Boys' Life

It's 12:21 p.m., and in the cafeteria at Wellesley Middle School, a rumor emerges. The average half-life of a rumor here is 12 minutes and its duration depends on two things: how gross it is and whether or not it can be verified. Today, the rumor is gross but unverifiable. Allegedly, a girl at the school had sex with an older boy. Saran wrap may have been involved. That, however, is where things get blurry.

There's an argument. Apparently the boy is 19. No, he's definitely 15. She might have gotten tested for pregnancy. Or was it STDs? Tensions are high, passions aflame, when suddenly there's another dispute, and just like that the original rumor is forgotten. This new one is more important, something everyone has an opinion about.

“I'm serious, guys. Answer the question. Who's hotter: Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff?” Sides are redrawn. The air turns hostile. It's 12:33.

This is a story about 14-year-old boys. It's about bad grades and ass beatings, hot girls and homework. It's about rumors, reality, and trying to sort out why older boys beat on you. The details of where these kids are from and who they will become might be important later. But not at this moment. Because this isn't a story of then. It's a story of now.

Meet Will Stoeckle. Will lives in a modest house in Wellesley with his parents and his younger sister. He's going to Stanford. He's sure of it. Sort of. “Both my parents and my grandmother went to Stanford,” he says, “so, that's got to count for something. Right?”

“The $65,000 question,” Marybeth Morrow, Will's science teacher, says as she begins to hand back papers, “is how you guys did on your progress reports.”

As Ms. Morrow passes out the reports, Will seems lost in thought, his blue eyes searching the yellow cinderblock walls of the science room. His lanky 6-foot-2 frame — all sharp, bony angles — is draped in a baggy gray shirt with the words “Get In Here and Eat” splashed across the front. Everyone around Will is caught in the nervous tension that lingers right before grades are given out, but he seems oblivious, taking out a Snickers bar and examining the wrapper.

Ms. Morrow puts his progress report in front of him, but he doesn't immediately pick it up. Finally, he looks up from the candy wrapper and smiles.

“Sixty-five thousand dollars,” he says, letting out a low whistle. “Wow. That's more than a Hummer.”

He gets up to go, sliding the report swiftly into his science notebook. He doesn't have to look. Will's average is 101.

The hottest girl in the world, according to Will, is Veronica Varekova, the cover model of the 2004 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. “Not that I've seen the magazine,” he says, a sly smile on his face. “I've just heard she's hot.”

Girls in his class are another matter. With his dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and “Prince William looks” (as one acquaintance puts it), you get the feeling the girls will come. But, for now, Will is reluctant to talk about them at length.

“It's not like you take them out to dinner or anything,” he says, avoiding eye contact. “I mean we'll go to each other's houses and sit with them at lunch and stuff, but that's about it.”

According to the girls, Will is “a really nice guy.” One popular girl says, “Someone stole my Ritz-bits on the basketball bus, and Will bought some for me the next day. That was really generous.”

Some of the girls aren't sure if Will's good-guy routine is authentic, though. One wonders, “What if he, like, just knows that girls like nice guys? What if it's, like, an act? That would totally suck!”

Despite the chance that Will might totally suck, girls have shown interest.

“One of my friends likes Will,” a popular girl says. “She'll admit it to me. It's just they don't run in the same crowds.”

Will's crowd is a close-knit group of boys. He and his friends float on the periphery of popularity, generally liked but out of the spotlight. Will doesn't care.

“I just feel bad for the kids who are isolated,” he says. “But this isn't a school where everyone knows their place. It's not Columbine.”

When Will dreams, he dreams about living in San Francisco, a place that's pretty and warm and close to Stanford. He wants a job in which he can use his hands and his brain — like an architect or a construction foreman. He doesn't want to be crammed in an office all day.

When Will is stressed out, it's usually over having a lot of work to do and not being able to get it done. He worries about being a freshman in high school because he knows he's at the bottom of the heap, and freshmen have to put up with a lot of stuff. “Stuff,” according to Will, pretty much means being pushed around in the hall.

Asked again what he wants to be when he grows up, Will pauses for a second, seriously thinking, staring at the cafeteria ceiling. But when he looks back down he's laughing. “Hey, man, I'm only 14. I've got a lot of time. I should be asking you that question.”

Anthony Forte is sick at baseball. Sick is a good thing. “Sick” means nasty. Nasty is also a good thing. “Nasty” means talented. And, when it comes to baseball, Anthony is talented.

“I've heard Anthony is one of the best [baseball] players in the town,” says Michael Glenn, Anthony's counselor. “Baseball could be his ticket out.”

“Out” means out of Barton Road, the low-income housing development tucked just off Route 9 on the Newton border, where Anthony lives with his parents and his older sister. At the middle school, kids from Barton Road are called “Roaders.” A Roader doesn't have two SUVs and a house in Chatham. In middle school, where you either have or you have not, a Roader, for all intents and purposes, has not.

But Anthony has other, more important concerns. Like pitching. Anthony has long fingers and short palms, hands crafted by the baseball gods for throwing. He claims to have four pitches, a declaration that's hard to believe until he patiently sits and demonstrates each of his grips. He even has a knuckleball, although he rarely uses it because he can't always throw it for strikes.

Anthony is diminutive in stature, which is a fancy way of saying short, so it's hard to think of him as an athlete until you see him blowing the baseball past kids from Watertown.

“You didn't know?” the eighth grader sitting next to me at the game says. “Anthony is sick.”

The day is April Fools; the game, Science Jeopardy; the teams, boys versus girls. Compared to the girls, boys suck at Science Jeopardy. With calls of gender bias in the air, Darcie Lenhart searches the boys' side for a science dynamo to bring them back. Her eyes fall on Anthony.

“Anthony, why don't you pick?”

Anthony doesn't like to answer these questions. And today he isn't biting for two reasons. One, Ms. Lenhart has given him a pink pen, and he refuses to write anything in pink. Two, he has pulled the black hood of his Nike sweatshirt over his head to hide everything but his eyes and somehow managed to get the ties in a knot. This has happened three times in the past week.

As the girls look on smugly, Anthony puts his head on his desk, as if wishing quietly that Ms. Lenhart would pick someone else. “Anthony, pick a category, please,” she says.

Resigned to the fact that he can't escape, Anthony chooses a $400 question. Ms. Lenhart pulls the card off the board and clears her throat.

“You recover three grams of copper in the lab. How much of your original copper reacted?”

Anthony never looks up. “Seven grams.” Ms. Lenhart breaks into a huge grin. “That's right.”

Cheers erupt from the boys' side. Taunts are heard. Anthony sets his head on the desk like nothing ever happened. But you can still see his green eyes and, at the moment, they're glowing.

“You get the sense, when you hang around Anthony for long enough, that he's on the verge of something,” Ms. Lenhart says as she watches him leave her class. “You just have to hope it's something great.”

On a cloudy day in May, the eighth-grade boys make the half-mile walk to the high school for a preview of their freshman year. The talk inevitably falls to the issue weighing most heavily on their 14-year-old minds: ass beatings.

They focus mainly on which older kids don't like them and why. Most of these reasons center on important issues like being openly sarcastic or having a pretty girlfriend, but some are downright ridiculous.

“I tripped over a kid's foot outside White Mountain Creamery,” one boy confides. That's it?

“Yeah, now he hates me.”

As they approach the high school auditorium, Anthony, sporting his black hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans, puts his hood up.

After a few welcoming speeches from high school kids, the students split into groups to be taken around the school by a peer leader. As Anthony's group walks down the long hall connecting the main building to the cafeteria, two older boys dressed in basketball jerseys and low- riding jeans enter from the opposite side. Anthony's eyes, wide with recognition, hit the floor. But it's too late.

One boy grabs Anthony's arm as the other jabs him in the ribs. The punishment takes place so quickly and with such teamwork, it almost seems staged. When the boys say their goodbyes, it's with the traditional upperclassman threat: “Oh, we'll see you next year.”

I ask Anthony who they are. Still rubbing his ribs, he puts a hand through his short black hair and lies. “Nobody.”

Two minutes later, while the other boys talk excitedly about the selection of vending machines, Anthony turns and looks back toward the door. “I know I'm getting my ass beat next year.”

If Anthony becomes a professional baseball player, he's going to live in a big brick house somewhere hot like Texas or Florida with a huge TV that plays Chappelle's Show nonstop. He'll have an indoor pool, a baseball field in the back, and a curvy wife who will have a nice personality and probably be Puerto Rican, like J.Lo.

Of course, by this time, Anthony is going to be 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and, God willing, will be throwing his knuckleball for strikes.

An average day for Marquee Ivy starts at 5:30 in the morning. He takes a shower, gets dressed, and if he's lucky (and he usually is), his mother will cook him bacon and eggs or pancakes before the METCO bus comes to Hyde Park at 6:30. He's at school in the cafeteria by 7:15, a half hour before first period begins.

At the end of the day, Marquee, who plays three sports, has to take the late bus back and doesn't usually get to Hyde Park until 6 or 7 at night. Some days, Marquee says, he just doesn't know if he can do it.

“It's tougher getting up and being committed because some days you're mad tired and you just want to go to bed,” he says one day, his head down on the table in the library. “But,” he says, sighing, “you do it anyway.”

With two brothers already through Wellesley schools and caring, attentive parents at home, Marquee floats effortlessly between Hyde Park and Wellesley. Girls think he's cute, boys envy his knowledge of urban and suburban culture: He seems to have it made.

Then you talk to his mom. “Don't let him tell you differently,” his mother says. “He was a crybaby and a mama's boy. And, if you ask me, he still is.”

“March is too cold,” Marquee proclaims as he enters the boys chorus room. Marquee doesn't walk. Or stroll. Or saunter. He glides with the practiced strut of somebody with Timberland boots and cooler, older brothers. Dressed in an immaculately laundered cream sweatsuit with his hair tied back in small, tight braids, he is by far the flashiest of the 30 or so boys who make up the chorus.

Julie Montano, the energetic chorus teacher, pulls the group together with warmup exercises and begins practicing for the spring concert. Fourteen-year-old male voices are an eclectic mix, some deep and developed, others young and high pitched, most changing by the minute.

For much of the class, Marquee, a tenor, keeps his cool, detached wit about him, unenthused by what's going on. But Ms. Montano's passion is infectious, and eventually his façade crumbles. His voice is soft, almost subdued when, out of nowhere, he busts into falsetto to finish a solo of “Barbara Ann.” As the rest of the class cheers, Marquee turns and whispers out of the side of his mouth, “Sometimes when I've got a cold, I feel more comfortable in falsetto.”

I steal a glance at Marquee. He looks at me quickly before realizing he just told me he likes to sing in a woman's voice. As soon as he's sure no one else is listening, he speaks again, his voice an octave lower than normal.

“Do not make fun of me!”

“Kids hate quizzes,” Ms. Lenhart says, right before the start of second period. “You just watch.”

She's right. The science class, a small group that meets every other day, groans at the news.

Despite taking periodic breaks to smooth the wrinkles from his black Air Jordan T-shirt, Marquee quickly finishes the quiz. Afterward, he writes the words “If you always chillin', write your name hear” on the Dry-Erase board with his name underneath. Marquee writes the formula for figuring out mass, volume, and density, then grabs a pair of rulers to play a mock drumbeat on the head of an unsuspecting girl.

A male teacher's aide, perplexed by Marquee's performance, asks, “Why'd you write the formula on the board?” Marquee stops his drum solo and looks at the man with the annoyed exasperation of someone pointing out the obvious. “Because, obviously, more people would be chillin' if they finish the quiz.” He starts drumming again, flashes his 100-watt smile, and asks, “Am I right?”

The way Marquee sees it, he's got lots of options. Like his brothers, he's going to college. Afterward, if he doesn't play professional basketball or football, he can always fall back on his love of math and drawing and invent something to push technology forward. Either way, he's going to be famous. Girls, especially girls like Jessica Alba and Beyoncé, love famous guys.

On a beautiful June day, eighth grade ends. The morning ceremony is relatively simple. Principal D'Auria gives a speech, awards are presented, and the eighth graders accept their diplomas.

After a brief brunch, the students are ushered into the auditorium for one last time, without their parents, to bid farewell to the sixth and seventh graders. Selected eighth graders give speeches, then the eighth-grade chorus sings “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Finally, in a special tradition, the eighth graders are given red, white, and black balloons and turn to face the younger students. A countdown begins.

The boys are all there. Will, looking the part of a rumpled college professor in his brown flannel shirt, red tie, and boat shoes, smiles as he juggles his cache of awards and his balloon. Marquee, dressed sharply in a shimmering brown shirt, slacks, and shiny black shoes, has somehow talked his way into having two balloons. He hands one of them to Anthony, who is rumored to have a collared shirt beneath his beloved black hoodie and has “unintentionally” already set free one balloon.

Suddenly, the countdown ends, the balloons are released and, just like that, it's over.