NEW PORT RICHEY — At two hours long and marked with a couple of stretching breaks, the Gulf High Senior Awards ceremony was one of many celebrations sandwiched into the last couple of weeks of school, along with the yearbook signing party, the senior class cookout and graduation practice.
It was a little much for 10-year-old Mathew Tingley, who took a break from the long ceremony and the hard bleacher seats.
"I'm here for my sister — she got two awards," he told a reporter. "My sister is a genius at everything!"
That's high acclaim for Breanna Tingley. And well deserved. The 18-year-old Gulf High senior has excelled at school while braving matters at home: Her mother, Karen Tingley, struggled with leukemia for two years before her death in March.
Next week Breanna will graduate cum laude with an Art Honor Society honor chord — a feat for someone who juggled her studies while volunteering in the school guidance office and looking after Mathew.
"She just absorbed her mother's role," said Breanna's step-grandmother, Penny Joyce. "To maintain her grades and have done all the things she has done is really something."
"I'm very proud of her," said her dad, Vic Tingley, his eyes welling up.
Breanna was one of many Gulf High students honored Monday night at the Senior Awards ceremony. In years past, senior awards were mingled with the underclassmen's during a daytime gala. But this year, seniors got their own special night.
"This is a very diverse group and I'm proud of their accomplishments," principal Steve Knobl said. "They've certainly earned everything they've got coming to them."
One by one, seniors made their way to the podium to collect their just due — an honor roll pin or maybe a plaque for keeping their GPA at honor roll status or above for all four years. A certificate for volunteering as a Big Brother or Big Sister, or perhaps, the coveted honor chord that would set them apart on graduation night.
Among the honored was Pasco County's Outstanding Senior, Trevor Abbott, who was smiling broadly and dressed in Johnny Cash black as he accepted his first award. Kaylee Wolf, a very involved student council president, picked up a slew of honors including the Principal's Leadership Award.
There was class salutatorian Casey Pereira, exchanging high fives with her mom in the fifth row. International Baccalaureate salutatorian Cody Johnson, draped in five newly acquired honor chords, tried in vain to dodge his mom's cell phone camera. Turns out he's the second in his family to take top honors at Gulf, following his sister Nikki Johnson, who was the 2008 class valedictorian.
How does that kind of thing happen?
"Personal responsibility," said mom Chris Johnson.
There was also a surprise visit from Maram Fsaisi, who collected the school's first Humanitarian Award, which will be given annually to a student who perseveres through adversity to get his or her diploma. A popular student, Maram was stricken with a serious brain injury at school in February. But after a long, hard road to recovery she will still graduate after completing her lessons in a home bound program.
That was awesome news for a tearful Melina Soulounias, who presented Maram with a bouquet of bright-colored flowers.
"She used to babysit my daughter," Soulounias said. "She was in the hospital for a while and now she's graduating. I'm so excited for her."
While this was a night of honors, there was some good reflection, too.
"I love this school. It has a lot of pride. It has a lot of character because it's so old," said Kaylee Wolf, who was recently voted Most School Spirited. "I've made so many memories here. I've made the most of it: homecoming court, varsity volleyball, prom fashion show. I'm so going to miss it. I cried in the car today just looking through the yearbook."
Her mom, no doubt, has a few tears of her own to shed.
"This is our first to graduate, so it's very emotional," Michele Wolf said. "She's been so involved so we've been to everything. Football games — you name it. We're a little nervous, but we're excited that she's going to (the University of Central Florida). She's sad about this ending but she has no idea what she has waiting for her."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6251.