The taunts fly thick and fast in the afternoon sun. Patrick Pielmeier, a suburban Virginia teen-ager who dropped out of school last November, pastes on his bravest smile when his high school friends bring up the familiar refrain.
"See this guy?" says one, jerking his thumb toward Pat. "He's going nowhere. Years from now, we'll come back and see this 40-year-old man leaning against a tree somewhere, and it'll be him."
Patrick is spending a lot of time hanging around street corners in Woodbridge since he quit Gar-Field Senior High School after repeating ninth grade. One of six children of a welder, Patrick also seeks out job interviews, which he typically attends in jeans and a torn T-shirt. He is often depressed, he admits, and has little hope of finding work, but he could not face the "hassle" of continuing in school.
"You guys just wait," he tells his tormenters, scuffing a faded blue shoe on the sidewalk. "When I get my luxury liner, with my bar and TV and tape deck, I'm going to come back and show you guys something."
There are snickers all around. "The only way you can get it is to steal it," says one friend.
Patrick, who really wants to be a truck driver or an auto mechanic, was one of approximately 150 students who called it quits at Gar-Field during the current school year -- or about 4 percent of the school's 3,600-member student body. Prince William County, where Gar-Field is situated, has the third highest dropout rate in Northern Virginia, ranking behind only Arlington and Alexandria.
The area's dropouts have a difficult time in a region where most graduating high school seniors go on to college and dropouts are often excluded from federal job training programs because their families make too much money to qualify.
Federal experts say Patrick typified a national problem that refuses to go away. The United States last experienced a reduction in its dropout rate in 1968. Federal statisticians now say about 5 percent of American high school students have dropped out of school every year for more than a decade.
Across the country, it is believed that close to 1 million teen-agers who should be in high school now have dropped out, leaving the average graduating class with 25 percent fewer members thaan it has at the outset.
For Patrick and these teen-agers, high school is likely to be only the first in a long line of failures. With the current national unemployment rate at 7 percent and a recession already under way, labor economists project that joblessness among high school dropouts could very likely top 30 percent within the next few months.
What that means for people like Patrick is a sharp reduction in construction work, which has traditionally offered employment to those without high school diplomas. And as job opportunities slowly fade in other unskilled occupations as well, dropouts will likely be squeezed out by increased competition.
"What's happening is that the dropouts are now competing with people who have a high school diploma for that job as a parking lot attendant or whatever," says Neil Rosenthal of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "And that person [the dropout] is going to come out on the short end."
Patrick's career as a fugitive from education began in the first grade, according to his mother, Priscilla Pielmeier, who estimates that she and her husband bring home less than $20,000 annually to support Patrick and the other four Pielmeier children who still live at home.
Sipping coffee in the dining room of her modest brick home, Mrs. Pielmeier said Patrick has hated school ever since his very first day, when he marched up to the principal, kicked him in the shins and left.
After years of truancy and poor academic performance, Patrick decided last November that he didn't want to go back to a school where teachers continually "hassled" him about infractions like tardiness and sleeping in class.
"I didn't quit because I was dumb," the tall, bushy-haired 16-year-old is quick to point out. "I quit because I didn't want to go anymore. I didn't do no homework. It was just a waste of time."
Mrs. Pielmeier says she tried to force Patrick to go to school, to no avail. "I could get him up in the morning and force him to get on the bus, but I never knew if he was going to school," she says.
Now, Patrick has taken to sleeping in every day until school lets out, then visiting with friends, playing Frisbee or helping a buddy fix his car until suppertime. After eating dinner at his parents' house, he goes out again -- often to drink with friends -- until after midnight.
"It's not fun. It's just more problems," Pat admits, although he says he does not think he will ever be able to return to school as a full-time student. "The worst part is knowing you ain't got nothing to look forward to . . .
"I've had people ask me whether they should drop out and I said no. Stay in school."
Patrick estimates he has applied for jobs at 40 or 50 places, including construction sites, gasoline stations, auto parts stores, restaurants and retail shops. Now he's pinning his hopes on an application he made to the Job Corps, a federal program funded through the Department of Labor that provides no-cost job training to underprivileged youths.
But program officials have indicated he may have problems qualifying under income guidelines which specify an outer limit of $8,680 for a family of four.
"A lot of kids in Northern Virginia -- maybe 30 or 40 percent -- don't qualify because their income is too high, so they end up just not working at all," says John Howard, the area Job Corps representative for the Virginia Employment Commission.
"I hate to see them stick to that guideline . . . How could a family of four make that out here and still survive?"
Mrs. Pielmeier says she would like to send Patrick for vocational training or psychological counseling, but she can't affort it. "It's not that I'm worried about losing control over him," she says. "I don't have any control over him. He does as he pleases."
Officials at Gar-Field Senior High are reluctant to discuss the specifics of Patrick's case, but they will say that dropouts living at home are perhaps the hardest to bring back to school.
"If the student isn't coming to school and he's at home and his parents know about it, they're in effect condoning his behavior -- even though that's the last thing they want to do," says Gar-Field Principal Phillip Gainous.
Around the area, Gainous says, there is a wide range of services available to help dropouts, including juvenile court assistance, counseling, alternative school programming and jobs funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. But, he says, such services cannot succeed without the support of parents.
"It's hard for parents to get tough and convince the kid that they're doing it because they love him," he says. "But if the parents aren't going to bakc us up, there's nothing we can to but shuffle papers."
School officials say most dropouts, like Patrick, tend to be chronic truants who miss school for any number of reasons, ranging from dislike of school to family problems, and find they cannot keep up.
Instead, they gradually fade out of the school picture until they are classified as dropouts. Contrary to popular belief, educators say, many dropouts are more intelligent than the average high school student.
Sitting of the hood of a friend's car one recent afternoon, Patrick said he has no regrets about leaving school. Nearby, a group of teen-agers played Frisbee, their cheerful shouts breaking the silence of the suburban subdivision.
"Some weekends, man, I feel so down," he said, his voice trailing off as he took a long drag from a cigarette. "But when I'm here, with my friends, I don't have a care in the world."