SPRING HILL — Elise Boyles had conquered the first two weeks of eighth grade when Hurricane Katrina came calling with a lifetime's worth of real-world lessons.
About 2:30 a.m. on the day the storm hit, Boyles piled into a Ford Explorer with her mother, stepfather and stepsister to flee their home in Slidell, La. Boyles brought little more than some clothes and a box of photographs.
The family headed to Florida and watched images of the Gulf Coast devastation from the home of relatives in Masaryktown. A month later, they drove back to Slidell to recover what they could. The wind and trees tore holes in the roof and ever-thickening mold made the place uninhabitable.
The family was already reeling from the loss of Boyles' 10-month-old brother Logan, who died from complications of birth defects that July. Boyles' stepfather, Jarrod Marquez — Boyles calls him "Daddy" — had been seriously injured on his construction job earlier in the year and couldn't work.
Marquez suggested the family start over in Florida.
"I love change, so I was excited about it," Boyles recalled recently.
Five years and four schools later, she will march into Springstead High's stadium today to accept her diploma with high honors.
"We may have lost most of our personal belongings," Boyles wrote in an essay for the St. Petersburg Times Fund's Barnes Scholarship, "but compared to the strength we discovered we had together, I knew we would make it through."
When Boyles came to Florida the first time, she and stepsister Jessica attended classes at Parrott Middle School in Brooksville.
Boyles missed Slidell's familiar vibe, but the outpouring of support from Hernando residents surprised her. People donated food, school supplies, clothes and school uniforms. A friend of their extended family donated a small white pickup.
When the family came back for good, she enrolled at Fox Chapel Middle and finished eighth grade there. Before she left, her classmates at Parrott wrote her a note of encouragement.
The family found a two-bedroom house in Weeki Wachee, and Boyles' younger sister Victoria, who was living with her father in Ohio, came down to join the family.
Boyles spent her freshman year at Central High. She fell in love with the thespian club. "It's the one thing that's really just fun to me," she said. "I love memorizing the pieces and seeing what you can do with it."
At the time, Angel Marquez was pregnant with Emily, now 3 years old. The family struggled with a tight budget.
"They were there for me as much as I was there for them," Angel, a trial clerk for Pasco County, said of her daughters. Elise helped show the way. "She's always stepped into that leader role."
The family found a larger house in Spring Hill, which for Boyles meant a transfer to Springstead. She hated to leave the acting program at Central, but it didn't take long to settle into her new school. She took an acting class as a sophomore, made the junior varsity cheerleading team and competed with the French Club.
As a junior, Boyles joined the Environmental Club and bonded with the Weeki Wachee River. She volunteered last year for the Relay for Life as a member of National Honor Society and this year as a member of the Interact Club.
She took Drama III with teacher Rebecca Pusta this year. Pusta said she only recently found out about Boyles' struggles. "I was shocked," Pusta said.
Boyles had roles in two short plays based on the tragedies of Sept. 11. In With Their Eyes, she had a monologue of the real-life recollections of a teacher in a New York City high school.
Pusta said she often shies away from having high school students stretch beyond their age range, but Boyles pulled it off.
Boyles wasn't one to constantly crunch numbers to track her class standing. Only this year did she realize the opportunities created by her academic success, said guidance counselor Jeff Perkins.
Boyles has earned about $22,500 in scholarship money on top of a Bright Futures award. She won $1,000 as a runner-up for the Barnes Scholarship given to high academic achievers who have overcome significant obstacles.
"Thank God," Angel Marquez, who is due to have a boy in August, said of the scholarship money. Money is still tight, and Jarrod Marquez is still struggling to get worker's compensation for his injuries.
Bound for the University of Florida, Boyles is thinking about a major in international studies and business with a minor in theater, but she loves the thought of helping people through psychological counseling. And she admits, with a self-conscious laugh, that she dreams of the title of "executive imagineer," a Disney staffer who oversees the design and construction of the company's theme parks, resorts and venues.
Tonight, though, she savors a shining moment born of many stormy struggles.
"I did it."