Longform

Brainiacs

It's just after school on a Tuesday, and Jacob, Chris, Sam and Mike are doing what they've done for the past 12 years: lying around in Jacob Verburg's living room playing video games and drinking Coke.

"It's been this way every day pretty much since kindergarten," says Verburg, a 17-year-old senior at North High School who's lived in the same two-level house on the foothills of what is now Piestewa Peak since he was 4.

"Our basic day is, like, people come over here after school and we pretty much just hang out, play games and eat snacks until about 6 o'clock. Then at 6, my parents get home, all the guys leave. And then basically we work on our homework from 6 p.m. to whenever we finish."

That can be a long night when you're factoring cubed x-intercepts and penning extended essays on Lukacs' "decay of untruth" as it relates to your own experience. Verburg and his buddies Chris Peterson, Sam Campbell and Mike Sotelo are all enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at North High, a rigorous, college-prep curriculum that requires an average of three to four hours of homework per night and plenty of time studying for the advanced-level exams that are thrown at them each week. Yuck.

Nevertheless, Jacob and his buds still find time for a rousing game of Mario Kart Double Dash every afternoon. "Wanna go again, ladies?" Verburg taunts, passing out the other three controllers as Campbell scoots up to the GameCube and restarts it, bringing the familiar faces of Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and Peach onto the large-screen projection TV. "I got the wireless," Mike demands, reaching for one of the newer controllers. "I got the couch!" yells Sam.

It's a pretty idealized boys' environment, and pretty insulated. While Verburg insists the weekends get wilder, with crowds swelling to between 12 and 15 and a few of the Xavier girls they've known since grade school often stopping by, there's little evidence to suggest the boys get heavy into keggers or other typical teenage rites of passage. On this day, the primary concern seems to be who's watching the oven in the kitchen to make sure the lemon squares Peterson's preparing don't burn.

A visitor asks the four childhood friends what they'll all do after graduation, and for the first time all day Verburg looks genuinely clueless.

One of their other pals just got into Yale, but most of the offers so far have been from in-state schools. It's still early in the college application season, but these guys are anxious. "You think you did all this to get into a great college -- and then, I find out I'm just going to ASU!" says Sam Campbell, shyly dodging eye contact through long bangs of scruffy hair.

But the guys just seem happy they've survived high school with their friendships intact. While everyone else around them changed hair styles, personalities, alliances and directions, somehow these guys managed to cruise through the whole thing without even changing which Nintendo character they like to play as.



Of course, they haven't emerged from high school with many new friends, either. At North, the 400 IB students who take special advanced courses in the midst of the 2,000 regular -- or "mainstream" -- students are sometimes called the "IB Better Than You" kids.

One day before the holidays during lunch period, Sam and Mike are found cramming for a calculus exam at their usual table west of the North lunch court and speaking in "IB Zone," mainstreamers' code for language they feel is spoken deliberately over their heads. When asked if they're friends with any of the non-IB kids around them, Campbell admits sheepishly that he's kind of afraid to talk to them.

"We're friends with whoever we see every day," he says simply, only partially looking up from the huge Calculus 2 book open in front of him on the lunch table. "It just happens that most of our classes are with other IB kids."

"A lot of the other groups are kind of divided up ethnically," says Sotelo, who classifies himself as Chicano. "But I don't exactly go out and hang with the other Hispanics. I try to, seriously, but they look at me as different. They go, Oo, you think you're better than us.'"



To which Sotelo adds, ironically, "Jackasses."


Cathy Flesner, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate Program at North Canyon High, another school in far north Phoenix that, with North, is among only five in the Valley that offer it, steps up to the podium in the school's sprawling auditorium and welcomes the several hundred families who've come out on this Wednesday night in October to learn more about the impressive-sounding course offering.