This altar-boy act has got to go.

"High school's the real deal," the older brother warns. "People don't come up to your face and ask, 'You talkin' about me?' They just beat the [expletive] out of you."

Silently, Calixto Salgado listens, his oversize South Pole tee making him look even thinner than he is.

"When you're at Gaithersburg, you gotta make people respect you." The brother slices his English tough. "Y'know what I'm saying?" Calixto doesn't answer. "If you walk around that school and you look like a little punk" -- like a sweet, weak kid unarmed with strut and glare -- "they're gonna come up and start messing with you."

Ever Salgado doesn't explain who "they" are. Calixto already knows: the gangs. Ever has battled them at Gaithersburg High. Now it's Calixto -- deeply spiritual Calixto, whose friends call him "our priest" -- who must be ready to fight.

Staring straight ahead, past the family's five rosaries and the Salvadoran Virgen de la Paz hanging on the kitchen wall, Calixto tucks his fingers between his legs and the wooden chair. He hunches his shoulders toward his ears. He does not want to hear this.

But he fears Ever is right. He trusts his brother to tell him things his parents cannot.

"The kid who wants to ruin himself will ruin himself," his father says, his Spanish rolling. "But the kid who wants to be successful will be successful."

Respectfully, Calixto nods, but later shakes his head. His parents "don't know how it is," he worries. Who is he going to be in high school? Who is he going to make proud -- his brother? His parents? Himself?

Maybe he has a choice.

No, Ever tells him. The choice has already been made.

On Monday, Calixto will enter Gaithersburg High -- a red-brick, 1950s-era school in a town that Money magazine just named America's 17th best place to live. But to many Latino parents in this community 10 miles northwest of the Beltway, Gaithersburg High is better known as the "gang factory."

It's a school with 2,200 students. One-fourth are part of Montgomery County's burgeoning Latino population: In the past 10 years, the number of Latinos in the schools has doubled to 27,041.

Many of these kids are painfully isolated and marginalized -- both academically and socially. For many, it's the fights that earn status, a sad reality highlighted earlier this month by the stabbings at a Silver Spring high school and the Target in Wheaton attributed to the MS-13 gang. Six Latino teenagers were sent to the hospital, and 12 more young men and teenagers were arrested. Eleven were charged with attempted first-degree murder.

Calixto was born in Rockville 14 years ago, but the vowels of his English sometimes slant long, as in Spanish. His parents are from San Miguel, in eastern El Salvador. His mother cooked on a wood-burning stove. They give advice, then tell him not to see them as role models. "You don't want a life like ours," they warn in Spanish, referring to their jobs here cleaning floors and toilets. "Be someone important." Although everyone in Calixto's family is now American -- his parents became citizens in the 1990s -- he, like many of his Latino friends, sometimes uses "Americans" as a synonym for "the white people."

For the past five months, with Calixto's and his parents' permission, The Washington Post has been following him at school and in church, at home and on the soccer fields, on the Ride-On public bus and into the nursing home where he volunteers -- all to chronicle the fault lines Calixto must negotiate as he, like thousands of others like him across the Washington region, enters ninth grade. The year of make or break.

The Retreat

His family calls him by his middle name, 'Tonio, because his dad's name is Calixto, too.

But outside of the Salgados' brown brick townhouse in Gaithersburg, this tall and slender kid, with dark fuzz on his upper lip and razored sideburns down his cheeks, is Calixto.

He is a kid who shears his hair short, like the velvet nap of a new tennis ball, and is prone to deciding, early in the school day, that his jeans are all wrong and must be fixed immediately. So he ties them into his shoelaces. When he made his confirmation at St. Martin's Catholic church, he chose for his gift a pendant of Jesus and a praying child. Nearly everyone else in his class received a crucifix. "A crucifixion isn't original," he says. "And I didn't want to be like everybody else."

"Calixto!" two girls call to him now. "We need your hand! Calixto."

Here in classroom D226, at Gaithersburg's Forest Oak Middle School, it's May and they're painting team flags, preparing for a weekend retreat. Calixto's Blue Team -- el Equipo azul -- has centered theirs with proud, ebullient letters, "L4L: LATINOS 4 LIFE," encircled by duets of handprints. Calixto adds his, and they're off, 19 seventh- and eighth- graders heading east on a yellow school bus. Destination: a camp on Anne Arundel County's West River, near the Chesapeake Bay.

It's part of an after-school course run by Identity, a seven-year-old Montgomery County nonprofit that works with middle and high school Latinos -- kids deemed "at risk" of tripping into achingly familiar pitfalls: joining gangs, dropping out of school, getting pregnant, doing drugs.

"The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round," Calixto starts, joking around, and soon the others are singing, too: From "SpongeBob" -- "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Sponge! Bob! Square! Pants!" -- to Eminem. "Get a beat!" Calixto yells. "Someone get a beat," and they rap until Lourdes Valle turns somber. "Hey," she shouts over the din, "everybody pray."

"Lourdes had a dream," one of the boys explains.

They take the omen seriously and turn suddenly quiet, facing Calixto. He bows his head, and the mostly Catholic students and their adult chaperones recite the Lord's Prayer: "Padre Nuestro, que estas en el cielo, santificado sea tu Nombre . . ."

As the weekend unfolds, these 13- and 14-year-olds devour pepperoni pizzas, rush into the morning chirping, "Our room smells like farts!" and take a trust-building blindfolded walk in the nighttime forest. After a furious rain, Calixto's guide trudges though the goopy mud, her jeans soaked to her knees. "This sucks," Elsa Miranda says.

Calixto, though, tilts back his head, breathes in the tangy, sweet woodsiness and notices: "This smells good."

Not until midmorning Saturday do these kids, who hula-hoop and play noodle tag, unveil themselves as more fragile than their antics suggest. While practicing skits, many loll at the edges of the cabin, listless and tired. But when the topic turns, they rev vigorously to life.

That topic is gangs.

The Transformation

"I was getting sick of myself," Calixto says, looking back at the boy he was in seventh grade. It was spring of 2004. Calixto was 12. He weighed 194 pounds.

He had spent much of middle school imitating his older brother, who was suspended from Forest Oak 10 times in one year. Calixto disrupted class, cussed and scowled at teachers, "Whatever. I ain't doing nothing." He got sent to the office regularly and was once suspended for fighting. "My brother," Calixto says, "he teaches me a lot of stuff."

And then suddenly, Calixto decided to change -- to remove himself from Ever's shadow and become someone different. It was a turning point he can't explain. It just happened.

Maybe it was the letter Forest Oak Middle sent home, warning that if Calixto didn't bring up his grades, he would have to go to summer school -- or repeat seventh grade.

Maybe it was his aunt, dying of diabetes, pleading, "Do not let this happen to you." He started going with his dad to the gym and spending five minutes on the treadmill, then lifting weights.

Maybe it was the Identity program. Or confirmation classes at church. Or that in eighth grade many kids turn serious. No matter, the result was striking. Calixto launched into "this incredible personal transition," as one teacher called it, and when eighth grade began, he was noticeably slimmer and vowing to study harder. He still approached his reading class angrily. "I can't read," he would fume. "I can't do this!" But first quarter, on a report card with three C's and a D, he also earned two B's.

As Calixto's year took off, Ever's sophomore year at Gaithersburg High turned meaner. As a freshman, Ever says, he was recruited by Mara Salvatrucha-13, the region's most sprawling and powerful street gang. Instead, he became a leader in the LP (La Pared, "The Wall") crew. "It's not like we're a gang," Ever insists. "We're just friends who hang out." He adds, "We don't throw signs. . . . We don't do graffiti." But "whoever crosses our way" -- he punches his hand -- "we just snuff 'em." At the high school, he could fight as often as three times a week. "This guy threatened me with running me over with a car," begins one story. Goes another: "This one guy said he was gonna shoot me in the eye or stab me."

"It's a dangerous school," Calixto's father agrees. "There's bad kids there." Fall ended with Ever getting kicked out of Gaithersburg High for a year and leaving with an arrest record, a probation officer and a 0.42 GPA. In the winter, when Identity's classes began, Calixto ambled into room D226 defiant, rebellious and "aggressive," remembered Identity's counselor, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. "I was like, 'Wow. This kid.' "

Yet, as the semester went on, Calixto had lost 45 pounds -- "some mad weight," as Ever's friends said -- and "thank you" and "please" became staples in his vocabulary. "How are you?" he shyly asked teachers while walking into class. Toward the end of eighth grade, he won a schoolwide Character Counts award and proudly wore the prize T-shirt to school.

'Serving for God'

The Salgado brothers are scrambling. First Friday Mass starts in 15 minutes, and Ever and Calixto, who both hold high positions in the altar-server hierarchy at St. Martin's, are running late.

"The candles on the altar are lit?" Ever asks.

"Yeah," Calixto answers. Then, "Oh! The bells." The priest arrives, and Calixto helps him into the chasuble. Minutes later, in their long red cassocks and white surplices, Calixto and Ever herd two other altar boys toward the back of the Gaithersburg church, where they all lead the priest to the altar. The 2 1/2-hour Spanish Mass -- a special service much more formal than Masses offered in English at the church -- begins.

Spring is warming into summer, and Calixto's confirmation classes are teaching him to be "a better person," someone "in tune to what you're doing, to what is right and what is wrong." He's paying more attention to his role as an altar boy. After serving at one well-attended Sunday Mass, he decides that being up on the altar "means I'm serving for God. It means God chose me. There was a whole rack of boys in the Mass -- a whole rack of boys. But God chose me. I'm up there for a reason."

Calixto is trying to weave the church teachings through the rest of his life. But Ever, the "subcapitan general" of the Spanish altar servers, says that even though church "relaxes me," much about church should remain there. Real life requires more than turning the other cheek.

The Mass pauses while the priest hears confessions, and Calixto goes into the pews to pray with his mom. Ever and the two other altar boys stay in the sacristy.

"Hey," says 13-year-old Roque Hernandez, leaning against a table, pouring Skittles into his palm. "Did you read in the newspaper about the gangs?"

"I guess it was MS-13, and they jumped two people," Ever answers. "And the cops were all over the place. That's just what my dad says." Spooning incense chips over smoldering charcoal, he starts describing the rising backlash against MS-13. Other gangs are forming, he says, like Cien Por Ciento Latino -- CPL, "One Hundred Percent Latino" -- and Sangre Pura, SP, "Pure Blood."

"It's gonna get worse," Roque says knowingly. "My mom talks about it a lot."

Ever's mom does, too. He quotes her: " 'Be careful. Be independent.' She keeps saying, 'There's no friends around here. Your only friends are your sister and your brother.' "

Right before Mass resumes, Calixto returns to the sacristy, where Ever is explaining why people join gangs. "They want to be popular," he says. "Want people to know their name." He stands a little taller. "I got so many people who know my name." He turns to Calixto. "Huh?" Calixto nods.

Just beyond the altar, two guitarists start strumming, and Ever carries the brass incense holder and kneels at the priest's side. The other boys follow.

'Full-Blooded Immigrant'

The pencils are scratching, in Spanish and English.

Americans, Calixto writes at the end of March, "don't believe we know how to live, just because we're from a different country. They don't think we know how to be humans."

Americans, scrawl the other seventh- and eighth-graders around him, think "we're thieves," "gang members," "people with no values."

"I think most Americans think," writes Calixto's friend Jessica, adding two large, crying eyes alongside her words, "we are poor . . . we only work on cleaning bathrooms . . . we are some pieces of [excrement] . . . and we are in gangs."

"I believe," one boy begins, "that the majority of americans think that people from my country are . . . trash that we can't be scientist artist, Docters, lawers."

In school, the "white" people "call me FBI," Karla Borja confides later. "Full-Blooded Immigrant." She hates that word: "immigrant."

"They think we are dumb," says Karla's pretty, curly-haired friend. "Because a lot of Latinos need help because we don't know the language." When they ask for help, she says, other students bray: "What? I don't understand! What? What? What?"

Overcoming such crippling self-images is part of Identity's mission. Last year, the organization worked with kids in five Montgomery County middle and high schools. This year it's doubling to 10 schools, although 21 have applied to be included. In those applications, school officials were asked: How will your students benefit from Identity's program? Many answered, simply, "Very large Hispanic population," as though that explains everything.

Maybe it does. Latinos are at least four times as likely as non-Latino whites to drop out of Montgomery public schools. After elementary school, more than 1 in 10 Latino students were suspended in 2004, far more than whites and Asians, though not as high as African Americans. Their college-bound SAT scores also lag: At Gaithersburg High, Latinos scored an average 848 out of 1600, compared with 1075 for whites.

All of these are challenges facing Calixto, and he has advantages: He is a native-born American with two hardworking parents who love and spend time with him. Not all of Calixto's friends facing the blandishments of gang recruiters can say this. Imagine what it's like for them.

Even among middle-schoolers, the risks are alarming. In 2003, Identity surveyed 325 Latino seventh- and eighth-graders from across Montgomery County and discovered that, within the previous year:

* Twelve percent of these 11- to 13-year-olds had carried a weapon such as a knife or a club (although only 1 percent had carried a gun); 38 percent had gotten into a physical fight; 27 percent had stayed home because they felt unsafe going outside; and 16 percent had been threatened or injured by someone with a weapon.

* Twenty percent had been involved in gang-related activities; 12 percent said they had been members of a gang.

* Thirty-five percent had felt depressed for at least two weeks in a row; 17 percent had "seriously considered attempting suicide."

* Forty-nine percent spent zero time playing on sports teams at school or in the community; 73 percent spent zero time getting tutoring or extra help with school; 78 percent spent no time practicing or taking lessons in music, drama, dance or art.

Those last percentages may be some of the most daunting. They stand in such contrast to vast swaths of Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest and best educated in the country, where students notoriously suffer breakdowns from too many enrichment activities designed to hustle them into the Ivies.

Why, in a county like this, would someone want to join a gang?

Because, the kids tell Identity one afternoon, they live in a different world.

"Because they wanted friends," says one eighth-grade girl. "To be popular," says another. "For protection." "Because there is no love in their house."

"Because," says a seventh-grade boy, "they're lonely."

Playing Gangs

It's a Saturday morning in May, and outside the sun glows yellow. At the Identity retreat, the kids gather in a wood cabin to practice skits.

"Do your parents know how it is at school?" Fernandez-Coffey, the moderator, asks Calixto's team.

"No!" they answer forcefully.

"How do they think it is?"

"Sweeeeet," says Calixto's friend Elsa Miranda in a sarcastically cloying voice.

"So let's show them," Fernandez-Coffey suggests.

The kids rush to the center of the room, and even Calixto, who has been so diligently trying to change, excitedly jumps in. "I'll be the leader of the red."

"Why can't we have a girl and a guy gang?" Elsa asks. She is fiercely strong and independent with thick, wavy black hair. She was 6 when her mother fled El Salvador and migrated north. "I still remember the day when she left me. I cried." Elsa takes a ragged breath. "It was tough."

Until last week, she lived on West Deer Park Road, which is the same name as an MS-13 clique: the West Deer Park Locos. Two Novembers ago, a mother living in her old apartment complex accused gang members of sexually assaulting her daughter in a gang initiation rite. In retaliation, police suspect, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into their apartment and landed in the bed of a 6-year-old boy. The apartment burned, but everyone escaped uninjured. Police have not solved the case.

In this skit, Elsa says now, she wants "real life."

She turns to Harris Hauffen, the earnest 17-year-old high school dropout who works at Identity and is helping chaperon the retreat. In 21/2 months, he will be locked in a Montgomery County jail, accused of helping stab two students at Springbrook High School. Police will say he is MS-13 and will charge him with attempted murder.

"We're not there yet," she tells him. "You are."

Soon Fernando Cruz is barking at Calixto, "I heard you were trying to force my girl."

"To do what?" Calixto asks, his voice knifing the words sharp and mean.

"I heard you were trying to get with my girl." Fernando pushes out his chest.

"Say, 'I already have one. I don't need yours,' " a girl with silver hoop earrings tells Calixto, enthusiastic about the exercise.

"Do you see," whispers Fernandez-Coffey, watching the students, "how the minute we bring in gangs, how they're all engaged?"

Every one of the seventh- and eighth-graders has jumped into the scene.

Hail Calixto

Back at Forest Oak two days later, the kids meet in Room D226 and pull the desks into a circle. Calamine lotion dots Calixto's arms, and Fernandez-Coffey asks them to mention a strength and weakness they discovered about themselves over the weekend.

Calixto is the only one who stands. Under his black tee and gray sweats, his knee shakes slightly, but his voice is strong. "I try my best."

Suddenly, around him, the kids start shouting more of Calixto's strengths. "And you could count on him." "He was our preacher. Our priest." "In the boys' room, when it was all muddy, he would clean up." "Oh, yeah!" others murmur. "He took care of us."

The following week, Fernandez-Coffey asks the seventh- and eighth-graders to vote for students who gave the most at the retreat. A few of the kids campaign: "Vote for me!" Calixto remains, as usual, silent. When Fernandez-Coffey announces the winners, she begins, in Spanish, "This person doesn't speak very loudly. This is a quiet person, and someone who is absolutely respectful -- "

The kids are cheering before she can finish. "CA-LIX-TO!"

The Clash

The redheaded kid is "gonna do something."

Only a few weeks remain of eighth grade, but mornings still dawn chilly, and the grass around the basketball court shows footprints in the white dew. Calixto stands at the edge of the court one day, in a small clot of friends, and announces, "That guy's messing with me."

"Let's go find him," one of his friends says, but first bell rings. Students scatter to their lockers. Nothing happens until after PE, Calixto's last class of the day. In a crowded hallway upstairs, the guy bangs into him.

Calixto whirls. The kid is glowering.

"What're you staring at, yo?" Calixto yells. "C'mon!"

The guy smirks, angry and snide.

"What're you looking at?" Calixto tries again, louder, his voice three registers deeper than normal. His posture freezes tight and his voice goes steely, just as Ever's does. Around them, crowds of kids surge toward the stairs, oblivious to the face-off. The redhead widens his smirk. Calixto spins away.

"I'm gonna go out there," he fumes, "see if he wants to do something. I mean . . . he touched me. It's over. He's acting like I did something wrong, and I don't even know him."

Under the eaves outside, students file into yellow buses and Calixto tells his friend Jessica Garcia Chavez about what just happened. "He was white," he adds.

"He was white?" Jessica tenses, as if the battle is hers, too.

"That man touched me."

"Where is he? What's his name?" Jessica asks. Calixto answers. How old is he? Jessica asks.

"Seventh-grader."

"A seventh-grader!" Jessica leans back, deflated and mocking. "Chhh," she laughs at him. He should have punished that kid days ago. "What's with you, Calixto?"

He swings his backpack and looks caught and uncomfortable, no longer sure of the right thing to do.

"I like when his anger comes out," his older brother encourages later. "He's too nice."

High School Orientation

The first day of high school happens on the last day of eighth grade.

Calixto arrives in his Nike Air Force 1s, his baggy denim shorts and the blue-striped polo he wore to his cousin's quinceanera.

"There's Calixto!" two girls from the retreat squeal, and together they walk inside Gaithersburg High, where 600 freshmen-to-be from Forest Oak and Gaithersburg middle schools swirl confusedly: lanky girls in sorbet tanks, guys in oversize Ecko tees, still-small boys with enormous feet. They are herded into the sloping auditorium and sit in red seats facing the stage. About a quarter are Latino, and another quarter African American. Ten percent are Asian, and about 40 percent are white.

Throughout the morning, Calixto and the others are urged to sign up for Key Club ("It looks great on applications!") and marching band ("We are the biggest organization in the school, and we are coed!"). They hear all about Spirit Week ("Everyone gets involved, and it's a lot of fun!"). When Calixto's group descends into the school's basement, the copper-haired girl from his eighth-grade math class -- who is today wearing a denim miniskirt and a preppy ribbon belt -- chirps knowingly behind him, "We were down here for cheerleading!" Student government passes out sign-up sheets for those interested in running for class office, but Calixto passes. "Too much hard work," he says. "I'd rather go home and sleep." He's interested in only one activity: "I'm gonna try to go for wrestling."

They are also put on guard about the dangers of high school.

"I guarantee you, the people you're sitting with will not be with you when you walk across that stage. Who's it gonna be?" asks Don Dillingham, a charismatic softball coach and English teacher dressed in a black polo shirt and black pants, with a wireless mike. He paces across the stage while the students look around, alarmed at the straight talk. "Self-control," he continues, then starts to role play. He calls onstage a boy in a Rocawear T-shirt who stands off-center, near the lectern, and waits while Dillingham slowly crosses the stage. The auditorium goes silent. In a voice turned street, Dillingham says, "I don't know you." Pause. "But you know what I know about you?"

The kid stares.

"You're a punk-ass bitch."

"OOOOOOOOOOOO!" The auditorium shakes.

"I would fight him," Calixto mutters. "I would fight him."

Straightening his shoulders, Dillingham resumes his teacher's voice. What, he asks, do you do?

"I would tell a teacher or something," the kid says.

"BOO!" the freshman class cries. "Beat him up!"

Dillingham turns toward the auditorium and deepens his voice. "A lot of the people who are laughing, I'm gonna see in in-school suspension or lunch detention."

"Self-control," he reminds them. "Control your emotions and your thoughts."

Calixto's Birthday

It's June, Calixto's turning 14, and his dad is grilling chicken, carne and chorizo picante. His mom is coming downstairs with hot dog buns. Inside, Calixto and Ever play Nintendo soccer -- Brazil vs. Argentina.

Soon their cousin Esmeralda Salgado arrives with Elijah, the 6-month-old baby who led her to drop out of Gaithersburg High, though she later earned her GED and is now taking classes at Montgomery College. She is 17. A 14-year-old cousin sits on the Salgados' couch and picks up a controller. He starts talking with Ever and Calixto about guys they know.

"He got kicked out?"

"No. I think he dropped out."

"I bet if you step up to his face," Calixto says, "he'd do nothing."

"He'll show you his gun," the boy says. "But there's no bullets in it."

A few minutes later, Calixto stands and pulls from his front pocket his final report card. "I'm proud of it," he says, pointing at the three C's and three B's. "Look at this. That's some good grades." He pauses, doing the math in his head. "Yeah. About a 2.5."

He has proved he can do it. But can he keep it up? Maybe his mom should display the report card "now," he says, "because next year -- all E's and stuff."

Across the basement room, Ever watches, feeling confused and even abandoned, sort of, by his little brother's transformation.

"It's just weird to me," he says later. "I liked him better the way he was before."

Dreams Spring Forth

One more month until high school. He has spent some of his summer volunteering at the nursing home where his dad works, wheeling patients who don't know their names to hear piano music.

Most days he's at home, walking to pick up his 7-year-old sister, Roxana, from summer school, playing Nintendo GameCube with Ever and slowly devouring the novelization of "West Side Story" for ninth-grade English.

"It's the tightest book I ever read," he enthuses one day. "It's about gangs. They actually fight." Two weeks later, pulling ice cubes from the freezer, he's still enthralled. "That's the real thing right there. They stabbed someone."

One evening at the end of July, Calixto and Ever meet the Argueta brothers to play soccer. The boys' mothers sit together on a grassy hill behind the soccer goal, discussing college hopes in Spanish. Calixto's mom wears the maroon tee given to her by someone she cleans for. Across her chest it says, "HARVARD."

"Hay una universidad en Ohio," Maria Salgado tells Jovita Argueta. "Una universidad catolica." One of the students from St. Martin's church goes there now, to this Catholic university two states away. "He earned a scholarship, too," she adds, and her friend nods. Maria believes this school to be one of the best options for her sons -- not least because, as she is repeating, of the scholarships.

The sky is darkening now, and the boys lie on the grass near their mothers, gulping water and teasing each other in English.

Gonna play on the soccer team? Ever asks Geovany Argueta, who is two years older than Calixto but because of academic hiccups will be only a year ahead at Gaithersburg High.

"Do I look like I have good enough grades to play soccer?" Geovany retorts -- a common refrain among kids in their crowd. Calixto and Ever played in elementary school leagues, but neither played at middle school. "I wasn't eligible," Calixto explains matter-of-factly. And without middle school experience, he stands no shot at playing soccer in high school and bolstering his application for scholarships, let alone for college.

This divide between the parents' dreams and their children's reality was lit especially starkly just six weeks earlier on one of the last days of Identity. Fernandez-Coffey told her students, in Spanish: "One of the missions of Identity is to help you realize your greatest potential. We want you to think about: What are your dreams?" She began handing out paper. "What kind of person do you want to be? What do you hold inside your heart? What do you want from your life?"

Most wrote only a paragraph, but Elsa, who until recently lived in an apartment that she, her mother and little brother shared with two men from El Salvador, took up both sides of her page.

"My dreams," she began in English. "It's so hard for me to write them because there's so many. . . . But for a start I will like to . . . get my diploma for high school with out messing up the way and . . . prove everyone that thinks I will mess up in life wrong, this means not getting pregnant, not using drugs and not being part of something that would harm me at the end. My next dream would be to get a college degree and go into law. I don't know what kind of lawyer yet but soon I hope I can find out."

"Suenos, suenos," she ended, using the Spanish word for dreams, "please come true."

Nearby, with his shoulder hunched over the page, Calixto wrote 14 words in Spanish, then crossed out two and began again:

"My dream is to become an electrical technician or maybe something else. I would like to be a person known for the good that he does, and for helping people who need it and all those who don't know how to deal with their problems. . . . Also," he finished, "I would like to show the world that I'm not afraid to express what I think and feel."

The Future Is Here

He's got the shoes: Nike Huarache 2K5s, white and gray. He keeps them in a box in the corner of his bedroom, saving them for the first day of school.

He's got four new tees, including one of Al Pacino as Scarface, and a new JanSport backpack filled with notebooks and black pens. He has finished his 22-page math packet and written two drafts and a final five-page essay on "West Side Story."

School starts tomorrow.

He has been told what to do:

"Get good grades," his father says. "Stay in school."

"You must live your own life," his mother says, "not the lives of others."

"Everybody I know," Ever says, "you're gonna have their back."

Everyone wants something. Everyone has advice. Can he do it? Can he obey his parents without betraying Ever? Can he defy the pressures inside the high school? Can he splice a new path between his past and the future?

"I just want," he says one hot afternoon, not long before school starts, "to be my own person."

He's got one more day. Tomorrow, just before 7:25 a.m., he will pull open the heavy blue doors of Gaithersburg High. He will head toward Hallway A. First period. U.S. History.

And everything that's been waiting for him will begin.

Calixto Salgado blows out his 14th-birthday candles. He is on the threshold of leaving childhood and making some tough choices for himself. Calixto comforts a resident at the nursing home where he volunteers. Altar boys Calixto, center, and the Hernandez brothers, Roberto, 11, left, and Roque, 13, participate in Spanish-language Mass at St. Martin's Catholic church.Calixto is entering a whole new world: high school. There is some trepidation as he begins attending Gaithersburg High. Here he hangs with two of his friends, Jose Jimenez, left, and Francisco Cartagena, both 14.There is a certain degree of rivalry between brothers Ever, left, and Calixto. But sister Roxana, 7, holds her own in a wrestling match with Ever. "The kid who wants to ruin himself will ruin himself," Calixto's father says. "But the kid who wants to be successful will be successful."At a birthday party for Calixto, his mother, Maria Salgado, and sister Roxana, Calixto's mom dabs frosting on his nose while brother Ever watches. Calixto attends a course on avoiding gang pressure and adjusting to a new school in a county where Latinos are far more likely to drop out than non-Latino whites. In one exercise he stands next to a sign stressing "confidence." At Gaithersburg High School, counselor Vivian Mojica explains the ins and outs of getting acclimated to incoming freshman Calixto. Calixto, with all his swagger, boasts a kind and inquisitive mind. Who will he be in high school? His older brother, Ever, wants him to toughen up.