Walt Harrington is assistant editor of The Magazine.
KIDS GOTTA respect guys like Freddie, who can run across the crowded high school dining room, dive and slide over a lunch table on his stomach -- always landing on his feet. Or Joey, cool and quiet Joey, who can do more flirting with his Randolph Scott squint than most preps can do with a new Mazda RX 7. Or Tony, who can slap heating duct together as fast as the brainos can factor a-squaredp2abpbsquared And Bobby, burly and with an air of brooding unpredictability, who can make even bigger boys tighten when he gets in their face.
They are among the bad boys of Selby, Md. -- bad not as in mean or criminal, but as in cool, who gives a damn, don't mess with me, man!
Kids gotta respect 'em. If they don't, says one Selby boy, maybe Daddy's nice, new Camaro out in the school parking lot might get gouged with a key. Or maybe they'll get shoved on the bus or pick up a sorry nickname that sticks. More likely, they'll just sweat when the guys are around, which is all the guys really want anyway. Stay uneasy, hotshot! Because money and a bigwig dad, college prep, class president or varsity basketball won't always be enough.
"They feel like we are the lower class and we should never have any advantage over them," says Selby's 17-year-old Sean Montgomery of boys he considers spoiled by affluence and softened by respectability. "They don't know what reality is. We are reality!"
THE BURNING mattress stinks all over Selby.
It soon goes to ashes, though, and the woody scent of tree stumps, discarded plywood and trash two-by-fours replaces it as the bonfire builds authority behind the shell of a house at the corner of Selby Boulevard and Second Avenue. The Friday nightparty commences with Bobby Montgomery and Kenny Doerr, both 15, Pete Wright, 16, and David Robey, 17. It's a good place for a party -- a quick census of neighbors finds only one who might call the cops.
"Chain gang on the loose!" a man with a smile on his face yells to the boys. "Watch those hubcaps!"
David: "I wish somebody'd get here so we can get some beer."
Pete: "Two or three?"
David: "Three or four."
Pete: "Let's start with two."
Selby is a town of 3,125 people 35 miles east of Washington on the Chesapeake Bay just south of Annapolis. It began decades ago as a working class summer retreat, and though it increasingly attracts well-to-do people who commute to Washington, Selby still is known as a community of carpenters, pipe fitters, printers and postmen.
By legend, Selby breeds tough boys -- "Selby punks," say some students at nearby South River High, which draws children not only from places like Selby, but also from newer, distinctly affluent suburbs near Davidsonville, 20 miles east of Washington. Selby boys, the stereotype goes, get lousy grades, skip school, throw wild parties, pull rebellious pranks. Getting roughed up by older neighborhood boys and, then, bullying younger neighborhood boys in turn is a Selby rite of passage. Selby's bus route, No. 29, is by reputation the rowdiest at South River High, where the boys consciously promote their bad-boy pose.
"We try to keep it rollin'," laughs Sean.
Selby's reputation is real enough that its less rebellious teens -- who make up most of the several hundred high-school-age kids in Selby -- occasionally distance themselves from the Selby image by telling South River High teachers that they are not from the "real" Selby.
The values of the real Selby boys could make the typical Montgomery or Fairfax parent say a prayer. Only one of the dozen boys interviewed is certain he'll get to college. Several wonder whether they'll graduate from high school. Some are average to above-average students, but homework is generally for nerds and failing grades are common. Two boys are drop-outs.
Most hope to be tradesmen but, some worry they'll end up pumping gas. Two fear prison. Good times are an obsession. Some of the boys brag of past petty delinquency and regular beer drinking. Yet, they are respectful and polite in conversation -- and often acknowledge with a shy smile that toughness is as much posture as reality. Acting tough, like a strong nuclear deterrent, is said to keep a guy out of trouble.
Beneath the pose are smart and sensitive boys sometimes clearly angry at themselves and their parents for their poor grades -- and for being raised in Selby, where some feel trapped in a cycle of rebelliousness. The boys, who shun college degrees and professional jobs, are eloquent critics of the achievement ethic. But they also are its victims: Outside the insular world of Selby, these boys know, respect will be hard to find.
So rock 'n' roll laments of the renegade life are often their favorite songs. If they have a banner, it is Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Outsiders," which depicts "greasers" with names like Ponyboy and Sodapop fighting for dignity against rich- kid "socs" (short for "socials") with names like Randy and Tim.
"They view up as hoodlums," says Kenny Doerr. "Especially the people from Davidsonville -- they're all the rich kids. You ever see the movie 'The Outsiders?' That's what it's like -- the kids with all the breaks."
Says Bobby Montgomery: "Maybe we're jealous."
THREE CASES of Coors arrive at the party and are iced down in a nearby shed with "Selby Rules" and "Party Hard" painted on its side. The boys know the drill if the cops show: Ditch the cans they're holding inside the nearby stack of roof trusses. Brew sitting out will be confiscated or poured on the ground. They'd probably get only a lecture, though a cop once threatened to haul in boys partying at Selby beach. They took off like bullets while the cop was still jawing.
By now the fire is hot and 25 kids, mostly boys, have arrived. Freddie Boerste, 16, does a "shotgun," pokes a knife hole in the bottom of a beer can, pops the top and does a "shotgun," pokes a hole in the bottom of a beer can, pops the top and guzzles the beer through the knife hole. Sixteen seconds. Not even close -- four seconds is the Selby record. Pete, who is a whiz at electronics, taps the electricity in the shed and Deep Purple cranks up. Bobby and a new kid from Texas compare the length of their pocket blades -- Bobby's is maybe four inches, the new kid's is definitely three. He knows because a cop measured his once. An 11-year-old boy sits on a bike puffing a Marlboro and a 13-year-old boy leans against the shed, Coors in hand. Kenny smokes four cigarettes at once.
"Let me taste Coors," says a 14- year-old girl. "I've never had Coors."
THE UNOCCUPIED house at the corner of Selby and Second has symbolized Selby's rowdy boys for more than a decade now. Years ago, it was a hangout for an earlier generation of tough Selby kids -- dubbed the "Second Avenue Gang."
"We got a lot of whippings those days," Sean Montgomery says. "They used to say, 'When we're gone, you have to be tough enough to keep up the reputation.' frightened of the older boys and at first wanted nothing to do with their self-imposed code of toughness. But eventually they got tough -- even taking on the role of teachers to the next generation of boys.
"We just feel like we are the dominant people here," Sean says. "And they're gonna follow the rules or they're gonna pay."
At times, bullying bred bullying. Chris Penrod, 15, moved to Selby at age 7 but still remembers his initiation distinctly. At the bus stop a boy punched him repeatedly, giving him a bloody nose. "It felt like my face turned to jello . . . ," Chris says. "I felt like I was gonna throw up. They started laughing at me. I just started crying . . . I swore I'd never let it happen again."
He grew into a big kid and remembers the first time he beat up a boy. "It feels like I'm trying to get back at the kids who picked on me by gettin' at this boy . . . After the fight was over, I just sat down. I felt so terrible. I felt like I was beatin' myself up. That was me years ago, and I was feeling what he was feeling." Chris thought he'd never punch a kid again. "But when the time came, the feelings weren't there anymore," he says. "It became sort of fun."
"I like bullying little kids," says another Selby boy. "Reputation, it's fun . . . All the rednecks picked on me. It's my way of gettin' back . . . It's lettin' them get their share of the treatment and learnin' the rites of Selby."
The Selby boys have fought only rarely for years now. Their pecking order was established long ago, and today their reputation for toughness is aimed not at each other, but at the teen-age world beyond.
"It's really funny," says Sean. "If somebody knows you're from Selby you can just look at 'em and they'll flinch. Big guys that could beat the hell out of you. It's like they're fighting two guys -- you and Selby." This is important, Sean and several other boys acknowledge, because toughness is Selby's one claim to fame.
"We just don't want to be nobodies," says Bobby. "We want to be somebodies."
So the Selby boys are often a little rowdier, a little crazier, a little more indifferent to authority than other kids. Last summer, Bobby says, there was a beer bash almost every night. Asked what is important in life, many answer: good friends, good times and stretching the rules. It has been that way for a long time: One boy recalls setting a field on fire years ago, another shooting out street lights, another vandalizing a construction site, another stealing Christmas decorations, and still another burglarizing boats when he was 10 or 11. Most reformed as they grew older, although two boys not quoted in this article landed in jail briefly.
Parties became Selby's new mark of rebellious distinction, and today Selby reminds Kenny Doerr of the lyrics from his favorite Quiet Riot song: "They say I've lost my head/ 'He'll probably end up dead'/ But they're too blind to see/ What's important to me/ Party all Night/ Party all Night/ Party all Night/ Party all Night long." Selby, says Chris Penrod, is a "tough, partyin' place."
The bonfire roars. No complaints, no cops. This will help the image:
Selby Rules, Party Hard.
IT'S RAINING, so Chris Penrod goes to school today.
He stares forward, taps his fingers on the desk and nods his head to an internal beat, sitting three seats behind the rest of the South River math class, which is busy figuring Drill No. 140 -- the formula
Aepi r2. Chris has no idea what they're doing. He rests his head atop the desk and sits motionless. His feet, his hands, his head again pick up the beat.
First period -- it will be a long day.
Chris has already flunked this class, for that matter his entire freshman year. He hasn't really passed since fifth grade, his mother says, though he's been promoted through inertia and after special classes. He's skipped math class 22 times this year, though, and state law makes passing out of the question. He can do the work, all right -- passed the state's required math exam when nine of his more studious classmates failed. If he does even a few homework assignments he gets As or Bs on the tests.
But Chris is the perennial class clown, the truly likable, friendly, even intelligent class clown. Yesterday, when Mrs. Morton refused to give him a pass to leave math, he got up and walked quietly around the room five times. He got his pass -- to the principal.
Chris Penrod is an extreme example of how the Selby boys view school: "If you're only getting a diploma, what difference if it is As or Ds?" asks Sean Montgomery, who is himself a better-than-average student. Recent report cards for other Selby boys, however, included one boy with four failing grades, another with three failing grades, still another with two failing grades. Like toughness, poor marks are a Selby tradition.
"I don't know if it's cool," says 14-year-old Robert McKellar, who moved to Selby from nearby Shoreham Beach last year. "But everybody does get bad grades." He was a B-to-C student at Shoreham Beach. In Selby his grades fell dramatically. "If you put all these kids in a different place," he says, "they'd get good grades."
Boys shrug off their marks, explain that a guy doesn't need to know anything about the Civil War to work construction. But down deep, grades can't be dismissed so cavalierly. "I thought about it a lot," says Kenny. "It's gonna mean doing hard labor instead of sitting at some desk."
Kenny was a good student until a few years ago. His father, a negative engraver for the Department of Commerce, hoped he would go to college someday. But his father -- like most of the boys' parents -- is divorced and too harried to monitor his son's studying regularly. And Kenny's grades fell, though not without anguish behind a cool-guy facade.
"I wake up in the morning and see my books there," Kenny says. "I get mad at myself. When the teacher collects homework, I think, 'I could have done it so easy!' Instead, Kenny leans back in his seat and asks casually, "Oh, there was homework?" He is one of several boys who say they sometimes wish their parents would make them study more.
"People expect me to get bad grades, to goof around in class," Kenny says. "I would sort of show off, really. After I'd say something, I'd (think), 'Why did I say that?!' . . . I try to hang out with other kids -- jocks . . . But they'd always make me feel like they're so much better than me just 'cause they play on the school basketball team. All the kids around here don't make me feel like that. We're all equal."
With his Selby friends, it is a different pressure Kenny feels. "They go 'round tellin' all these stories about things they did in class, all these things they did to the teachers, like one teacher with a patch over his eye: 'Why don't you drink some beer so you'd get double vision?' You want a story to tell them what you did in class."
As a rule, the Selby boys live for the moment. One exception is Pete Wright, who has wanted to be a marine policeman as long as he can remember. That goal, he says, keeps him out of trouble. He will not ride in a car with kids who are drinking, for instance, because he fears a serious blot on his record would keep him out of the marine police. And he is determined to earn his high school diploma.
The Selby boys often deride kids who get good grades -- "goody-goodies." But there also is a secret respect: "They're goin' a lot farther in life," Bobby says quietly. "Gettin' a good job, makin' the big bucks. or somethin' I ain't got. They'll wind up on top."
The boys know grades don't measure brains. They aren't blind: Good grades come to kids whose parents demand them, kids who don't spend every weekend partying, kids who study. That's not brains, but discipline. "I know I'm as smart as other kids in school," says Freddie Boerste. But still, his poor grades eat at his confidence. "You get a defeatist attitude in your head," he says. "You can't do the work. You got more important things to do -- like anything."
CHRIS' NEXT CLASS is English.
"How did Romeo and Juliet meet?" the teacher asks.
"At the mall," Chris quips.
"Knucklehead. They met at a dance. Where does this dance take place?"
"Verona," says another student.
"Close enough," adds Chris.
Juliet rebelled," the teacher says.
Chris, suddenly interested: "How old was she?"
The school day is cut short for Chris. He is called out of science class next period, ordered to the principal's office, and suspended for misbehaving in Mrs. Morton's math class the day before. "If I'm here next year, I'm gonna straighten up my act," Chris says glumly.
"I had the worst reputation in elementary school -- gettin' in fights, walkin' out of class," he says. "I felt like I had to be that way to fit in . . . Everybody thought I was a bad kid so I had to live up to the reputation -- hookin' class and gettin' in fights . . . It laps over still. They think I'm a terrible kid: 'Come on Chris, meet me down at . . . lunch.' 'Cause of my reputation they think I'm gonna do it -- and usually I do . . . I tried to change but I can't stay in this house all day, and when I go out there, it's like I'm a different person -- I'm real wild, yellin' and screamin', tryin' to get into trouble."
Yet the Selby dilemma eats at Chris: "Most people pull in a gas station and think, 'Oh, some grubby guy who couldn't get a job.' But you go work in a bank and people think you got an education. You get respect."
RANDY TO PONYBOY in the movie "The Outsiders:"
"People get hurt in rumbles, maybe even killed, right? You can't win, you know that, don't you? It doesn't matter if you whip us. You'll still be where you were before -- at the bottom. And we'll still be the lucky ones at the top, with all the breaks. It doesn't matter. The greasers will still be greasers, the socs will still be socs. It doesn't matter."
Davidsonville seems to exist only to remind the boys of Selby that life is unfair. It is pronounced with a scornful effeminacy -- Daaavidsonville, as in maaama's little boy. Boys from Daaavidsonville and other well-to-do communities are by stereotype diminished to good grades, early curfews and new cars. They can't take a punch or hold their liquor. They can't jump without mommy or daddy saying how high. They are arrogant -- and wary of the boys of Selby.
"Their mommies and daddies are all lawyers and doctors," says Sean. "They're all spoiled. They act like they're too good for everybody."
It is a matter of respect. The boys of Selby say children from well-to-do families believe they are better. The attitude is supposedly revealed in the way these kids carry themselves, with a kind of indifference that is perceived as a snub. It's seen at the lunch table where one prep supposedly stares at them as if they have no table manners. Affluent kids are said to look down on guys who take vocational classes, guys who hope to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the Marines, guys who admit they want to work construction someday.
So the boys of Selby exact a tribute. For instance, Joey Clark, 16, loves to watch prep boys squirm when he and his friends drop in at a prep party and flirt with their girlfriends. "Prove you're better!" says Bobby Montgomery, explaining his technique for putting down arrogant preps. "Just 'cause you get nicer clothes and jewelry -- and a car mommy gave you. I worked for my car. It may not be as nice, but nobody gave it to me. So prove it! Get in my face! Let's go outside."
Behind the bravado, however, is also a plaintiveness, a plea for others to show some respect for what the boys of Selby value: "I don't respect kids who get good grades," says 15-year-old Kevin Mattero, an average-to- above-average student, "because they don't respect me."
And that is the bind. Working people often don't share the dominant belief that professional work is better than manual labor, says New York University sociologist Richard Sennett, co-author of the book The That means they are constantly measured by standards they don't fully share, but that still impinge on their self-esteem.
Do you most respect people who work with their hands or their heads? the Selby boys are asked. Their almost unanimous answer:
People who work with their hands.
Who do most people respect?
People who work with their heads.
Kevin's father, a mechanic, is always telling his son to be a lawyer or a doctor -- never a mechanic. "I just don't have no feeling for being a lawyer," Kevin says. "I like to work with wood and metal."
It takes a wrenching of middle-class sensibility not to interpret that attitude as sad, as human potential wasted, as a child bypassing the American Dream for lack of understanding it. But the boys of Selby do understand the American dream -- they just don't buy it. Success isn't necessarily status, wealth and power to them -- or to their parents. Kenny's father, for instance, said he would be prouder if one of his sons became a Chesapeake Bay waterman rather than go to college. The boys know this attitude is out of step -- and that the cost is high.
"You don't hear on TV about a pipe fitter going to Russia to talk about nuclear arms . . . ," says Freddie. "I'd much rather be the pipe fitter. That's what I'd enjoy more . . . I couldn't sit behind a desk . . . Plus, them guys are under a lot of pressure, and I don't like being under pressure." Why does he feel that way?
"I don't know -- the same reason I don't like snakes."
Bobby Montgomery says his grandfather, with whom the Montgomery brothers have lived for a decade, is "just a carpenter," but that he can do his own plumbing, electrical work and bricklaying. "Something goes wrong with the house and some guys can't fix it," he says. "My grandfather can fix anything." That's the kind of man Bobby hopes to become. "I'll respect myself more," he says.
What angers the Selby boys most about well-to-do classmates is that they seem to take credit for their parents' achievements. "I say, buddy, you haven't got a cent," says Sean. "Your parents are feedin' it to you. You don't have no money and I don't have no money. So we're the same . . . I think it's pretty sad when a girl gets a car as nice as my dad's Monte Carlo because she turned 16. My dad had to work for his."
Even the Selby boys' envy is shaded by this disgust. None will say he'd like to trade places with a "soc." But what if the Selby boys had been born in, say, Davidsonville? That's different -- and their ambivalence pours forth:
"You just wonder . . . " says Bobby. "I'd be doin' my school work and passin'. I'd respect older people . . . Why? Why did I have to be here? Why did I have to . . . be with all these people? Why couldn't I live someplace else? But since I live here I'm gonna have to make the best of it."
"YOU'RE JERKS!" the woman driver yells toward the back of the bus.
From the back: "She keeps on tickin' after takin' a Selby lickin'!"
It is a long few miles from South River High to Selby. The Selby boys might light matches or cigarettes, they might cuss or spit out the window, they might all shift to one side of the bus to scream at a horse that grazes at the side of the road. There is no thoughtful contemplation about their place in the world here.
A boy lights a stick of incense and smiles as he hides it behind the seat in front of him. "You lit something!" yells the driver, glancing in her mirror. Boys jump to open windows and denials fly.
Most Selby kids sit on the bus quietly. When 14-year- old Joe Bridger, an A and B student from Selby, gets off the bus carrying books and a trumpet, his name is hooted from the windows: "Joe! Joe! Joe!" He glances over his shoulder, shakes his head and walks away. Try not to take it personally -- the bad boys of Selby simply have an image to maintain.
"The bus helps a lot," says Bobby. "We brag about that."
A decade ago, such self- wasn't necessary. "Half the people in this neighborhood today are just talk and that puts fear in people," says Sean, a quiet, friendly boy who is by reputation one of Selby's tougher kids. "But (years ago) it wasn't talk. I saw people with a piece of beer bottle in their heads, fights with big old boards . . .We were amateur bad- asses . . . We know we don't have the real vicious fighters in here anymore."
The neighborhood continues to get more respectable, Sean sys, with house prices rising and more parents discouraging their boys from fighting. Even Sean is getting mellow. He will graduate from high school next year and hopes to join the Marines. He spends much of his free time with his girlfriend these days. Sean has practiced the Selby cult of personal toughness, but also realizes that soon enough the balance of power between the bad boys of Selby and the wimps, the brainos, and the preps will tilt the other way.
"I'm gettin' to the age where I got to get my act together," he says. "I want a comfortable life. I know I can't go out in the world and expect everybody to be tough. The . . . world isn't that way. Out there, we have to fit in. Here, they have to fit in. Out there, we are just a needle in a haystack -- and they are the people you have to get along with if you want to live comfortably." But still, he hates the idea of Selby going soft. Becaue if that happens, the boys of Selby will be just another bunch of nobodies.
"Bad luck," says Sean, "is all they'll have."