The day ends at Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center with a sudden rumble and flash. Lockers slam, teachers shout, and a heap of grins, sneakers and books spills onto the sidewalk. In the crowd, one student is conspicuous: Darin Newson, the guy lugging a violin.
Same routine, every afternoon: Darin, a fifth-grader at the Southeast Washington school, snaps the instrument in a black case, then darts down steps, across a lot crammed with cars, through a hole ripped in a metal fence, up a muddy hill with trees and weeds, to the apartment he shares with his mother.
She doesn't let him go outside much, for in any direction there is trouble. Their home borders Drake Place, a sloping street with squalid bungalows and unkempt lawns, and a symbol of the District's struggle with crime and drugs.
So far, Darin, 10, has eluded those dangers. Evenings after school, he props the violin on his shoulder and practices. His mother listens. "He does a few songs so much, I think I could play 'em," Gloria Newson said. Before falling asleep, Darin switches on his radio.
"Got it on WPFW," he said. "I go to sleep with the classics and jazz. It's like slow motion, it takes some of the pressure off."
His habit began two years ago, when he read a sign on a wall at school: Join the Fletcher-Johnson Orchestra. Why not? Off he went to sign up for violin, an instrument he had never even seen before.
The orchestra, one of the few of its kind in the city's school system, is full of such stories.
There's Michael Anderson, a sixth-grader who plays a cello that's taller than he is, practicing every day an hour before and after school.
Once he tried to drag the cello home, but the guys on the block nagged him about what was inside the big case. "I had to hurry up and get inside," he said.
There's Shuyinthea Farley, a sixth-grader who plays violin. She loves its sound. Especially compared to what most of her friends prefer: rap, go-go, or Janet Jackson. "I only like rap occasionally," Shuyinthea said. "It's like 'BOOM, KABOOM, BOOM.' A big racket. This music, you can listen to in peace."
Peace is a welcome sound in the streets around Fletcher-Johnson at Benning Road and C Street SE. So is anything that gives students something new to do.
Three years ago, George Rutherford, the school's principal, launched his plan for an orchestra. The band and choir were popular, he thought, maybe the orchestra could be, too.
He found 13 string instruments in a school closet and gave them to Doris Lyles, a substitute reading teacher at the time.
"It was rough," Lyles recalled. "Dr. Rutherford came up to me and said, 'Okay, I want an orchestra, here are 13 instruments, get to it.' I knew it was going to be difficult, because all that rap is quite a bit of competition. Dr. Rutherford knew too. He said 'Try to give it a beat.' "
No student owned an instrument. None had taken lessons. And Tchaikovsky was hardly a rival for Heavy D and the Boyz.
Now there are about three dozen orchestra members. Some practice religiously, others drift in and out of the windowless brick cubicle where Lyles is maestro. Lyles and Rutherford have scrounged up about 80 instruments; the orchestra also has bought maroon jackets.
"We're on our way," Rutherford said. "When I tell people we're building an orchestra out here, it blows their mind."
Fletcher-Johnson has competed in music festivals with the dozen other D.C. schools with orchestras. Its students do not have first-class equipment, but their work is being noticed. A few weeks ago, 14 of them won scholarships to the Levine School of Music in Georgetown.
Lyles drives them across town from Fletcher-Johnson, in the Marshall Heights neighborhood of Southeast, for the lessons, offered by a Levine faculty member who heard them play. The lessons will last six months, and Levine is scrambling to find more money to keep the students there longer.
Darin Newson attends, and is thinking that a career in music might not be so bad, though it would be better, he thinks, to own a pro baseball team.
"Maybe I'll do that, and make music a hobby," Darin said. "I want to learn the sax next. It has a deep tempo. You can take all your anger and feelings and it comes out in a sax as the blues."
Darin, like many other Fletcher-Johnson students, has plenty of anger to release. Theirs is a neighborhood haunted by violence, and troubled by the number of children who want no part of school -- much less an orchestra.
The community depends on the school, which has classes from pre-kindergarten to ninth grade, for more than education. It pleads with Rutherford to keep students off the street. But that isn't easy.
The other day, 36 seventh- and eighth-graders were absent from class. At one point that day, Rutherford stepped from his office with news of a call he had just received from a former student.
"Guess where he called from?" Rutherford asked the school's secretaries. "The detention center, Oak Hill. Told me he was in there for murder."
For some students, Doris Lyles's classroom is an oasis. They arrive early and stay late. She asks them to ignore those who mock them as nerds. Photos of their performances fill the room's white brick walls, as do posters that read: DO MUSIC, NOT DRUGS. Practices are solemn; Lyles is a patient woman -- but she doesn't tolerate chatter.
Throughout the day, students bolt into class, duck into a vault where their instruments are stored, then take their seats. Lyles stands behind a piano as the group tunes up. Michael Anderson, on cello, sits in the back of the room nudging his bow delicately across the strings. Playing the instrument has proven to be better than another hobby: "I like to go in back of TVs and fix them," he said.
"I wanted to sign up for violin, but Mrs. Lyles had none left, so I said, 'Give me the cello,' " Michael said. "Now I come at 8 every day to play it and get better. I'm trying to be like my dad. I think he plays every instrument, but the cello is good for me. I want to stick with it for a long time."
This is another in a continuing series of stories on the District's Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center and Fairfax County's Annandale High School.