Ambition, Femininity, Christianity Clash for Her Attention
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; March 5, 2000 ©
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.
There are four clocks in Amy Christie’s bedroom, but they’re just safety nets. Amy’s head always rings with some alarm.
It’s mid-February, and Amy is focused on the ACT. This is a make-or-break test for most college-bound high schoolers. For Amy, who’s already won acceptance to the University of Florida, a score of 28 or higher assures free tuition and books.
The personal stakes are higher. Am I smart enough? Am I working hard enough? How do I compare with my peers? These questions hammer Amy like a blacksmith shaping a horseshoe, and she can’t help but see the ACT as a measure of intellectual standing.
Amy can name the grade she’s earned in every high school class, a feat less spectacular in light of her 3.8 unweighted grade-point average. In the middle of her junior year, Amy discovered she ranked 43rd in a class of 900 students. With that revelation, she fixated upon graduating in the top 20. At her last check, she sat at No. 23, and Amy thinks she’ll meet her goal with a straight-A senior year.
The ACT is two days away, and the timing is rotten. Tomorrow is the traditional and unofficial “senior skip day” at Western High School, in Weston, Fla., and for the first time, Amy is determined to ditch classes. Plus, she’s trying not to get too worked up about her youth pastor’s brother, who just asked her out.
It’s the type of clash that has plagued Amy since her family moved from Minnesota to Florida four years ago. Grades, faith, friends, social and global politics (she likes Alan Keyes, but would reserve her presidential vote for John McCain), being the best, being a girl, being a Christian — all collide for Amy’s attention. Nobody in the Pioneer Press Class of 2000 saddles herself with more pressure and self-examination.
“I like being the kid that other kids look at and say, `Hey, that girl’s smart,’ ” says Amy, who needed only two days to dissect every page of an ACT study book that normally requires a month of work.
“Sometimes, I think I’m fooling everybody,” she says. “The person I hate the most is naturally smart and naturally motivated. I have motivation covered like crazy, but I’m not smart.”
Anyone close to Amy would argue with that. Amy has gained and ditched friends who fall to either side of the lines she draws for intelligence and integrity.
One teacher calls her “a force to reckon with,” and Amy’s mother wants to see more tolerance of those — teens and adults, alike — who don’t think or express themselves on Amy’s level.
She’s too outgoing to seem snobby, though — she has as many guy friends as girlfriends — and she isn’t caught up in the fashion and sexuality that run the social lives of many teens. She also exposes her vulnerabilities, struggling to uphold moral and spiritual ideals amid the fun-and-sun youth culture in this wealthy corner of southern Florida.
RULING HER SCHOOL
Carla Evans, a classmate and friend, sweeps by Amy’s house at 7:05 a.m. Amy hops into the car with one hand gripping a stuffed backpack, the other clutching a tall plastic cup of black coffee. Carla weaves her car out of the gated community, known as The Lakes, and her speedometer soon tickles 60 miles an hour along 35-mph roads. The race, as it is nearly every morning, is to arrive at Western High School by the first bell.
Carla debates turning left in front of an oncoming Suzuki Tracker. She creeps out too far, forcing both cars to a jarring halt. “You’re hesitating, Carla, you’re hesitating,” Amy says as Carla pulls ahead. Amy laughs. Mission accomplished — the girls are on time.
Doug and Rebecca Christie considered private schools for their three children (Amy, the only girl, is in the middle), but weren’t convinced they had to abandon public schools to find quality educations and uphold their Christian teachings. In Fort Lauderdale, they found a school district with a strong advanced-placement curriculum and an International Baccalaureate program.
There are only a dozen or so students in each of Amy’s advanced-placement courses. Everybody knows everybody and, to some degree, everyone seems attentive to the lessons. Even among the achievers, Amy has a reputation for dogged dogma and discipline. She’s quick to raise her hand to a teacher’s pop questions and not afraid to weave opinions into her answers.
During first-period American History, a classmate tells Amy, “Enough of your libertarian, Christian, fundamental views,” to which Amy tells him, “I’m not libertarian.”
In another class, Amy points out a star baseball player and curls her face. “He doesn’t like that I know more about Judaic law than he does,” she says.
Amy corners her European History teacher over a question on a recent test in which students had to name locations on a numbered map of early 20th century Europe. In Amy’s view, one number rested directly atop the Aegean Sea; that number, according to her teacher, pointed to the Dardanelles. The Aegean Sea wasn’t covered in any lesson, but Amy justified her answer: “I know my Turkish Straits.”
Later in the day, Amy sits in a classroom to hear a former Western High graduate speak about her life with AIDS. It’s a moving story, but Amy’s face tightens when the woman implores students to only have protected sex.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Amy says later. “The only way to be 100 percent sure is abstinence.”
Amy promised herself she wouldn’t have sex before marriage — along with commitments to avoid drugs, alcohol and cheating in school — while buried in what she cites as the lowest point in her life so far.
She was in the middle of eighth grade when her dad took a new job in medical diagnostics, moving the family to Florida. Making new friends proved puzzling and frustrating. Amy, whose mother grew up Mennonite, looked to religion for guidance and the social connection that filled so much of her life in Minnesota.
She went to church camp three summers ago and told herself she wouldn’t sacrifice her faith and morals just to fit into Fort Lauderdale’s teen scene. She now prays and reads Scripture before school and tithes 10 percent of her weekly pay — she works part time at the cash register of the neighborhood grocery store — to her church.
“Living in Florida, you sort of have to learn to become a girl,” says Amy, who played softball and soccer for much of her youth in Minnesota. “Maybe it’s not so much Florida, it’s the age. I still don’t have my ears pierced. I even have trouble putting makeup on right.”
Amy has either found a comfort zone or she hides her discomfort well. She strolls the campus as if she owns it. During a break between classes, she’s arm-in-arm with a guy named Joey. At another, she’s slapping hands with a different boy. A couple of guys have nicknamed her “Ducky.” To Amy, everyone, guy or girl, is “dude.”
Over lunch — a Rice Krispie bar, fat-free chocolate pudding, a blueberry muffin, thin pretzel sticks and an apple — Amy mentions a girl she once considered a great friend, but now says, “I don’t like her, I don’t like being around her or having anything to do with her.
“I don’t like classifying people or putting them in little holes, but I feel (this girl) is just saying, `I’ll go against my parents because that’s just what teen-agers do.’ I’m sorry, but that whole teen-age rebellion thing is so hackneyed; they just jump on the anarchy bandwagon,” Amy says.
“I admit I’m being judgmental,” she says, “but innocence is an important virtue you don’t see anymore. I’m an extremely practical person. I don’t wear `WWJD’ or have a fish on my car. But if I think some things should be seen from a religious standpoint, that’s my prerogative.”
Still, Amy relishes her self-image as a nonconformist. For months, she’s looked forward to senior skip day as an act of rebellion. Now, a day away from it, she’s stunned to learn most of her friends are planning to come to school.
“Are you going to call yourself in sick?” one friend, Mike, asks Amy.
“If my mom doesn’t do it for me,” she says.
“I hear you need a doctor’s note to get excused,” Mike says.
“No way!” Amy says. “They can’t do that to me.”
On the way back to class, Amy asks another friend, Stephanie, what she’s up to for the big day.
“Nothing. I’m gonna be in school,” Stephanie says. “You’re going to be, too, because these parties are lame.”
“I’m not going to be in school,” Amy says, coming to an abrupt halt in the hallway. “I’m determined to finally not be here.”
ANARCHY FROM AMY
It’s skip-day Friday, with 80 degrees and sunshine in Fort Lauderdale. After a round of telephone volleyball, Amy has decided to kill the afternoon in a mall with two girlfriends, Carla and Amanda.
Carla has dark hair and naturally bronze skin, and she’s wearing a black top over three-quarter-length rust-colored pants. Amanda has long, straight blond hair. She’s wearing tight black pants and a shiny blue Lycra top that, at the sides, exposes just a bit of skin.
There’s nothing like that in Amy’s ordered closets. She’s wearing pretty much the same thing she wears on any school day — faded jeans, a white T-shirt and white Adidas sneakers with yellow trim. Untied shoelaces are her only bow to contemporary fashion.
“Look, Amy — Kamasutra,” Amanda beams, holding up a bottle of body oil from one of the mobile carts that block the middle of every mall. Amy lets out a breath of mild disgust, shakes her head and keeps walking.
A few stores down, at Express, Carla and Amanda attack the racks while Amy thumbs at them. Carla pulls out the shortest of jeans shorts.
“Amy, wanna try these on?” she says. Amy’s jaw drops.
“Hey, Amy, what about these?” Amanda says, holding up a pair of slim, white, three-quarter-length pants. “These are cute.”
Tight-lipped, Amy folds her arms across her chest.
“Amy, you’re not adventurous at all,” Amanda says.
Amy knows there’s a difference between chastity and being a prude, and one of her greatest insecurities isn’t whether others see her as uptight, but that her uneasiness with sexuality is stunting her growth.
When Amy was little, her parents wouldn’t let her watch Smurf cartoons because one character was a sorcerer. They now discourage Amy from watching “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Friends” and other shows that, in her parents’ view, condone casual and premarital sex.
“I think it’s one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with the subject of sex,” Amy says. “My religion took away my freedom to do what other teen-agers do, and moving to Florida helped me learn it’s difficult sometimes to have a belief. My church in Minnesota, the kids don’t know what a great youth group they have. They’re all such good friends there and it makes them stronger to embrace what they believe. Here, kids go to youth group more to see their friends and get away from their parents.”
Amy makes a beeline for the Gap. She’s looking for a long skirt and a short-sleeved top to go with it. “They have more cotton there,” she says.
Conversation turns to a boy named Tony, the youth pastor’s brother who asked Amy out last night. Amy wouldn’t go out to dinner with him alone. She doesn’t know him well enough, she says, and it would be awkward.
“Do you think Tony’s cute?” Amanda asks Amy.
“Then, why do you like him?”
“I love his personality,” Amy says. “We’ve read the same books, and he reminds me of this kid I used to know in Minnesota.”
“How well do you know his personality?” Amanda asks.
“Ummm, well, a half-hour every Wednesday night,” Amy says. “So it’s been six hours.”
Amanda smiles. “Gosh, Amy, I wish I could be more like you.”
Amy thinks for a moment.
“But how come (you think) every guy I like is so ugly?” she asks.
“I give you permission to like Adam,” Carla says.
“Are you kidding?” Amy says. “I hate him.”
“He’s nice,” Carla says.
“He’s a jerk.”
TOO SMART FOR HER OWN GOOD?
During eighth grade, about three weeks after moving to Florida, Amy was so bored with Spanish class that she scrawled “Teacher Sucks,” in Spanish, on the chalkboard.
She wrote it with her left hand to disguise her identity, but it didn’t matter — the teacher caught her in the act, and Amy had to apologize and repent in front of the class.
Amy found physics so boring last year that she would stand up during a lesson and yo-yo.
Reflecting on these incidents makes her nauseous, Amy says, because of the residue she thinks they left on others.
“I get mad at teachers, but I feel so bad for them,” Amy says. “I mean, I’m supposed to be the smart one. Maybe five other kids saw me do those things and figured, `Hmm, if she doesn’t have to pay attention, maybe I don’t have to.’ ”
Mary Bevilacqua has rarely known a student with more fire than Amy during her 18 years teaching at Western High School.
“She doesn’t suffer fools lightly,” Bevilacqua says. “She’s so bright that she doesn’t have time for anyone not as bright — she’ll scream across the room to tell someone how it is — but sometimes her own thoughts are so rigid that she won’t let other thoughts in.”
Amy and her mother have grown closer since the move to Florida. They laugh together often and Rebecca Christie is proud of Amy’s spirit and ambitions, but she’s troubled by what she sees in her only daughter as an absence of kindness.
“She can be downright mean to people,” she says.
Amy’s mind generates thoughts and ideas more quickly than her tongue can push them out, and she often digresses from one topic to the next with the thinnest lines of connection. Told of her mother’s comment, Amy digested it with a blank face, then sighed.
“I know I’m not a very affectionate person. I don’t hug well; awkward hugs are just awkward,” she says. “But why do I care so much? I get so mad at stupid things. I see kids who are lazy, and I despise laziness. Very few teens have a strong work ethic. They’re so apathetic. You hear it in the music — the ’90s started the whine, and the whiny girl songs are the worst.
“All of our heroes have been taken away from us. People aren’t saying they want their kids to be president of the United States because it isn’t an honorable profession anymore. We don’t look to our parents as heroes; we look to wrestlers as heroes. It’s all fake, and it’s giving them a false sense of security. There’s no sense of community anymore, at least not that I can see here. I respect people who are conscious, who know there’s more out there beyond themselves.”
During senior skip day, Amanda took great joy in reminding Amy she scored a 30 on her ACT.
“I did so good on that test, and I didn’t study at all,” Amanda said. “Doesn’t it make you mad?”
“Yeah,” Amy said. “It makes me wanna smoke some crack.”
It’s not the first time this week Amy has joked about smoking crack; it’s her way of expressing a frustrated hopelessness, that no matter how hard she works, it’s not enough. But the next morning, Amy emerges from the test as if she’s floating. She hasn’t smiled more all week. Amy figures she performed about as well as she did on a practice test, when she scored 33 out of a possible 36.
Putting the ACT behind her is a relief, but with her school’s advanced-placement exams on the horizon, Amy won’t relax for long. The real reason she’s smiling is the phone call she got last night. It turns out Tony, the guy she said no to a few days earlier, has asked her on a first date she can live with: A double-date that night to a Christian rock concert.
Since then, Amy and Tony have filled up their free time with each other. They still haven’t kissed, but that’s just fine with Amy. She’s just enjoying the time she has with him and trying not to look further. Tony is already in college, studying business, and he has plans for foreign missionary relief work.
“He’s hilarious, and he’s definitely a deep Christian,” Amy says. “We both have that tie in our life, and that’s very, very important to me.”
This is Amy’s last summer before leaving for the University of Florida — five hours north of Fort Lauderdale — so the Christies want to build memories and experiences Amy can take with her. The family, including Amy’s two brothers, is traveling to Germany and Switzerland and visiting family in Oregon and Washington. Above all, Amy is most anxious to graduate from college with a journalism degree and “be productive” in the working world.
“I still don’t feel I have a place in Florida, but I’m glad I moved here,” she says. “It helped me get out of that comfort zone, made me experience something that was difficult and challenging and really molded me into my own person.
”I’m happy. I mean, I am, but not really. What defines happiness, anyway? My goal is not to seek happiness, at least not in the way most people define it. Oh, my whole entire thing is so confusing, even to me, that I don’t know where to go with it.”