Everett Middle School is both a newcomer site for students who emigrate from Latin American countries, as well as an immersion school, teaching Spanish as early as kindergarten.

BEACON

By Tamerra Griffin

After having spent a considerable and pleasurable amount of time in the Mission the past few months, I have been subject to a number of lessons; some were sweet and happily digested, while others were force-fed, bitter doses of the realities of public education and the lives of children growing up in gentrified and often underserved communities. I learned, for example, that buildings and people are a lot alike.  The exteriors are merely facades that have been carefully crafted to distract passerby from the secrets inside.

Such is the Mission Beacon Center, a beating heart inside the vast body of Everett Middle School on 450 Church Street.  Despite its location on the outskirts of the Mission, the school’s appearance still maintains the regal, Catholic-influenced architecture often associated with the district.  In fact, the only things that seem to be missing from its cathedral-esque ambiance are chartreuse-stained windows and a steeple atop its columned presence.  Surrounding it is the same cluster of modern apartments that attracted the influx of more affluent, Caucasian San Franciscans to the once Latino-dominant Mission beginning in the mid-90s (because who wouldn’t pay an extra $500 a month to live minutes away from the picturesque and hipster-infested Dolores Park or Bi-Rite Creamery?).

But this theme of sophisticated beauty is done away with inside the Beacon; the walls explode unapologetically with graffiti murals.  An inverted skateboarder fights a stylish breakdancer for attention above a window, and both are set against a background of inspirational quotes and powerful words like “unity” and “peace,” all of which have been painted by the students who call the Beacon a second home.

Middle schoolers, having been excused early from school on a thankfully short Friday, lounge on an L-shaped couch, limbs tangled and indistinguishable as they occasionally divert their eyes from “Harry Potter” to check cell phones for text messages.  A smattering slouch at archaic, heavy-backed desktop computers, where instead of getting a jumpstart on their weekend homework, they sneak onto Facebook and leap over obstacles in a computer game.

“Aye Carmen—el Facebook?” says program director Luis Chavez, the familiarity of Spanglish sweetening his otherwise admonishing tone.  The perpetrator, caught red-handed, giggles as she quickly exits the site.

Luis gives me a brief rundown of the program, which is accompanied by three endearing, tri-folded poster boards of projects past.  The Beacon, established in 1999, is a space for kids who might otherwise have nowhere else to go, he says.  Between the girls’ volleyball team and weekly cooking classes, the center aims to occupy its attendees between school letting out and the end of their parents’ double shifts at work, while enriching their learning environments, completely free of charge.

The Beacon’s flag football team practices on the concrete playground out back.  The boys’ rib cages expand as they playfully insult each other, their bare chests glistening with sweat, the onset of pectorals, and bravado.  They are coached by Brian, who walks like he was a star player in his high school days and attempts to control his thick, locked hair in a ponytail.

I look at these pre-teens—as they run down the field and receive passes, dance over a soccer ball, or clamor for another slice of honey ham—I can’t help but imagine how they’d be spending this after school time if they couldn’t hang out at the Beacon.  Duffel dime bags and Norteno-versus-Sureno replace tutoring and shirts-versus-skins in my head.  I am not so naïve to believe that the former life replaces the latter; I know that some of these students, simply products of their perilously underserved communities, must do both to survive.

Back inside, I am tackled by the scent of nail polish as it weighs down the study room with its pungent, acetone-heaviness. Sure enough, a group of girls sit off to the side, hunching over their outstretched fingers as they gently glide dripping brushes over their nails, bumping into chewed cuticles along the way.

“Don’t worry, the bad parts come off when you take a shower,” reassures one girl to her friend.  The second part of what she says, although unspoken, is loud enough to shake the entire neighborhood: if only it were that simple.

A People of History

            In the 1990s, the San Francisco Unified School District and community groups like the Beacon Steering Committee joined together to establish the San Francisco Beacon Initiative.  Aimed at providing adolescents aged 11-14 with the proper social skills needed to thrive in high school and at the university level (such as leadership, civic engagement, and efficient communication, all of which are difficult to teach in San Francisco’s highly populated middle schools, much less tailor to individual students’ needs), the Beacon Initiative implemented eight different programs throughout the city, from North Beach to Visitacion Valley.

These centers serve a dual purpose: being that they are situated in lower-income, working-class neighborhoods, the beacons act as safe havens for children, spaces where they can complete their homework (with assistance from tutors when necessary) and receive a balanced meal before heading home.  Sometimes, these things aren’t guaranteed elsewhere.

Two years into the Mission Beacon’s establishment, Dina, the recreational coordinator at the time, began to generate interest among a group of girls to play soccer.  What started as simple inter-organization pick-up games evolved into scrimmages again different after school programs in the area, like Horace Mann Middle School and the Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club.  Eventually, Everett and the Mission Beacon combined their efforts (and their funds) to establish “Owl Central,” a slight nod to the unintimidating school mascot.  Ruben Urbina, who oversees the soccer program now known as Girls Got Goals, noticed an influx of interested soccer players at tryouts.  Instead of cutting them, he decided to create a second team, both of which have made it to the playoffs this season.

“There was always a disparity between what was offered to boys versus girls,” Ruben tells me over the cackle of his district-regulated phone, “so it’s been great that we’ve had so much participation.”

Without question, these girls’ journeys transcend their win-loss record.  Their journeys are of maturity and team development and confidence and transporting on-the-field success to achievement classroom.  Their journey, like so many of adolescents their age, is one worth telling.

First Attempt Connection

Owl Central goalkeeper Jessica warms up with a combination passing drill. The Owls look to defend their two-time championship title this season.

I can only imagine the insult-coated utterances they shout about me, disguised in a sing- song-y, Central American Spanish they know I cannot understand.

“She plays in college?”

“She’s so short!”

“I didn’t know black girls played soccer…”

And who can blame them?  Here I am, presenting myself as an athlete—with a big, non-Spanish-speaking smile, just begging to be made fun of—who competes at one of the highest levels in the country, and nearly tripping over my own legs trying to chase the impossibly quick footwork of my opponent, who is at least seven years my junior.

The afternoon wind blows goosebumps and the possibility of a snowy night onto their bare legs, which emerge from hibernation under khaki pants and fitted jeans in the heat of competition.  Further down the playground, the football team executes a play, Nikes scuffling and screeching against the fading black surface.  The boundaries of our makeshift field at the Beacon are anchored by two sets of two large, electric lemon cones, our goals.  Novice skateboarders circle the organized sports like vultures, ready to devour a bored team member into their clan.  This is a typical Friday afternoon, where Everett students celebrate the completion of yet another hard-fought and unpraised week with an endorphin fix.

On my team are round-cheeked Carlos, sweating beneath his school-regulation, poly-blend white polo; Kevin, who stands a head and shoulder taller than I and sports a flashy pair of purple and florescent orange soccer shoes; and a passionate Hiner, whose faux hawk slices the icy February air as he races down the field, a relentless and blood-thirsty shark.  We fall to a four-goal deficit in the first 10 minutes, and our opponents swell with confidence at every blocked shot or successful fake out.  Our morale is low.  We make emotional mistakes which, in the case of my teammates, are often followed by their favorite expletives, “Puta!” and “Pinche!”

But as life and soccer demonstrate time and time again, all it takes is one goal, one forward step, to shift the current.  Carlos, reluctant to venture outside the comfortable boundaries of a goalkeeper’s zone, distributes the ball to Kevin, who paints the grassless field with colorful moves for his opponents.  He then sends it spinning towards me with impressive pace, a technique that normally takes years to perfect.  My path to the goal is blocked by Grachel, the only other girl on the field, who fearlessly, almost recklessly kicks at my ankles in an attempt to intercept the ball.  With a quick-footed cut, I slide past her in time to release the ball to a screaming Hiner, so anxious to score that he almost shanks the ball wide of the goal, missing a rare scoring opportunity.

Almost.

Unable to contain my elation, I sprint toward Hiner, hands outstretched to receive his in a celebratory high-five.  He shows more facial restraint than I do, but excitement is evident beneath the surface of his bad-boy visage, a milky, iridescent pearl begging for exposure inside a rocky shell.

On the emotional descent from one victory, I receive another.  Grachel strides toward me, her lip ring twinkling seductively in the winter-white sun.  Her long, lean shape and confident gait suggest the field position of an attacker, but her tenacity likens her to a midfielder position.  It may be too soon to tell.

“How did you learn to play like that?” she asks, the slow tempo and soft volume of her question revealing the effort it takes to phrase it in English.  It’s more than a question, though.  It’s an extension of a delicate rope called Trust, and she’s holding it out to me between her fingers.

“I can teach you,” I respond.  And just like that, we are linked.

Liaison

The following Friday, the Beacon kids seem fatigued and uninterested in collecting the pieces from last week’s game, instead entertaining themselves on a nearby bench.  Ten of them sit shoulder to shoulder, and the two anchors lean hard into the center as the ones in the middle emit uncontrollable giggles.  Ball in hand, my eyes frantically search theirs, desperately trying to make eye contact and initiate a game.  All attempts are fruitless.  Then, a green shirted figure emerges from the edge of my peripheral vision, and by the time I realize that it’s Jose Mejia, a fellow volunteer at the Beacon, he takes the role of one of the anchors and throws his weight into the pyramid.

This swift action causes the students to erupt with laughter, and the force exerted toward the middle of the bench pushes some of them forward.  After a few more moments of this—and there truly is something to be said about the beautiful simplicity required to entertain a child—Jose stands, collects the ball from me, and dribbles down the field, executing fancy tricks as he goes.  And as though are summoned by a soccer playing Pied Piper, one by one the kids roll out of the pyramid and follow him onto the field.  My envy of his seemingly effortless influence is overshadowed still by a sense of thankfulness.  He is my liaison, in more ways than one.

Upon first glance, Jose does not inspire poetic, earth-shattering metaphors or even a raised eyebrow.  He neither towers over crowds nor peers up at them, and secures the hem of his baggy jeans with rubber bands, tiny denim ponytails that hover above black Converse or slick Nikes.  The shape of his body suggests that he is bien cuidada, well cared for (which equates to being well fed in Latino culture), but it would be a grave mistake to assume that his heavyset physique makes him any less agile on the pitch.

He constantly reminds me of this throughout the day; Jose and I always play on opposing teams, and I have suffered on more than one occasion the sear of embarrassment as he fools me with the ball—hips leading one way while his feet go the other—and throws me off balance trying to defend him.  He plays with unapologetic arrogance, which is annoying and admirable.  For guys like him, pride is precious.

Not that he’s a “bad boy,” by any means.  The 17-year-old has been volunteering at the Beacon for almost two months and plans to attend the City College of San Francisco this fall, although still unsure of his major.  Despite the angry-looking exterior that young men of his age have been conditioned to wear, Jose is thankfully not immune to smiling.  But at his still-ripening age, he is armed with an ego that opposes authority.  With a smirk and a bit of a wince, he raises a fist to my eyes, displaying the crusting cranberry scabs left over from a couple of weeks ago when he drunkenly punched a concrete wall during a fight at a club to which he wasn’t even old enough to be admitted.

“My uncle’s the bouncer there,” is all he offers as justification.

At the Beacon, however, Jose’s demeanor hints at not even a trace of negativity or violence.  Sure, he moans at having to chop tomatoes for the kids’ salad during cooking class and is occasionally scolded by Brian for playing on his phone while on the job, but he also spends upwards of 12 hours each week working at this program for free.  In that context, a handful of secretly-sent text messages seems arbitrary.

Jose—who also goes by “Biggie,” but only in the presence of one of the Beacon kids whose actual name is Tupac—aspires to play for the men’s soccer team at CCSF.  He didn’t play in high school because he “got into too much trouble,” although his skills prove that he can certainly compete at that level.  His curiosity about collegiate soccer draws down his tough-guy façade like a moat, and he asks me questions like How often do you practice? and Shit, you have to run how much? or my favorite, They don’t teach you moves like that at State, do they?

He adds taco sauce to garlic bread and ranch dressing to ravioli to give them more flavor.  He peppers his language with the same Spanish slang—A huevo!—as the kids he looks after, and he coats his words with a sugary flirtiness for every female he encounters.  He is such an accurate reflection not only of his Mission roots, but of the Beacon itself: tough on the outside, and necessarily so, when deep down all he wants is someone to lean on.

Owl Central: the Cinderella Team

Everett’s cafeteria is plastered with bright slabs of butcher paper advertising various campus events, annoyingly enthusiastic healthy eating posters, and leftover crepe paper twisted festively in honor of the most recent dance.  On one side of the airy room, members of the football team face the stage, where a motivational speaker commands their attention with grandiose gestures and an urban drawl.  Across the way, the young ladies of the Girls Got Goals soccer program sit quietly at circular foldout tables, pouring over history books.  As part of the program, the girls must endure an hour and a half of homework sessions and empowering workshops each Tuesday and Wednesday before they can touch the ball at practice.

As they print swirly script on college ruled paper, head coach Guillermo Gonzalez looks over them, his soft brown eyes combating a large and lumbering body to prove his gentleness.  Gonzalez, a senior at Mission High School down the street, enters his second year coaching at the Beacon, and hopes to defend the two-time championship title with the girls this season.  He speaks with an endearing lisp and never raises his voice above a café whisper, even when one of the players confesses that she has forgotten her practice shorts.  His easygoing manner is no doubt tied to an inescapable empathy; before becoming a coach, Guillermo was himself a Beacon kid.

He tells me this as we wait for the girls to change into their athletic clothes outside the locker room.  The first to emerge, covered in an oversized white t-shirt, navy blue sweatpants, and thick black eyeliner (applied with remarkable precision for a pre-teen) is Carla.  She regards me, a foreigner, with a scrutinizing but not completely dismissive gaze.  As she saunters up to Guillermo and takes a seat beside him, she says, “Somebody just tried to jump one of the girls outside campus.”  The evenness of her tone suggests that occurrences like these aren’t rare, a speculation that solidifies with Guillermo’s subtle reaction—raised eyebrows followed by an exasperated sigh.  And then, one by one, the Owl Central squad flies out of the locker room, indoor soccer shoes thudding lightly on the concrete.

Once the congregation is head-counted, we all make our way to the indoor gym on the second floor of the school.  Backpacks are discarded on the wall beyond the sideline, and ponytails are tightened.  Jose Guevara, another high school coach, tells Carla to put her phone away.  She walks over to her backpack, unzips it, and mimics the motion of throwing something into it, while actually leaving her text messaging capabilities and her rebellion in her pocket.  Fully aware that I’ve witnessed her stealthy move, she raises a finger to her lips as a mischievous grin breaks across it.  And instantly, the secret is sealed, just in time for practice.

Jose’s demeanor is a nice balance to Guillermo’s.  The former isn’t afraid to shout, which is apparent as he leads the girls’ warm-up. It’s an aerobic sequence of stretches, lunges, and laps around the court, and by the time it’s over, tiny beads of sweat dot the girls’ hairlines.  They refuse to remove their earrings before practice, causing their gold hoops to swing like shiny pendulums against their necks as they run, keeping time with the minutes of their cherished youthful experience.  Outside these walls, environments and obstacles more complex than their maturity levels await them, but for the next hour, they simply play.

Jose focuses on Jessica, the goalkeeper, while the rest of the team works on stationary passing.  In one drill, she faces the wall of the gym, and when Jose yells “Go!” she jumps and turns to face him with just enough time to save a ball he kicks at her.  Her eyes narrow as she tunes into her twitch muscles, sharpening her reflexes.  Jose is equally quick in praising her good saves and criticizing her weaker moments, switching fluidly between Spanish and English all the while.  The chemistry in the room—not just between keeper and coach, but on the entire team—is positive and light, which no doubt has become a foundation in the team’s success.

The practice ends with a much-anticipated full court scrimmage.  The team splits in half, and one group stretches green mesh “pennies” over their heads to distinguish them from their opponents.  At the sound of the whistle, the girls thunder down the court, shouting for the ball over their own stampede.  The mini-squads are evenly matched; each has its fair share of intricate combination plays and narrowly missed goals.  And unlike most young teams, on which teammates typically respond to criticism with immediate retorts and long-lasting resentment, these girls know that whenever they dig into each other, it’s coupled with compassion and a genuine desire for their improvement.

The Owl's first team poses after defeating Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club 5-1 on Thursday, April 28.

“These are my best friends.  We’re all really supportive of each other,” says Lesley Gonzalez, an 8th grader and second-year Beacon player, after practice.  “Playing here has really helped with my social skills.  I talk to people more.”

The game ends with a narrow victory to the green team—the victorious scorer swings her pseudo jersey around her head like a brown-skinned Brandi Chastain—and Jose goes over the logistics of the Owls’ game tomorrow afternoon.

Then they stretch (which is code, as any young athlete knows, for socialize) and head back to the locker rooms to morph back into non-soccer selves.  The pendulums have swung their final warnings, and as they exit the Beacon and disperse like a firework across the neighborhood to different homes, pieces of their identity are laid to rest for the evening.  Now they become adults.

Fault Lines

The double doors of Everett’s second-floor gymnasium stand tall and locked today.  I look through a sliver of Plexiglas, trying to find a pair of eyes inside who will help me enter (this search, as I have discovered in my weeks spent here, is both metaphorical and constant).  I find one, a fellow volunteer in a floppy hat named Donnie, who kicks down the handle of the door with such force that the BOOM reverberates throughout the stairwell and momentarily blocks out the sound of thunder fooling around with torrential rain outside.

When inclement weather strikes the Mission Beacon Center, a rainy day schedule is set in motion.  Indoor basketball replaces outdoor football, the cheer team practices in the auditorium instead of on the blacktop, and small-sided soccer matches shrink to occupy a smaller space inside the gym.  There’s a school-wide dance in the cafeteria, which is why the basketball court is so desolate.  A sprinkling of Vans-clad boys kick a ball around, causing the nets of the makeshift goals to cascade in ripples every time they score.  On the opposite side of the room, Donnie shoots hoops with a seventh-grader named Joaquin, who dribbles the ball with controlled hands and shakes shaggy mane out of his eyes before each layup.

Between these two activities, Hiner—one of my soccer buddies, who recognizes me with excited eyes but admits he can’t remember my name—and a spritely boy named Alexander take turns hitting a birdie across the center court to Cordell, a soft-spoken 12-year-old who neglects to change out of his school-sanctioned white polo into a more stylish tee like the other kids have.  New kid on the block that I am, I inch closer to the game, silently asking for permission to play along.  Within minutes, I’m gripping the worn foam handle of a tennis racket and the last shreds of my athletic dignity as I attempt to engage my hand-eye coordination.

As I swat aimlessly at the plastic shuttlecock, I think to myself, this is one of the beautiful things about this school, this program.  Hiner is Mexican-American, Alexander is of Pacific Islander descent, and Cordell is African-American.  But in this small game in this stuffy room, color is irrelevant.  They are united solely by their interests, resistant to the prejudicial lenses of their respective societies.

And just like the volatile weather outside—which phases from angry, sheeted downpour to sunshine poking through wispy clouds—the climate shifts suddenly.

The dance has ended, and a clan of students to pour into the gym.  As if they’ve rehearsed from a script, a handful of boys rush to the basketball court, discarding backpacks and hooded sweatshirts as they run so that by the time they are beneath the hoops, they are prepared to battle.  Joaquin’s bewilderment is palpable; he is now the only non-black kid on the basketball side of the gym.  The others shout for the ball as they glide toward the net, executing the same effortless layup that Joaquin, according to Donnie, had been practicing for hours before.  Intimidation sets in as Joaquin fades from the arc of the three-point line to the sideline, where he sits and watches an entirely different game unfold.

 Similarly, Hiner’s line of vision begins to stray from badminton to the soccer game—which, from the sound of it, is picking up in its intensity—happening over my shoulder.  After a few more sympathy hits, he hands me his racket and heads over to the far side of the court adding with bland reassurance that I can “play with two racquets against the other two.”  Alexander and Cordell escape soon after, claiming the need for a water break that apparently lasts the duration of the afternoon.  I take a seat and look at the incredible transformation that has taken place.

To my left, black boys swat and yelp for the ball, occasionally acrobatting themselves up above the rim to retrieve a ball that’s been wedged between the hoop and backboard.

To my right, Latino boys chase down a skidding soccer ball, flat-soled sneakers screeching across the wooden floor of the gym and marking it with black streaks.  Minutes later, as if to solidify this segregation, Donnie emerges from the equipment closet with a stack of traffic orange cones—a most ironic warning if I’d ever seen one—and places them in a line across the court, separating the games and, essentially, the students playing them.  This division, so subtle that I’m unsure if the kids are even aware of it, seems so fluid and natural.  Despite Everett’s demographics—57.3 percent Latino, 23.5 percent African American, 3.5 percent Filipino—evidence of same-race magnetization is still alarmingly prevalent.

The Baby Project

Springtime means sneezing through pollen-infested sunshine, swapping puffy parkas for shapelier zip-up sweaters, and the tedium of standardized testing.  The silver lining in the STAR test, however, is that teachers are usually too drained from exam proctoring, healthy snack distributing, and No. 2 pencil sharpening to follow through on their own lesson plans, which means no homework for the Owls.  For this reason, Owl Central is restless in the cafeteria during their normally designated pre-practice study time.  Lesley fixates on the note card-sized screen of an iTouch as she navigates her way through what sounds like a perilously high level in an application game.

“What are these bitches so afraid of?!” she shouts into the fantasy world, but immediately her brown eyes widen at me as one hand flies up to cover her mouth.  She has just released a forbidden expletive by Beacon rules.

I offer her a reassuring smile in return.  Today I am not an authority, merely an observer.

As the girls shake the crumby remains of a white cheddar Pop chips bag into their manicured hands, Guillermo and Jose announce that they will be moving from the lunch room to a classroom for the remainder of study hall for a “special program” for which males are not allowed to attend.

“But if you guys act up, we will know about it,” adds Jose with as much sternness as a high school senior can muster.  Slowly, reluctantly, the girls shuffle down the hall.

Inside, an older woman clad in a pink Rocawear top waits patiently for the team to take their seats at the long rows of tables.  She introduces herself as Lynn from the Mission Girls program, which essentially offers the same services as the Beacon—academic assistance, emotional empowerment, cooking classes, arts and crafts—but focuses on gender-specific groups.  As Lynn raises her voice above the low hum of whispering voices — Lesley is still poking and prodding away at her iPod game — she makes it clear that this is a space for the girls to freely express themselves, to discuss things going on within the community with the assurance that whatever they say will remain confidential.

It’s abundantly clear that by “things going on within the community,” Lynn alludes to the number of shootings — which police have since tied to gang violence between San Francisco’s Surenos and the Nortenos — that have dominated the Mission’s streets within the past two months.  As she offers this vague phrase, a conversational lure into a potentially moving discussion, the girls avert their eyes and remain silent.  Either the topic is still too sensitive, or the promise of confidentiality is too questionable, too risky to believe right now.

Not to be deterred, Lynn initiates a standard ice breaker.  The girls take turns going around the room to introduce themselves, tell their age, their favorite food.  Between Carla and Grachel and Angelica and Calvana and Hilda and Lesley and Alina and Edith and being 11 and 12 and 13 and 13-and-three-quarters (as Alina concludes after counting on her fingers) and 14 years old, they are united by their collective appreciation for Mexican food.

Pacing the front of the classroom, gelled ponytail slick and shiny beneath unforgiving fluorescent lights, Lynn lists some upcoming events at Mission Girls, hoping to incite some enthusiasm.

“On Fridays we have free pizza and movie nights…”

Carla quickly pipes up by asking, “How much does it cost?” a question that is either a testament to her not fully listening, or the importance of price, no matter how small, in every activity she might pursue.

Lynn reiterates, with an admirable air of patience, that the event is free.  Then she describes an activity that sparks an unexpected uproar among the team: the Baby Project.

With the intent of providing girls with a physical glimpse of life as a teenage and expecting mother, the Baby Project equips them with either a mechanical baby programmed to cry multiple times throughout the day, or an occasionally-kicking “belly” to wear strapped to their own tiny abdomens, a backwards backpack in every sense of the word.

As Lynn explains the intricacies of the project (from its weekend-long duration to the fact that she can tell how long the baby cries by a computer chip, “So don’t think you can just stuff it in your closet at night when it goes off,” she says amid an eruption of guilty giggles), the girls are as quiet and engaged as they’ve been all afternoon.  Lesley even takes a break from level-hopping in her video game to ask, “But what if we have a soccer game?  I can’t play with that big ol’ belly,” to which everybody in the room chimes in with variations of “Yeah!” and “I know, right!”

Little do these owls know, though, that every pass they make on the field, every time they slip a black and yellow jersey on, they compete not only against their physical opponent — like Horace Mann at 4 p.m. tomorrow — but the squad of statistics lined up against them as well.

As Latino and African American youth living in low-income communities in California, they are significantly more likely than most to be overweight or obese.  They don’t realize it now, but by playing soccer they greatly reduce their likelihood of illegal drug use, smoking cigarettes, and having unprotected sex.

But it’s not obligatory that they understand this right now.  Right now, they need only worry themselves over hair clips and remembering their indoor soccer cleats and walking home from school in the buddy system.  Right now, the only sounds they need to be concerned with are referee whistles and laughter, not ambulance sirens and teething babies.  Right now, they are young minds yearning for the comfort of routine, for solidarity.  And if they can find it here, in this oblong-shaped classroom headed by Lynn from Mission Girls, then so be it.

Excitement for the Baby Project continues to rise the following week, when Lynn enters the classroom toting one of the dolls in question—all brown skin and round cheeks—along with a vest meant to stimulate a pregnant belly.  The girls hastily scribble down required information on their permission slip forms and waste no time in clamoring for a chance to pass around the special guest.

“He’s so cute!” they croon as they bounce the blue-clad baby (whom they collectively decide is named Junior) on their still-developing hips.  Rather than tiny red organs, the interior of this simulation child is a small black box that randomly initiates crying and whimpering.  When this happens, Lucely Chel, a short 8th grader with a thick, floppy ponytail, offers up her index finger to Junior’s toothless and unmoving mouth, exactly as any knowledgeable caretaker would to a real baby.

Amidst the hullabaloo, Jessica and Magaly, both volunteer coaches who attend City College of San Francisco, exchange knowing glances in the corner of the boisterous classroom.

“They’re all happy about it now, but after a few hours of crying and realizing they have to take it to school with them, they’re gonna change their minds real quick,” says Jessica with a smirk to a nodding Magaly.

It goes unsaid, but the coaches know that these kinds of lessons are necessary; educational investments to prevent the possibility a future market crash.

Suddenly, Alina (the official team clown) wonders aloud, “I wonder what his wee-wee looks like,” much to the comedic appreciation of her comrades.  Lesley the Brave takes the bait, carefully removing Junior’s diaper.  Everybody scoots their chairs in around her, craning their necks to witness firsthand the impending sight.

After the anticipation has reached an acceptable high, Lesley pulls down the front flap of the diaper to reveal the last thing anyone expects.  Barely discernable over the explosion of squeals and laughter, Alina shouts, “This is not a boy!!”  They all look to Lynn for an explanation, who finds their confusion amusing.  “Sometimes the clothes get mixed up,” is all she says.

Junior never receives a more female-normative name after the shocking genital discovery, but the girls continue to pass him around, marveling at the realness of his weight, the delicate connection between head and body on a weak neck, the natural inward curvature of his chubby legs and precious feet.  The tenderness with which they handle him suggests experience, either with a younger sibling or other close family member.

But in spite of their fascination, the girls still grasp the true meaning of the exercise.  At one point, Edith turns to tell me about an experience she had recently at church.

“This other girl was doing the Baby Project, and she had to leave because it wouldn’t stop crying,” she says, her signature black hair bow bouncing along with her animated narrative.  “Everybody was staring at her.  She told us never to do this; she hated it.”

Overhearing this, Carla nods her head in solemn sympathy.  And then, as if snapping them out of a drowsy hypnotic trance, Jessica points out the time: 4:45.  Practice.

In one fell swoop, the team gathers their duffel bags, slaps their permission slips on the table in front of Lynn, steals one last glance at “Junior” (and for some, a handful of the complimentary Flamin’ Hot Cheetos) and rushes out the door to change into their soccer gear.  I am both astonished and amused at their malleable attention spans, and can only hope for their sake that they continue to leave pregnancy at the wayside in favor of athletics for a long, long time.

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