NEW PORT RICHEY — Across the stage Friday, the Gulf High School seniors shuffled, loped and swaggered, moonwalked on their toes and wobbled on their high heels.
They shook their principal's hand, took their diplomas, smiled for the cameras: Transition to adulthood now in progress.
This was the easy part, of course, that walk across the stage at a packed Calvary Chapel Worship Center, in front of families calling their names, holding up their cell phone cameras and letting out respectable "woo-hoos."
Each of the 249 Gulf seniors came with his or her own story. "Each of us," said valedictorian Jennifer Johnson, "has been through all kinds of winds."
Here is one story. Susan Donnelly is an honors student headed to Pasco Hernando Community College and is a licensed cosmetologist through her courses at Marchman Technical Education Center.
"I'm nervous. I'm scared," she said before the ceremony. "It's going to be different."
She is soft-spoken, shy and full of potential, the type of kid adults often describe as being in bloom. Her cosmetology instructor, Kellyann Haudricourt, said she "can't stress enough how smart (Susan) is, and most importantly she is such a beautiful person inside."
Not until ninth grade did Susan have stability in her life. She and her three younger siblings are in foster care and moved from one place to another until they settled in with a New Port Richey couple.
At the graduation ceremony Friday, Susan and the other seniors watched a video the school had put together and displayed on two large screens in the auditorium. There were two photographs of each student on the screens, one of a young child and one of a teenager now at the edge of something uncertain.
"What does it mean to hold the future in our hands?" salutatorian Courtney Cohen had asked during her speech. "It means we have the power to shape our lives."
For Susan, it also means that everything is changing again after four years of stability. Next month she turns 18, which means she'll age out of the foster care system. She and a friend are getting an apartment together in Trinity while she goes to PHCC.
She's also working part time at a New Port Richey hair salon, just washing hair, but her boss knows she can do more. Her boss wants Susan to start cutting, too.
Next walk-in customer is yours, she keeps telling Susan. Susan is excited but worried about the challenge.
Sometimes, deep down, she is terrified that someone will walk through that door without an appointment. Sometimes, she knows she is ready when that person does.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.