Nikki Johnson and Courtney Cohen were feeling a little punch-drunk, battered by two days of advanced placement testing. They were out late the previous night at a Rotary Club banquet that honored top students, and Nikki fueled herself with coffee and sugar packets just to keep going.
So the morning of the valedictorian/salutatorian photo shoot was one of giddy respite.
"I probably should say something smart-sounding," Courtney said as Nikki let go of a laugh.
"She's always saying stuff like that," Nikki said.
She should know. The two have been best friends since sixth grade. That's when they started making plans to share the top spot as co-valedictorians. It didn't quite work out that way, but they came close.
And remained close.
"It's kind of hard to do that when you're competing," Nikki said. "It's caused a few rifts but we've always been able to work it out."
Even when they've felt a little spent amid all the end-of-year-testing.
"I'm glad we're in this together," Courtney said. "I don't think I could get through this if we weren't."
Courtney, who figures she'll be ready to take a broadcasting job on the Today show just as Meredith Vieira is ready to retire, was the first female kicker to play on the varsity football team at Gulf High.
"It's probably the best experience I've had overall; totally different than anything I've done," she said, noting that she got knocked down only once. "It was definitely interesting. All the guys (on the team) were great."
As for Nikki, she has her sights set on becoming a surgeon. One of her proudest feats at Gulf High was excelling in her advanced placement Language Arts class in her senior year.
"It hasn't been my best subject," she said, but she said she wouldn't be surprised to pull a 5 — the top grade — in the advanced placement exam.
In honor of Jan Ledman, a teacher who brought out the best in her students, Nikki promises to throw a few bad cliches into her valedictorian speech.
"She hates them," Nikki said with a laugh.
Valedictorian: Jennifer "Nikki" Johnson
GPA: 4.476 (weighted)
Future school: University of Florida.
Ideal career: Surgeon.
Most inspirational person: My mother is my most inspirational person because she continually persists through difficult situations and does her best to love and support her family.
Best advice or quote: "Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." Calvin Coolidge.
Favorite place on campus: Mrs. Jan Ledman's classroom because it's an inspirational atmosphere that promotes creativity and learning.
Favorite book: Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Clubs/extracurriculars: Student Council (president), Math Honor Society (president), National English Honor Society (secretary), National Honor Society (treasurer), varsity track, varsity basketball, cashier at Publix.
If you could, what would you change about the Pasco County or Florida education system? I would make it so that final exams would not be necessary for advanced placement students. I believe AP exams cause enough stress and worry and advanced students need less stressful and vigorous work after exams. There is only one exam in college. In an effort to over-prepare, students are being pushed past their limits.
Salutatorian: Courtney Cohen
GPA: 4.25 (weighted)
Future school: Ohio University.
Major: Journalism/broadcast communications.
Ideal career: Journalist/on-air reporter.
Most inspirational person: Hockey player Mario Lemieux, because of his desire to never give up even when the odds were against him, and his dedication to the people and places he cares about.
Best advice or quote: "Stop acting like a girl." Gulf High football coach Jay Fulmer.
Favorite place on campus: The athletic stadium because of the years spent playing on the field, the memories made there and the bonds created between friends.
Favorite book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Clubs/extracurriculars: National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, National English Honor Society, Young Democrats (historian), varsity soccer, varsity football, varsity track, varsity cheerleader, server for Delectables Fine Catering.
If you could, what would you change about the Pasco County or Florida education system? There needs to be a greater focus on banning stereotypes and fixed ideas. Students need to realize that we're all here together and we're all here for the same reasons. Taking the focus from education hurts not only the student, but classmates as well.