As bus rides go, this is the norm. Kids, too many of them roughhousing in the narrow aisle, celebrate having survived the disciplines of the school day. Paper wads fly across the seats. Girls tug at each other's braids. And nobody even pretends to care about homework.
Mya Evans stands quietly in the middle, clutching the railing overhead. In all this noisy confusion, she is the silent center.
But as the bus chugs toward her stop on Edison Highway, that changes. Before she gets off, students who remain offer a taunting farewell.
L "Goodbye, Oreo," they call out and then erupt into laughter.
Mya hugs her algebra book and stares at the sidewalk.
"It doesn't bother me," she says, trying to shake off the slur suggesting she is black outside and white within. "It's their way of joking around. They don't realize that words can hurt."
When you're black and your best friend is white, life at 13 can be like this, especially at Hamilton Middle School, a predominantly black school in a predominantly white Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. Color still matters here, as it does in much of America.
And as it does several miles away, on Walther Avenue, where Dawn Geslois, also 13, is getting out of her mother's minivan, preparing to spend the afternoon with neighborhood friends who sometimes ask, with a mix of curiosity and bigotry, why Dawn hangs around a black girl.
In a country where race still separates, Mya Evans and Dawn Geslois have crossed the great divide: American public schools are more racially segregated now than at any time since the late 1960s, a recent Harvard University study showed. And in ethnically mixed schools, students often choose to segregate themselves.
Many are far from hopeful about things improving. A 1992 study by People for the American Way, a civil liberties organization, found nearly half of the 15- to 24-year-olds polled believe the state of race relations is "generally bad." More than half agreed that blacks and whites "tend to feel more uneasy" dealing with races other than their own.
But in this racially divided world, Mya and Dawn are the exception.
During the school day at least, they are pals. A love of pizza, basketball and the musical group Sisters with Voices, unites them; cruel nicknames like Chocolate and Vanilla, Zebra and Chocolate Chip won't drive them apart. Neither will the raised eyebrows and nosy questions of classmates who believe they should, the girls say, "stick with your own."
But like most bonds in teen-age life, theirs is a fragile one. While they attend every class together, team up on projects and even share lunch, when the dismissal bell rings, they retreat to separate worlds -- largely white Waltherson in the area around the school, largely black Kenwood in East Baltimore. During summer vacation, they spoke on the phone nearly every day, yet never saw each other. And when Dawn had a slumber party last spring, one name was noticeably absent from the guest list: Mya's.
"I didn't want her to feel out of place," Dawn explains sheepishly of the party she didn't even mention to Mya. "She was the only black who would have been there."
For youngsters like Dawn and Mya, the message about race relations in the '90s is mixed.
They sit in classrooms with posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They study the Civil War, slavery and apartheid. And they have a hazy understanding of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation.
Yet they're also told about hate crimes increasing across the country. They're well versed in the Rodney King beating case and subsequent L.A. riots. And the charges leveled by black Secret Service agents against a Denny's last year cause them to wonder if it's still possible for a black person to be refused a meal at a restaurant in America.
In their eighth-grade advanced academic class, blacks and whites usually sit together only when teachers assign seats. Even lightheartedly, racial differences are noted. On the very first day of school, a history teacher confuses two students in the class, both named Aaron.
"You could say black Aaron and white Aaron," offers the white student, Aaron Stanley, a puckish boy with short-cropped hair and freckles who resembles Huck Finn.
The teacher laughs; so do the students. The nicknames stick. And over the next few months, the two boys become known by their race.
On a rainy afternoon, Dawn and Mya sit side by side at a McDonald's doing something they've never done before: examining their friendship.
"It was like some hidden magnet drew us together," says Dawn, waving a french fry in the air like some magic wand to explain the connection.
"The best thing about her is she's different," says Mya. "She's not like all the other people I know. Some of my other friends criticize me. Dawn doesn't make fun of what I think."
Perhaps best of all, they speak the same secret language of 13-year-olds -- a hormone-laden vocabulary of boys' names, fits of giggling and slang.