Another Planet : A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1/27/2010
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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With a novelist's eye, Elinor Burkett takes readers behind the school system's closed doors, revealing a world of mixed messages, manufactured myths, and political hype. In the wake of school shootings across the country, one question haunted America: What is going wrong inside our nation's schools? To find out, award-winning journalist Elinor Burkett spent nine months -- from the opening pep rally to graduation day -- in a suburban Minneapolis high school. She attended classes, hung out with students, listened to parents, and joined teachers on the front lines. She soon discovered that, post-Columbine, fears about loners and misfits, "Smoker's New Year" (a pot holiday), "Zero Tolerance" policies, and school lockdowns have become as much a part of a teen's high school experience as dating and Clearasil. But Burkett goes even deeper and makes some startling conclusions in this poignant expose of the real problems facing educators, parents, and the children they try to teach.


Chapter One

7:40 A.M., Thursday,

September 2, 1999

Most adult residents of Prior Lake, Minnesota, were still sweating through their early morning jogs along the mist-covered lake, their offices in downtown Minneapolis still dark. But when Roger Murphy and Nick Olson tooled into the parking lot at Prior Lake High School on an already-stifling fall morning, they were late -- willfully, proudly, almost gleefully, so. Showing up five minutes after the bell on the first day of school might not be much by the standards of youthful rebels of other generations. But in a world in which the most minor of sins -- the whiff of cigarette smoke on a jacket, the display of a Playboy Bunny symbol on the back pocket of your jeans -- provokes the secular equivalent of hellfire and damnation, there's not much room left for penny-ante insubordination.

As the radio blared yet another debate about Jesse Ventura, Minnesota's new governor, the two boys trolled the parking lot in Rosebud, Nick's 1979 Volare, looking for mooring in a crowded and chaotic harbor: Ford Explorers dusty from racing the back roads, sparkling new trucks with cellular phones, bruised economy cars with prom garters dangling from the mirrors and older sedans -- Delta 88s, Chrysler New Yorkers, Oldsmobile Cutlasses -- that were obviously recycled family cars.

Roger and Nick, both seniors, had been friends since their freshman year, when they'd met in Physical Science class. Even in those days, Nick, who bore a passing resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman and whose humor was a postmodern version of MAD magazine, was a serious chess nerd. Roger was that scary kid who'd just transferred back to Prior Lake after eight years in the inner city. Their friendship had been cemented the day Nick spilled rubbing alcohol on a lab counter and set it on fire. The teacher assumed that Roger -- Roger Mohammed Murphy -- the only black male student in the school, was the culprit. Roger, who favored dreadlocks, dark shades and an ever-changing collection of the punk version of baubles and bangles designed to mock bourgeois jewelry, was always the culprit, although he was never sure whether that assumption was provoked by his race or the fact that he was a serious Metalhead.

Roger and Nick had spent much of the summer weaving Odyllic Forces and following the Road of the Beast to the Path of Power and the Inner Voice -- which means they'd been playing White Wolf role-playing games. The first day of school could hardly compete with their efforts to strengthen the Gauntlet in order to protect Earth from the other Realms. They knew they were supposed to be thrilled, to be fired up with Rah, Rah, Go Lakers, and isn't it great that the first football game was on Friday. They'd heard all the hype and seen all the movies. To them, that stereotype was just another indication of the utter stupidity of adults. "Pep fests are the Jock-capades," said Nick. "And look at us. Nobody would ever confuse us with Jocks."

Once a sleepy town, Prior Lake had been transformed with the construction of the massive Bloomington Ferry Bridge in 1995 that opened up the empty land south of the Minnesota River to the sprawl of the Twin Cities. Where the 1,600-acre pristine lake that wound through the center of town had been dotted with cottages, its shores were now lined with cavernous custom contemporaries with soaring ceilings, sweeping lawns and a minimum of three living rooms each. Suburbanites charmed by Prior Lake's small-town atmosphere were decimating it by razing corn fields and old frame farmhouses to make way for $300,000 McMansions. On warm summer afternoons, the lake itself resembled a parking lot during a boat show. The median house price in town had risen to $170,000, $50,000 above the national average. The median household income, $75,000, was almost twice the national figure.

The local economy was booming: students delivering pizzas earned $13 an hour, and Burger King was offering signing bonuses to would-be assistant managers. Minnesota's state coffers were so full that Ventura had just defied governmental gravity by sending money down to the taxpayers.

So, few sixteen-year-old students were forced to survive without their own cars, and on the first day of classes, they had parked their vehicles in the designated student area, in the teachers' lot, the visitors' spaces, on the grass, and in front of concrete blocks holding up the streetlights. A 1989 Ford Tempo, its stickers saucily declaring its owner a "White Trash Princess" and a "Skinny Little Bitch," hogged two spaces. And a filthy Pathfinder, with Tinky Winky, the recently outed gay Teletubby hanging in a noose from his mirror, a rubber duckie biting his crotch, adorned the lawn dividing the lot from the street. Only the four official handicapped spaces were empty, but even Nick and Roger wouldn't have crossed that line.

The two finally found an unattended swath of sod and sauntered through the heavy glass doors of the cafeteria onto the ground floor of their school. That's when the racket hit. "Fuck, a pep fest," Roger growled. Reeling from a hangover, he was in no condition to endure a pep rally. Then again, Roger was never in any condition to endure a pep rally. "Think about it," he said, his tone caustic as usual. Roger's fierce intellect was ladened with the darkest of humor, but inevitably delivered with a gentle smile. "Mandatory pep. And the educational value of this is . . . . what?"

As he and Nick made their way through the cafeteria and into Jerabek Hall, also known as the Gold Gym, ignoring a solid wall of showcases filled with the school's athletic trophies, they passed two boys moving in the opposite direction, sneaking out to escape the Banditos, the mini pep band that had just finished off the school song ("We are the sons and daughters true of our Prior Lake High") and was moving into their version of "Wild Thing."


Excerpted from Another Planet by Elinor Burkett. Copyright 2001 by Elinor Burkett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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