SARASOTA — Her grandma made grits that morning. Her mom tied white bows on her braids.
Natalia kept telling them, "I'm going to be famous. I'm going to meet the president!"
That day, Sept. 11, 2001, the president of the United States was coming to her class at Booker Elementary. Natalia Jones-Pinkney and 15 other second-graders were going to read him a story.
"I remember being so excited, driving into school," said Natalia, now 17. But when her mom pulled up in the car circle, Natalia wouldn't get out. "There were all these big horses and dogs and men with guns."
Her mom reassured her, and she stepped out of the car. On her way inside, a man searched her SpongeBob backpack.
Natalia was sitting in class when President George W. Bush walked in. She remembers him waving, then bending to shake hands with her friend Lazaro. "Then we started our lesson, sounding out words. When we were done, our teacher told us to pick up our books."
That's when a man in a suit strode into the classroom and whispered in the president's ear. "All of a sudden, the president looked so serious," Natalia said.
The president stayed while the students read aloud The Pet Goat.
"Then he got up real fast and left," Natalia said.
Some kids thought they had done something wrong. One boy thought the president had to pee.
Their teacher walked out, too, and came back crying. She turned on the TV and tried to explain. But the 7-year-olds kept interrupting: What's a terrorist? What's hijack? Why would anyone want to kill all those people?
They knew something huge had happened. Something bad.
But it wasn't until recently, when reporters from Time and ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC and Univision started calling, that the students felt the importance of their role in history: They were with the president at the moment America was attacked.
Being there on the day the whole world shifted has shaped them in ways they are just beginning to understand.
Mariah Williams, 17
Mariah remembers being worried. Not for herself or her family. For all those people in New York.
She was only 7. She didn't know where New York was. On TV, it looked like another planet, everything covered in ash, everyone running and weeping.
"I really didn't understand it: Why would people want to kill people they didn't know?" she said last week in the courtyard at Sarasota Military Academy. "I realized not everyone is good."
Mariah didn't want to go to the military academy. Her mom made her. Last year, she made captain in the ROTC. She plays basketball at her school. Runs relays on the track team.
Mariah wants to be a veterinarian. She hopes to stay in Florida, where she feels secure.
"I was lucky to have been there that day. Not a lot of people get to meet the president, or get to be part of something so important," she said.
"I wonder sometimes, what was he thinking while we were reading to him about the goat?"
Someday, Mariah said, she would like to visit ground zero. But New York is so far away. That would be a long drive.
Mariah is terrified of planes. She swears she will never fly.
Lazaro Dubrocq, 17
When Lazaro came home that afternoon of Sept. 11, his parents asked about his day. He told them he got to shake the president's hand.
They didn't talk about terrorists or trade centers, or turn on the TV. "They let me play video games," Lazaro said in the wrestling room at Riverview High.
His mom is Mexican, an instructor at the Sarasota Ballet. His dad is Cuban, an artist who paints oils on canvases. "They didn't want me to be scared," Lazaro said.
"But I grew up that day."
The America of his parents' dreams suddenly looked different. "I started wondering, what did America do? We must not be so perfect, if those terrorists wanted to attack us.
"And if we are such a superpower, how can a few people do so much damage?"
In middle school, Lazaro started searching: Why did World War I start? Why did America get involved in Vietnam? "I began to realize the U.S. wasn't completely innocent," he said. "There are multiple perspectives, an ambiguity of good and evil."
He believes he was chosen to meet the president because he worked hard at his reading. Being in that classroom "made me more serious, like I was part of something big. It made me question everything."
He is captain of the school's wrestling team, an A student in the International Baccalaureate program. He wants to go to Columbia University, to study chemical engineering.
"I'm still fascinated by why things happen," he said. "I want to work with pharmaceuticals. I want to make a difference."
Natalia Jones-Pinkney, 17
"I remember my mom picked me up early that day. She was so scared," Natalia said in the front office at Southeast High. "I had never seen my mom scared."
Her mom took her home and turned on the TV. Natalia wanted to watch SpongeBob. But her mom made her watch the news, those twin towers crumbling over and over, all those people screaming.
"I remember just wanting to make my mom happy again," Natalia said.
She is a senior now, a varsity cheerleader. A soloist in the church choir. Member of the drama club. About to become a debutante.
"I'm bubbly. Energetic. Photogenic. A good friend," she said. "I love to perform, to joke around, make people smile."
She believes that God wanted her to be in that classroom with the president, that the experience made her more compassionate. "It's a little piece of me still," she said. "I don't like to see people down."
Natalia hopes to become a TV actor. She never watches the news.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.