For Ronnie Jean, 17, regret feels like a greasy sponge. Ronnie feels it hour after sweaty hour, in the Babalu restaurant in St. Petersburg. The Babalu makes a tasty black Angus burger. But back in the kitchen, with its bubbling deep fryers and sticky walls, washing the remains off other people's meals can't help but make a high school dropout think what might have been. "I wasted my life," Ronnie says. On Wednesday morning, 430 of his former classmates will graduate. Around Tampa Bay this week, thousands of other young men and women will do the same. They'll hear endless loops of Pomp and Circumstance. They'll hear family members scream their names. Ronnie will hear the clink of stacking plates. But don't write me off, he says. He's got a girlfriend pushing him. He says he's taking GED classes. He still wants a diploma.
In December 2006, Ronnie and three other freshmen at Northeast High in St. Petersburg were the subject of "Ninth or Never," a St. Petersburg Times story that chronicled their lives during the 2005-06 school year.
John the choir boy.
Quetta the sweet-and-sour girl.
Alex the band geek.
Ronnie the burnout.
This is the year all of them should be graduating. But only one of them will be.
Nobody should be surprised. "Ninth or Never" highlighted the awful burden public schools bear when kids' lives implode beyond the classroom. Ronnie's mom handed him a Marlboro when he woke up in the morning. Quetta's mom fried chicken for herself while her hungry daughter looked on. Nobody in their right mind thinks it's fair for schools to deal with that.
But the story also raised hard questions that don't get aired enough. When parents won't or can't help, then what?
The kids from "Ninth or Never" are complicated, but bright and caring, too. They make you wonder. What if John had learned his multiplication tables? What if somebody had taken Quetta to the dentist? What if Alex's mom had stopped hounding her? What if judges could have put Ronnie into a boarding school instead of a short-term shelter?
Would John, Quetta, Alex and Ronnie still be where they are now?
• • •
The declaration is bold and sweeping. It heralds a new youth ministry, hosted in the living room of an apartment in Largo.
"We're all about raising up our generation and empowering them to use their creative minds, talents and callings that God has given them to impact their schools, communities and homes," says the Web site for Crowns Youth Ministries. "It's time to watch God transform you."
The force behind the site is John Klarides, who dropped out of Northeast High in 2006.
John's mom abandoned him when he was 3. A little church called Faith Assembly of God later became his surrogate family. But after the rockiest of childhoods, even a whole church couldn't keep John on track. At the end of "Ninth or Never," he learns he's going to be a father.
John is 19 now, muscular and tan. He still holds tight to his faith. He still leans on his grandmother. But nothing else is the same.
He's no longer part of Faith Assembly. He and his fiancée never married. Five months after the birth of their son, he married another woman — and now they're getting divorced. He doesn't have a car. He's had trouble keeping a job. He says he passed a test to earn a diploma online, but doesn't have the $249 it takes to get a copy.
His grandmother, Mary Sturm, tells him he needs to go back to school, maybe become an X-ray tech. But "he says, 'Where am I going to find the money? Where am I going to find the time?' " Sturm says.
In recent weeks, John's woes have kept him from spending much time with his 2-year-old son, Logan, who lives with his ex-fiancée. It hurts him, he says. "But I didn't want to be around him bawling my eyes out."
When they are together, father and son snuggle. They take John's Dalmatian to the dog park. They pray.
Logan closes his eyes and says, "Dear Jesus."
Just like daddy.
• • •
At the bottom of the stairs, boys huddle, faces grim. In the same apartment complex, Marquetta Moore cultivates a dream.
Quetta, as she's called, wants to own a nightclub. All the Way Live. Girls will dance in cages (so the guys can't touch them). VIPs will head upstairs. Finally, Quetta says, tired old St. Pete will have something so hot, rappers Lil' Boosie and Yung Berg will come here instead of Tampa.
"That's how raw my club is going to be," she says.
At Northeast, Quetta lashed out at teachers, for reasons no one could fully understand. But after a transfer to Oak Park alternative school, with its metal detectors and clockless classrooms, she began earning praise. Success seemed in reach. Then a rotting back tooth pulsed into the picture. The turnaround faded.
Quetta, 18, is still a mystery, one with a perfect smile and a prickly independent streak. She says she just started a part-time job at the Trop. She says she missed passing the GED by a hair, but plans to take it again. She's still living with mom.
Her bad tooth is gone.
Her temper remains.
A 2008 police report details a fight on a city bus. A 2009 report references a feud, a brick and a window. Court records show probation and fines.
"It's embarrassing," Quetta says. But she can't say she won't do it again. "If somebody says something, I'm going to do the same thing."
In her nightclub, there won't be any fighting. "I don't want my club on the news," she says.
• • •
The black dress is vintage 1940s. Dolman sleeves. Deep V-neck.
"Va va voom," says Alex Wert's mom, Sherry Wert.
Alex wore the dress to her prom Friday. She went without a date. She and her boyfriend of two years just broke up, but her shrug says, His loss.
Four years ago, Alex was the spunky flute player with the hovering mom. Wherever Alex was, Sherry, single and unemployed, wasn't far behind, usually with a camera. Sherry was the counterpoint to the other parents in "Ninth or Never." Alex couldn't stand it.
The result? Alex has a 4.34 GPA, good enough to rank 22nd in her class, and she's headed to the University of South Florida. Scholarships will cover most of the cost.
"High school felt like one huge mountain," Alex says. "And now I'm on top."
In coming months, she'll buy a used car (with money she saved as a food runner at the Trop) and find an apartment. Mom says she's not worried.
At this point, she says, "Alex can take of herself."
• • •
Ronnie Jean was the class clown at Northeast. But at night, he was riding his bike to Alcoholics Anonymous.
He skipped so many days, a judge ordered him into a kids' shelter. He loved it. In 35 days, he says he raised his grades from straight F's to mostly A's and B's.
But old habits die hard. As soon as he got out, he says, "I just fell off again."
Ronnie's still trying to get up.
He attended three GED classes at Northeast Community School in March, but hasn't been back since. The school dropped him.
He can always reregister.
Times researchers Will Short Gorham and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.