Should Kids Serve Time for Skipping School?

Fifteen-year-old Tam Chau hates school. For that, there's a jumpsuit waiting with his name on it at juvie hall.

On school days, Tam Chau, a 15-year-old eighth-grader at Mercer Middle School, wakes up to his alarm at 7 a.m. Then he reaches over, turns it off, and goes back to sleep. His mother, Tuyen, sometimes tries to rouse him, but he doesn't usually listen. When Tam finally manages to get out of bed, he gets dressed, brushes his teeth in the bathroom of the Yesler Terrace apartment that he shares with his mother and 9-year-old brother, and walks down the block to catch the bus to school. If he gets to school on time, which he estimates he does twice a week, he eats a publicly subsidized free breakfast there.

Once the school day gets going, Tam meets up with his friends and decides whether or not to skip. The answer is usually yes, at which point they typically head downtown to GameWorks, where they'll spend the rest of the day playing Maximum Tune 2 or Dance Dance Revolution. When Tam tires of the video arcade, he goes over to a friend's house, where he'll often spend the night. His mother, a Vietnamese refugee who speaks little English, typically has no idea where he is or what he's doing.

Tam, a lanky boy whose wardrobe is anchored by North Face jackets and Air Force Ones, was a decent, if unspectacular, student through elementary school. He even won a reading award in fifth grade. But once he hit sixth grade at Mercer, school got "boring," and he started hanging out with a group of boys who skipped school. Tam estimates that he missed more than 30 days that year, a trend that continued into seventh grade. That behavior eventually landed him in truancy court, to which he has returned countless times for missing more school.

The guidance counselors at Mercer describe Tam as a nice, smart boy with good intentions. (Despite all of the missed school, he managed to pass the WASL.) He doesn't talk back to his teachers or get in fights. For some reason, however, he just can't be bothered to attend school with any regularity. "His education pretty much stopped in sixth grade," says Marion Howard, a guidance counselor at Mercer. "It's been a two-year struggle since then. He occasionally shows up for a day here, a day there, but that's not an education."

Last fall, Tam was hanging out at a friend's house one evening when someone knocked on the door. Tam, then 14, walked into the living room and, to his surprise, found two police officers.

"Who are you?" one of the officers asked him.

"I'm Tam," he replied.

"Do you know you have a warrant out on you?"


Tam considered running, but thought about it too long. The officers handcuffed him, walked him out of the house and into their squad car, and drove him straight to a juvenile detention facility a short distance from his home. There, Tam changed out of his clothes and into a green jumpsuit. The officers walked him past the violent offenders and put him in his cell upstairs.

Not obeying the truancy court's orders was Tam's offense, which subsequently generated a warrant for his arrest. Unlike the other youths in detention, many of whom had hurt, robbed, or stolen from people, Tam spent the weekend as an inmate of the King County juvenile correctional system simply because he had not gone to school.

A few months later, Tam missed another court date and got another warrant. He tried to hide from the police, but they found him after a couple of weeks at another friend's house while he was cooking noodles. Despite all the court appearances and detentions, Tam continues to skip school. "Why can't they just drop me out?" he says. "What's the big deal? They've already tried [to help me] once. Why keep trying?"

Tam is just one of hundreds of King County students who have been jailed for missing school; since 1997, the county has jailed truant youths 974 times. The laws that govern truancy in Washington are collectively known as the Becca Bill, named after Rebecca Hedman. Abused by her biological mother, Rebecca was placed with a foster family in Tacoma, where, despite her foster parents' efforts, she became a drug addict who supported her habit by working as a prostitute. She ran away from a residential drug-treatment center three times, and eventually ended up walking the streets of Spokane. In 1993, Becca's 13-year-old body was found on the bank of the Spokane River, beaten to death.

Public outcry led to the creation of a set of laws designed to assist parents with uncontrollable children. In 1995, the state Legislature signed the Becca Bill into law, offering parents, with the help of the court system, more control over disobedient, runaway, and at-risk children. Recognizing truancy as an indicator for future problems, lawmakers extended the Becca Bill to cover school attendance, too.

"When you get serious about truancy, you can have a huge impact on juvenile crime," says Ken Seeley, president of the Colorado Foundation for Families and Children, which recently completed an evaluation of several city and county truancy programs, including King County's. Indeed, since the establishment of the Becca Bill, King County's juvenile arrest rate has dropped by nearly a third.

Before the Becca Bill, each school district enforced truancy differently—which is to say that they often didn't. Now, if a student receives two unexcused absences in King County, the law requires the school to attempt to schedule a conference with the child and parent to discuss both the causes and possible solutions to the truancy. If the student racks up five unexcused absences in one month, the school can file a truancy petition with the King County Juvenile Court.

At seven unexcused absences in one month, or 10 in one year, the school must file a truancy petition. The court then holds a hearing to determine if the student has in fact been truant. If so, the court orders the student to attend school and stay out of trouble. If the student fails to follow the court's instructions, the court can find him in contempt and send him to detention for up to seven days.

In this respect, Tam Chau is lucky to live in King County, which puts children in detention at a lower rate than other counties. Mercer guidance counselor Howard says her attempts to get kids back in school run the gamut. She conducts home visits, holds parent-teacher conferences, changes schedules, and connects students with counseling, mentoring, and tutoring. She's even gone to students' houses and set up alarm clocks. "You name it, we do it," says Howard. "Sending them downtown is not the first thing we do: It's months and months of trying. The one thing we can't do is take these kids home, parent them, and bring them back to school the next day."

Perhaps not, but for a while, Tam had someone filling that void: Daniel Nguyen, whose wife was friendly with Tam's mother, was used to seeing the boy at the restaurant he owns on Capitol Hill. As Tam got older, Tuyen would tell Nguyen about the trouble she had with Tam. Nguyen, 28, a University of Puget Sound grad who grew up in Kamas, Wash., with all the privileges and opportunities of a small-town, middle-class American childhood, felt compelled to help. "I was trying to offer my experience and perspective," he says. "I wanted to motivate him and be a role model."

Tam and Tuyen have little contact with his father. But every summer, Tam's younger brother goes to Chicago to stay with his father (who is not Tam's). "I've heard Tam's mother talk to my wife and say it's heartbreaking that the younger one's father doesn't outright tell Tam, 'You're not my son, you can't come here,'" Nguyen says. "He just says, 'I can only watch one boy.'"

So Nguyen tried to be the father figure Tam lacked. Before the school year, he and his wife took Tam and his brother shopping for supplies and clothes. He tried to direct Tam away from gangster chic, explaining that no matter how much people didn't like to admit it, he would be judged by the way he dressed. Tam soaked up the attention, and seemed to take Nguyen's advice to heart. One day, Nguyen took Tam out in nonbaggy jeans, a button-down shirt, and nice shoes. As they passed a group of policemen, the boy remarked with amazement, "Hey, look, the cops don't even look at me when I'm dressed like this."

It was Nguyen who took Tam to school on the first day, introducing himself to teachers and counselors as Tam's uncle. It was Nguyen who pulled Tam out of bed every morning and drove him to school when he missed the bus. And it was Nguyen who hunted Tam down at GameWorks when he skipped class, while other Vietnamese parents were too busy working to even know what GameWorks was.

Despite Nguyen's efforts, he would go to Tam's house and find letters from the school for all the days he had missed. When Tam landed in truancy court, violated the court's orders, and went into hiding after his second warrant, Tuyen had no idea where he was or who he was with. Nguyen found him and told the police where to go, though he was terrified when Tam went to detention. "I know with some of these kids, it's like a rite of passage," he explains. "Once they go in, they're cool; they're proud of being part of a certain crowd."

Tam left detention with a very clear idea of whose fault the whole debacle was: Nguyen's. "He tried to change who I am," Tam scowls. "He tried to make me stop hanging out with my friends, change the way I dress. I don't really like him."

Eventually, Nguyen decided he was wasting his time. In November, he told Tuyen he wasn't going to come around anymore. "I was hoping at one point that he'd get caught so often that he wouldn't even try anything else," Nguyen sighs. "Maybe I flaked out too quickly. Maybe I didn't put enough pressure on him."

When another Mercer guidance counselor, Judy Coryell, started her job in 2005, she paid a visit to Tuyen at home. Tuyen told her she wanted Tam to go to school and she tried to wake him, but he wouldn't listen to her. "For whatever any objective person's opinion might be about Tam's mom, the fact is there is a whole range of parenting situations," Coryell says. "It may be that a single mom with two male children, given her life, maybe this was inevitable."

Despite her frustration with Tam, Coryell was loath to send him to court, the Becca Bill's penultimate punishment. "I don't find truancy court effective," says Coryell. Indeed, Tam's numerous trips to court have done little to curb his habits. "They gave me all these warnings, but I didn't listen to them," he says. "School's just too early, man."

When students like Tam don't fit into the system, Coryell says, the system usually gives before the student does. "The idea that you can control these kids, forget it," she says. "By the time a kid gets to eighth grade, if they don't want to be controlled, they won't be controlled. [The Becca laws] are the illusion of adult control. People think, 'Oh, just come down hard on these kids and they'll get in line,' but it's not that easy."

On a Monday morning in February, parents and children occupy most of the first floor of the Denny Youth Center in Everett, waiting for their truancy hearings. The lone public defender, Corey Fitzpatrick, a recent University of Washington law school graduate, shuffles amidst the courtroom, waiting area, and conference rooms, trying to keep up with her caseload.

Troy Florek, 17, slouches in a chair next to his mother with the patient countenance of the resigned. He first came to truancy court as a sixth-grader, and hasn't been let out of the court's clutches since. Now a junior at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, he's landed back in court for sleeping in a bit too much, though he says he still manages to carry a 2.9 grade-point average. "It's not a spectacular GPA, but it's not bad," he says. "I do my work. I pass all my classes. I think it's kind of stupid how they made me come [to court] for missing a few days."

By now, Troy is familiar with the drill. When he skips classes, the school sends his family notification to appear in court, where the Marysville School District representative gives him his options. Typically, they consist of detention alternatives such as the After School Alternative to Detention Program (ASAP) and the Program Alternative to Secured Sentencing (PASS). Both programs transport students to sites where they receive classroom instruction and supervised work-study and perform community service. "It's not really productive," Troy says. "They give you like sixth-grade work, not really anything that has to do with my schooling."

For the 2003–04 school year, King County high schools filed 1,264 truancy petitions and elementary and middle schools filed 498. Despite having approximately half as many students as King County, Snohomish County led the state with 1,367 and 590 petitions, respectively. Many Snohomish school districts don't define what constitutes an unexcused absence. At least one district counts up every missed period and divides by four to calculate absences. Thus, a student who attends school for the majority of each day can still rack up the five unexcused absences necessary to set a truancy petition into motion.

Last spring, while he was wrapping up a week of ASAP, school officials caught Troy with chewing tobacco. That put him in detention for the last day of ASAP, and he spent the night in an orange jumpsuit, locked in a cell. The short stint in jail left Troy, a burly boy who hopes to make a living in Ultimate Fighting one day, shaken. While inside, he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Troy says there were about eight other boys there, some of whom he learned were detained for robbery or drugs. "I just tried to keep to myself," he says. "I didn't want to start anything. I was intimidated. There were some crazy kids in there."

Yet the detention didn't scare Troy straight; it just gave him a clearer understanding of how far he can push his luck. "Because detention is the next alternative if I'm doing ASAP, as soon as I get ASAP, I'm on it," he says. "I just keep my mouth shut and [don't] say anything. It's just amazing what they'll lock you up for, especially after that chew incident."

Though proponents of detention say that it is a last resort, it remains the most popular sanction for failing to obey a court order. "By the time you get through the entire process, you're looking at a very, very small percentage of kids who will spend time in detention because of truancy laws, and they are often our most troubled children," says Patricia Clark, chief judge of the King County Juvenile Court. "Sometimes that allows you to get services for the child and family, and to get the attention of the child so they know you mean business. There are very few instances where this is not successful."

But even ardent supporters of the Becca Bill, such as the Colorado Foundation for Families and Children's Seeley, express concern over the use of detention as a behavior modifier. "We could find no evidence that the kids who get locked up do better," Seeley says. "When I asked [judges] how they knew, they said, 'We don't see them back in court.' Well, I asked them, where do they go? 'I don't know.' Their problem is solved. But the kids could be in criminal court, they could have dropped out of school entirely...we don't know."

One of the best ideas Seeley has seen is what California, Florida, Rhode Island, and Maryland do with truants: They delay driver's license eligibility. "It's very effective," says Seeley.

When a student is put in detention for civil contempt in Washington, the court must offer the student purge conditions, the so-called "keys to the jailhouse" that puts him in control of his own release. But some state courts have invoked the power of inherent contempt, under which they can keep children in detention for longer than seven days, sometimes with no purge condition—and any Becca Bill child is subject to inherent contempt. At least one Washington juvenile court requires completion of detention time on the third finding of contempt, without a purge condition; and another orders 30 days of detention with each finding of contempt. Technically, the court could keep a child in detention until he turned 18, though so far none has tried it.

"In some counties, detention is one of the last resorts, and in others, it's the first or second," says Rose Spidell, a lawyer with the ACLU, which is investigating possible misapplications of the Becca Bill in Washington state. "People often think that 'detention' is just like the detention room in high school, but it's not. This is jail, basically."

It's not just the tail end of the truancy process that concerns Spidell. A child isn't appointed an attorney for any of the conferences or meetings or hearings that take place before a contempt hearing. This means that under the Becca laws, the first time a truant child receives a public defender could be right before getting thrown into detention. Fitzpatrick says she often doesn't get appointed until the day of the hearing, and only then if the child chooses to have an attorney. She then has just a few frantic minutes to review the entire case history with no chance for discovery, or conference with a social worker or educational advocate, or check on what the school has done—by law—to address the truancy other than count absences.

"My personal opinion is that if you're going to have attorneys involved, you need to have them at the front end, too," says Sharon Varnardo-Rhodes, a King County public defender. "You should be involved at the beginning, when the parent gets that first letter saying that they have to come to court, so you can tell them their rights. Because I can't get you out of something you did before my involvement."

The system doesn't look like it will change anytime soon. In 1999, a girl in a truancy case argued for her right to counsel at the initial truancy hearing. The appellate court denied her claim, and the state Supreme Court declined to review it.

Tam eventually would return to the King County Juvenile Court with his mother and a court-appointed interpreter. Diana Ohlsen, a Seattle School District representative, approaches him with a stack of files. "You're here because I want you to go to school," she says. "How come you're not?"

Tam shrugs. "I don't feel like it."

"That doesn't work for me," Ohlsen says. "How are you going to support yourself?"

Tam raises his shoulders again.

"If you don't have the credits, you don't graduate; and if you don't graduate, you don't have choices," Ohlsen says. "The most important thing is to learn to do things you don't want to do, because that's what you're going to do for the rest of your life. What do you think is going to happen if you don't go to school?"


"So what's keeping you from going to school?" Ohlsen asks.

Tam responds curtly: "Tired."

Ohlsen launches into a lecture on time management and the importance of a high-school degree and then drops a court order onto Tam's lap. "I want you to read this and then sign it, and ask me questions if you have them," she says before walking to the next student.

"I've heard it so many times, it gets annoying," Tam says of the lectures.

Tam eventually signs the order and leaves with Tuyen, avoiding an encounter with the juvenile court commissioner, Bonnie Canada-Thurston. A cross between Dr. Phil and Dr. Miranda Bailey on Grey's Anatomy, Canada-Thurston has a way of cutting through a teenager's bullshit. Though she was assigned to truancy court just a few months ago, she has a long history with the court and a reputation for being tough, fair, and passionate.

A few minutes after Tam leaves the courthouse, Canada-Thurston ascends the bench to preside over a contempt review hearing. On one side of the room, a ponytailed girl wearing gray sweatpants, skateboard shoes, and a down parka sits with her public defender, Varnardo-Rhodes. On the other side is her mother, accompanied by a Serbo-Croatian translator. The Bellevue School District representative, Glenn Hasslinger, sits in the middle.

The girl, who requested to remain anonymous, had not attended school for months. Canada-Thurston had tossed out two court orders based on the girl's assurances that new schools would get her to start attending. But since the most recent school switch three weeks before, the girl has not attended a single full day of school. Instead, her mother helplessly reports, she runs around all day with boys and doesn't come home until 10:30 p.m.

Canada-Thurston is not happy to be seeing the girl again. "I remember she told me she wanted to change," she says, shaking her head. "She wanted to go to [a different school]. I said, 'OK, then.' I let her start fresh with me. I don't have the best brain in the world, but is this right?"

"Yes, your honor," Varnardo-Rhodes says.

The commissioner then levels her gaze at the girl. "That should tell you something," says Canada-Thurston. "That a commissioner who told you, 'I came here because I love teenagers,' remembers exactly who you are and why you're here without any notes."

After a halfhearted explanation from Varnardo-Rhodes for the girl's truancy, Canada-Thurston leans forward on her elbows. "Young lady, Monday you're going to be in school each and every class," she says. "You are in contempt of my order, and you're going to purge it by doing all of your work. You go to school and let those teachers help you, or I will be your teachers. And if you miss one class, I'm putting you on electronic home monitoring."

Canada-Thurston has the girl repeat all the instructions, adding: "You're under a lot of pressure, young lady. I'm ordering you to do this. I don't want to have to do this, or put you in jail."

But Canada-Thurston has yet to send anyone to detention during her stint. "She's not going to put you in [detention] willy-nilly," says Varnardo-Rhodes. "She does different things to try and make it work for the kids. Often, she's the first in a long time, or the only one, who listens to them. She's not there for parents or attorneys. She's there for the kids."

After bouncing through truancy court, Tam suddenly decided he wanted to go back to school. "Basically, I skipped so much I got tired of skipping," he says. "There's not much to do when you skip school. Might as well go to school and not waste my time."

He even got his friends to go back to school with him. "I said, 'If you skip without me, it's no fun,'" he recalls. "School is boring, but now it's fun."

But just a few weeks after Tam says he rekindled his interest in school, he gets picked up for riding in a stolen car, earning himself a new court date and a potentially long stay in detention. Less than 24 hours before heading back to court, the reality of it still hasn't seemed to sink in, as Tam and his friends wait for the No. 39 bus after school to head into the International District.

"I wasn't driving," Tam explains, "but I still might have to go to detention for 30 days."

"Yeah, man," says Duc Huynh, 14, as he slaps Tam five. "I got one, too."

Huy Bao Nguyen, 14, the shortest of the group, smiles sheepishly. "I'm clean," he squeaks.

"Shut up, man," Duc says, bumping chests with Huy Bao, "before we make you not clean."

This proves to be mere posturing, however, and the boys soon sit down in a row on a railing. A Volkswagen Beetle drives by, prompting Duc to leap up and tap each of his friends on the shoulder.

Tam admits that he didn't start getting into trouble until he started missing school, and says he now understands all the adult concern in his life. "But if they'd just say it once, maybe I'd do it," he reasons. "It's like if someone said, 'Hey, I like those shoes—will you give them to me?' And they asked you that all the time. If they'd just asked once, even though you said no, you might've given them to them later."

Johnson Pham, 14, laughs. "What about that time you were at my house and you wouldn't clean up after yourself after you made some food?" he says. "I had to keep asking you."

Tam smiles. "Well, you kept asking," he says. "That was annoying."

"Dude, when you're done eating something, you put it away. How hard is that?"

Tam concedes the point to Johnson. As the bus approaches, Tam rewinds the past two years in his mind. "They just keep trying and trying," he says. "I don't get it."

For kids like Tam, school district representative Ohlsen still considers detention her most effective tool. "That's the hammer," she says. "That's what makes everything else work."

So far, it hasn't worked with Mariah Underwood, a 14-year-old at Mount Baker Middle School in Auburn. Both of her older siblings spent time in truancy court, which didn't give her the best examples when she was younger. "I just copied them," says Mariah.

Mariah's mother, Teresa, says Mariah became so anxious about going to school that she used to vomit every morning before kindergarten. Over half a year in fifth grade, Mariah missed 18 days of school, an eternity. By middle school, Mariah was locking herself in her room in the mornings to avoid school. Teresa tried everything to get her to school, but nothing worked, and attendance became the point of contention that caused Mariah's relationship with her mother to deteriorate. In June, Mariah punched Teresa during a fight. "She wouldn't let me go to a friend's house," Mariah says. "I destroyed everything in the house." Teresa called the police, and Mariah went to detention.

Out of frustration and desperation, Teresa asked Mariah's school to file a truancy petition on her, hoping it might succeed where she could not. "I thought I was on top of this," Teresa laments. "I'm a single parent; I don't get child support, I have to work. I can't quit my job. But I care."

"Sometimes I do it just to make my mom mad," Mariah says of her truancy. "If she doesn't give me what I want, I'll just say, 'OK, I'm not going to school.'"

It's this kind of self-destructive teenage logic that reminds Clark, King County's chief juvenile court judge, why the Becca laws were created. "When you're don't have all the information necessary to make [lifetime] decisions," she says. "Nor, according to research, are all the brain parts there. At some point, those who are older and wiser need to make those decisions, one of which is that you need to go to school."

Teresa is the kind of parent the Becca law framers had in mind, but truancy court hasn't effected the change Teresa was hoping for. "They'll be like, 'It's important to go to school, you need your education to get a good job, blah blah blah,'" Mariah says. "I've heard it so many times, and nobody gets that they can keep saying that and nothing will happen. They just need to stop sending me to court. That's what they need to do.

"I've been skipping school since fourth grade," Mariah continues. "Nothing's been accomplished. Why keep making me go?"

The most recent court order required Mariah to attend 20 consecutive days of school. But last month, Mariah walked out of an assembly, got caught, and ended up calling her principal two names that earned her a five-day suspension, violating the court order. Mariah hasn't been back to school since. "If you screw up, why keep going?" she says. "You've already messed up."

The problem, Teresa says, is that the process doesn't come down hard enough, quickly enough. "They need to do it right away, not drag it out," she says. "When you want it to work, it doesn't, and when you do...there's no continuity, no rhyme or reason to it. It's so ambiguous. I feel like a Ping-Pong ball."

Indeed, a 2004 report by the Washington State Center for Court Research found that many juvenile courts are slow to impose sanctions. Some schools admitted a reluctance to report truancies because they didn't feel the truancy process carried any real consequences. "I think there has to be another way to deal with young people who don't want to go to school," Varnardo-Rhodes says. "Detention should not be the deterrent. Some kids don't care if they go, so how does that deter them?"

But when pressed for suggestions, Fitzpatrick struggles for concrete ideas. "I don't know the alternative other than taking the focus off the courts and putting it back on the schools and family," she says.

The Underwoods decided not to wait for the state to come up with another way. At the end of March, Teresa decided to home-school Mariah. "I can do it," Teresa says. "I will work and I will do it."

Despite misses like Mariah, Clark insists that the laws have been a success. "The object is and has been to change the culture of whether or not a child has to go to school, and I think the Becca laws have done that," she says. "I think if you talk to the average child out there, they have a clear understanding of the enforcement process that's supposed to happen if they don't go to school on a regular basis."

Tam manages to avoid detention for the stolen-car incident. Instead, the court gives him six hours of community service—which he doesn't complete—and he continues to pinwheel through his days with little direction. "I don't know how to do community service," he says. "I don't bother trying."

On an April afternoon over spring break, Tam meets up with Johnson, Duc, and Johnson's cousin Sang Nguyen, 14, and his girlfriend, Thy Hong, 16. The teens follow Tam as he gets a haircut and then to Uwajimaya Market, where they occupy a table in the food court.

Thy, who says she receives straight A's in school, shakes her head when the boys talk about skipping school. "I like going to school," she says.

She didn't always like it, though: Thy used to be even worse than Tam, constantly cutting class and getting into fights. She ended up in truancy court a couple of times, which, along with her family, helped her change. "I saw how much I hurt my mom, and I had a little brother and sister that I wanted to be a good example for," says Thy.

Thy, who says she plans on attending college, dismisses Tam's excuse that school is boring. "Sometimes it's boring, but when I get the work and I understand it, it starts to get easy," she says. "If you skip, you get behind, and it gets hard."

Coryell's belief in Tam's ability to be a good student and productive, responsible citizen has never diminished. But she likens Tam to a billiard ball, bouncing randomly around a pool table. "It's kind of like how the table has an edge around it that keeps the ball on the table," she explains. "You just hope that they'll run into enough people, keep hitting that wall, some adult that sends them back in a good direction, and they eventually figure it out."

The group gets bored of Uwajimaya and decides to head downtown to GameWorks. While on the bus, a man in the back pulls out a long pipe and a glass bong with the price tag still attached. He takes practice hits from them, testing their seals.

"Whoa," Johnson exclaims. "He's got a bomb."

"You mean 'bong,' dude," the man says. "Don't say 'bomb.' They'll think we're gonna blow up the bus or something."

The boys get off a few stops later and walk into GameWorks. "That's some crazy stuff," Tam says, shaking his head. "I think those guys are potheads."

Tam admits that he does dream of being successful. When asked what he'd really, really like to do, he responds that he would love to design video games. "RPGs, shooters, race games, all that stuff," he says.

Someone points out that he probably can't do that without some sort of education. Tam cocks his head and flashes a sheepish smile. "I told you, it's just a dream," he says.

Tam jumps on a Dance Dance Revolution game and selects a song, all but drowned out by the thumping house music emanating from another game. His feet move faster and faster as the instructions scroll across the screen at blinding speed. Somehow, he manages to keep up, and snaps off long strings of perfect combinations, hiking up his jeans every so often. The small room fills with the sound of his shoes stomping down to choreography that only he knows, music that only he can hear.

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