TAMPA — Natalie Fontanes and Kierra Potts stood among the gathering crowd of Land O'Lakes High School seniors, chatting Friday afternoon as they all waited to get inside the staging area at the Tampa Convention Center for their graduation.
"I'm nervous. Excited, I guess," said Fontanes, 18, who plans to attend Florida State University in the fall. "It's on to the big world now."
Their gold (some frowned mustard-colored) gowns over their arms, they talked about how they grew up together, how they made it through 13 years of school and to the precipice of something new.
"We're finally here," said Potts, 18, who will go to Florida Gulf Coast University. "It's exciting to get it over, and to make the memories last."
Nearby, a group of boys fidgeted as they looked for family members and joked around.
They said they would remember friends more than anything after their four years of high school. But the time had come to move on.
"We're all ready for the next move," said Jonathan Valdez, 17, who heads to Hillsborough Community College. "It's college, and then wherever it takes me from there, which is only going to be success."
The doors opened at 4 p.m., and the eager (or, in many cases, anxious) graduates-to-be entered.
"It still hasn't registered that I'm done," said Sara Dooley, 18, who will attend Pasco-Hernando Community College. "I'm nervous. We're kind of thrown out there now. This is the real deal."
She said she couldn't sleep the night before, she was so excited.
Becca Brown laughed. She said she had just one thought in mind.
"I'm like, don't trip, don't trip, don't trip," said Brown, 18, who will study American Sign Language at the University of South Florida in the fall.
While waiting for their moment, the students took group shots with their cell phones. They hugged and shook hands.
They wrote the correct pronunciation of their names on cards for the announcers on stage.
Many debated the proper way to wear their caps, and which side to hang the tassel from.
Jason Pak and Rachel Clark stood in the hall under the bleachers where family members and friends tested camera angles and saved seats for the rest of their parties.
The two were getting some cooler air while preparing to sing the national anthem for the ceremony.
"I see this graduation as a step toward going into a new life," said Pak, 18, an International Baccalaureate student who will attend the University of Florida. "High school going into college is a huge thing."
He, like so many others, praised the Land O'Lakes teachers for helping him learn not just about academics but also about life.
Clark, 17, said graduation had her petrified — she didn't want to fall — and very happy "because it makes my mom happy that I am graduating."
She looked forward to studying at the University of Virginia semester at sea, and then to whatever comes.
The minutes ticked toward graduation. The room temperature seemed to rise.
The Class of 2011 tried to find ways to pass the time.
Tigris Haran helped Shahrzad Karimi put on her tassel (is it the right side or the left?) while Karimi helped Haran figure out the best way to show her academic excellence medallion.
They both said they felt ready for life at USF, where they're both headed, thanks to the rigorous work that IB offered them.
"It's a good socialization, and it really helped prepare us," said Haran, 18.
At 4:50, the students lined up — 180 to the left, 180 to the right — to get ready for their grand entrance. Then again came the question: Which side for the tassel?
Assistant principal Richard Batchelor said left to right, but then shrugged as if unsure.
Austin Figga pulled out his phone and tapped some keys.
"Google says right," said Figga, 17, who heads to Hillsborough Community College in the fall. "Google said right. It has to be. Google was the way through high school."
The line tightened up. A few stragglers raced in. "Let's go!" someone shouted loudly.
A voice inside the hall announced the time had come to welcome the Class of 2011. The first tones of Pomp and Circumstance filled the air.
And the graduation had begun.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.