Thomas French Doubleday365 pages. $22.95...


September 26, 1993|By Sandra Fish | Sandra Fish,Orlando Sentinel

SOUTH OF HEAVEN Thomas French Doubleday

365 pages. $22.95 Satan worshipers. Stressed-out super-achievers. A single, pregnant, born-again Christian. A .32-caliber handgun.

High school isn't what it used to be, as St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French learned during a year at Largo High School in Pinellas County, Fla.

In "South of Heaven," Mr. French chronicles the 1989-'90 school year at Largo through the eyes of several students:

* Christine "YY" Younskevicius, a popular senior honors student trying to cope with advanced classes, her social life, what to be when she grows up and her parents' recent divorce.

* Mike Broome, an angry freshman in a dropout-prevention program.

* Andrea Taylor, a senior who crossed the invisible line between black and white students early in her high school career and is rewarded by being elected the school's first black Homecoming Queen.

* John Boyd, a football player with decent grades who eventually arms himself for the daily return to a neighborhood ruled by drug dealers.

* Jaimee Sheey, a girl who arrives at school daily only to skip class routinely to the point that her mother commits her to a mental hospital.

* Heather Pilcher, a junior girl who, despite a pledge of chastity at her summer church camp, succumbs to hormones and becomes pregnant.

Mr. French also follows the teachers, including those in the dropout prevention program.

At one point, a young woman fresh out of college spends two months teaching in the program.

"She admits she was not prepared for what these kids are like," Mr. French writes. "As cruel as they can be to her, she thinks they're even more cruel to each other. She listens to them talk, and what she hears makes her sad. She's astonished at their apathy, at how little they seem to care about their future."

This chronicle of high school life is both absorbing and disturbing.

The illustrated distinctions between the lives of the honor students and the potential dropouts are especially telling.

The latter are "caught in all sorts of self-destructive patterns established by their friends, their older brothers or sisters, their parents, the entire society. Not just patterns of dropping out. Patterns of anger. Patterns of addiction, abuse, rejection."

The honor students, on the other hand, "may have to cope with their own painful problems and frustrations."

"But they're flexible enough to compartmentalize. Even if they're upset about something, they can put it aside for an hour or two while they study for tomorrow's exam."

While Mr. French succeeds in contrasting the students at the top with those on the bottom, he only skims the surface of other aspects of high-school life.

He gives only glimpses of what school is like for the students between the two extremes -- the crowded classrooms, the anonymity, the struggle to find a college or career without a high test score.

And he doesn't delve into the reasons behind the daily, apparently voluntary, separation of black and white students.

At the end of the year, black students complain that the yearbook includes virtually no photos of them at parties, work or school. And the two black students featured prominently in "South of Heaven" aren't part of the mainstream.

Still, "South of Heaven" is an education for those who aren't familiar with the pressures of high school today, from the sense of despair and hopelessness felt by many students to the stress of trying to succeed experienced by others.

The angst is high in high school for over- and underachievers

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