BROOKSVILLE — The kindergarten valedictorian stood before the crowd and made a proclamation that seemed bold for a boy of 5 or so.
"I am a young black man with serious goals," Dell Barnes Jr. told the audience at Pilgrim Christian Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y. The crowd ate it up, Barnes recalled last week. But he meant what he said.
Now 17, Barnes will cross the stage at Nature Coast Technical High School today near the top of his graduating class of 315 and boasting a well-rounded resume.
President of the Student Government Association. Varsity letter in four sports. Prom king. McDonald's Employee of the Month.
In the fall, Barnes heads to the University of Central Florida to study international affairs, marketing and business. He has given plenty of speeches since that kindergarten moment in the sun, but he continues to draw inspiration from that first taste of oratory.
"Ever since then, if I ever got down, I would think about it and it would put me on the right track," he said.
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A potent mix of academic rigor, sturdy work ethic and trust in God's guiding hand runs in the Barnes family.
Dell Barnes Sr. is a computer technician at Brooksville Elementary School and a counselor at Eckerd Youth Camp. Sherylene Barnes is an English teacher at Brooksville Elementary.
When the family was still in New York and the elder Dell was on the verge of a deployment to Iraq with the Army Reserves, Dell Jr. came to Spring Hill to live with his grandmother and started the 7th grade at Powell Middle School. Dad didn't have to go to the Middle East after all, and the rest of the family moved to Hernando about a year later.
Barnes was elected class president at Powell and lunched on a regular basis with then-principal Earl Deen to talk about ways to improve the school. As an eighth-grader, Barnes gave a state-of-the-school speech one day that amazed the audience, recalled Marguerite Kling, who taught at Powell at the time and now teaches social studies at Nature Coast.
"Mr. Deen looked at me and said, 'I don't want to follow that,' " Kling said, laughing.
Barnes' government work continued at Nature Coast, where he served as freshman class president. Barnes held the position of SGA vice president last year and president this year, along with duties as senior class treasurer.
He played basketball, football, and ran track. He hefted iron as a member of the weightlifting team. Then, during his sophomore year, Barnes told his parents he wanted to scale back the athletic involvement.
"He said, 'I want to concentrate on my academics. I want to bring my grades up,' " Barnes Sr. recalled. "It threw me back, but we told him we were behind him 100 percent."
When Barnes started at Nature Coast, he entered the allied health program with dreams of becoming a cardiologist. He recently passed the exam to become a certified nursing assistant, but has changed his career goals. While he plans to use his CNA certificate to find a part-time college job, Barnes now wants to travel the world as a foreign trade representative and marketer for the U.S. government.
"I feel I have great oratory skills and a great sense of persuasion, so that career could really suit my personality," Barnes said, then laughed. "I love giving speeches, and I love to put on a suit."
Last summer, Barnes was tapped to participate in the American Legion Boys State program at Florida State University. The one-week leadership course in state and local government offers male high school juniors a hands-on civics lesson. Barnes served as school superintendent, city mayor and a member of the House of Representatives.
"That really gave me an extra spark," Barnes said. "I learned never to doubt myself because the competition was so fierce.''
Barnes has the respect of his Nature Coast peers. He was voted Best All-Around Senior (and Best-Dressed, too). But his influence apparently extends beyond his class.
About midway through this school year, Kling asked a social studies classroom full of freshmen to identify the qualities of a leader. After students gave a few answers like integrity and dependability, a girl raised her hand and said, "Dell Barnes."
About midway through his junior year, Barnes got a job at the McDonald's on State Road 50. He worked just about every station, from grill to front counter. "That was pure ambition,'' he said. "I wanted a car."
He managed to juggle the job and dual enrollment at Pasco-Hernando Community College to earn at least a semester and a half's worth of college credits.
Barnes will also have plenty of financial help. He won a Bright Futures scholarship, and a $57,000 ROTC scholarship will cover housing costs and provide a stipend for books and other expenses. He also was awarded the $1,000 Simon Toftegard Scholarship created in honor of the 16-year-old Nature Coast sophomore and standout tennis player killed in a traffic accident last year.
On Sundays, Barnes works the early shift at McDonald's so he can help his father, who also is a pastor, set up and run his fledgling Pentecostal service at the Holiday Inn in Spring Hill. Barnes plays drums, his 10-year-old brother Dheron plays piano, and 8-year-old sister Destiny dances.
"I really rely on God," Barnes said last week as he talked with a reporter in the school media center about his school days and his future. "Without him, I wouldn't be able to do any of these things I have accomplished."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.