his eyes, and whose wardrobe consists entirely of rock-band T-shirts, has decided that without his morning forays to South River High, he would sleep in till 11 a.m. and waste hours of his life. With summer school, he wakes at 6, showers, eats, spends half an hour on the computer, then comes to Bodziak's class (the only one he takes) and returns "home by 10."
"Basically," he concludes brightly, as though summer school is less about eighth-grade English and more about "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," "I'm getting more hours in my day."
Even after the meaning-of-life musings of Bodziak's class, when Dylan goes into pre-algebra and joins James Anderson in a windowless room with equations on the overhead projector -- "Solve 2.6 = b - 3.1" -- the topic continues, off and on, throughout class.
Flapping a flip-flop under his desk, James tries to muster some aggression. "I hate summer school," he begins, going on to describe a boyish fantasy of where he'd be, if he weren't here retaking science and math.
Early mornings, he begins, he'd spend at swim team -- except swim team's over now -- and midmornings he'd hang with the Xbox, playing video games. After lunch, he continues, just getting warmed up, he and his friends, who all live in Bay Ridge, one of Annapolis's most impressive Chesapeake Bay-front neighborhoods, would "go out on the boat," a swanky MasterCraft X-Star, and wake-surf. Or else they'd wait for low tide and skim-board at the beach. Late afternoons, they'd try to catch rockfish off Tolley Point, but "usually we just catch perch," hundreds of little perch, he says.
Then almost immediately -- and counterintuitively -- he backs down. Summer school, he decides, sounding sad and defeated, "is not that bad since most of my friends are on vacation, and I'd be at home alone, anyway." His parents, he adds, don't believe in vacation.
All of which raises the question: Huh? Four hours 40 minutes of summer school, every day, beats the heck outta hanging at the beach, even if it's by himself?
Yeah. To be 14 and without your friends, even in the most fantastical of paradises, is to wish you were somewhere else -- anywhere else. At 14, there's no such thing as solitude. There's only loneliness.
But joining the summer-school crowd costs money. Jordan has to get a job -- like cleaning the whole house, he says -- to pay back his dad the $200 that one summer-school class costs.
Dylan's two classes cost $400, and when he asks his math teacher, Tina Johnson, "Do you pass with a D?" She tells him, "Why would you want to? You spent a lot of money to come here."
Exactly! James agrees. He thinks the school system should offer a half-off deal: "It should be $100 for the second class."
"No," Johnson retorts. "It should be: You get what you need during the year, and you don't need to come here."
Who's Cool, Who's Not
These hours back in the classroom don't even crimp time for life's important questions. At one point Jordan asks, apropos of nothing in the middle of class: "How come really hot chicks hang out with really fat chicks?" The guys around him -- and they are all guys in Bodziak's class -- nod seriously, like yeah, good point. But before they can dissect further, Ms. Bodziak squelches the topic.
Summer school offers heaps of issues for comparative analyses. Another of the day's topics: Who ranks where in the hallways' hierarchy of cool?
"Emos" come in last, decide the language arts and pre-algebra students. That's "E-moes," as in, "emotional kids," as in, " 'I hate myself; the world's out to get me; and I cut my wrists,' " explains Ashley Doyle.
They're whiners. Their music is "screamo," Jordan says, and it "complains about life, really loud."
"Nobody likes emo kids," he pronounces.
Musical style determines much in these schoolwide strata. Jam rocker Dave Matthews is a liability, too, as evidenced when Dylan accuses James of being "all into" his music, and James retorts, "No! I like Guns N' Roses." It's a convincing case until James sings part of one Dave Matthews song, trying to prove it's the only one he likes, and Dylan, the self-appointed music bully, points out, See? You know the words.
What about punk? James asks.
"Punk is political. It's all about hating the government," Dylan explains -- and immediately ranks them highest, and no one disagrees, in large part because Dylan has a quick, sharp tongue and often gets the last word.
Which brings us to the ultimate lessons and highpoints of summer school. (Never mind the coursework; as Dylan confided after his math teacher handed him a list of 12 assignments he had yet to turn in, I'll do 'em if I really think I'm gonna fail.) Beyond the socializing and mischievous plotting are the epiphanies, victories and heart-racing glories of summer school:
"Did you guys talk about me today?" Dylan asks as pre-algebra winds down, turning to Ashley, who is also a best friend of the Paris-Hilton-look-alike girl.
"Yes," Ashley tells him.
"What'd she say?"
"She said she kinda likes you."
A smile curls up Dylan's face, until Ashley names another boy at their school and says he and Lauren "talk on the phone all the time."
Dylan's smile evaporates. "Why?" he asks, meaning: Why would Lauren waste her time on him?
"Because he's nice to her," Ashley explains.
Dylan takes a moment, digesting this.
"So you're saying," he finally answers, "I have to be nice to her?"
Then the last bell rings, and the students file down the halls, down the stairs, past the vending machines where Dylan buys a cinnamon roll and stuffs it into his mouth in oversize bites. Ashley walks up. She has been conferring with Lauren and tells Dylan, "She said if you asked her out, she'd say yes."
"See?" he crows. "I told you." He does a little jig. "Ohhh, la la!"
He looks up and sees Lauren in the parking lot, climbing into her mother's black SUV. They didn't get to talk today, but that's okay: He'll see her tomorrow. He's already thinking about what he'll say.
Perhaps all good things must end. A few days later the principal, who's seen Dylan's face in her office once too often, tells him he must leave summer school.