Jennifer Hernandez pushed the double stroller across the Hillsborough Community College parking lot Saturday, worried about the impossibly high heels she was carrying.
Would the administrators at Simmons Career Center let her wear her silver flip-flops to graduation instead so she wouldn't risk falling in front of her classmates and family?
Inside, after she dashed to rehearsal, her 2-year-old daughter, Eleidy, danced in circles between two aunts and an uncle. Her baby, Saul, just 5 months old, smiled up at his father from the stroller.
For Hernandez, 19, the journey to graduation was an arduous one, but then she was in good company.
"Everyone you see here has a story," said Sheila Washington, a program adviser at Simmons, one of four career high schools in Hillsborough County.
Hernandez tells hers matter-of-factly.
One of 11 siblings, she came home one day to find police officers everywhere. Her father had walked out years earlier. Her mother later fled, too, leaving everyone in the care of a stepfather.
The kids ended up in foster care.
Hernandez got pregnant. She enrolled in Tampa's D.W. Waters Career Center, which serves pregnant teens. But she missed her family in east Hillsborough, so she got permission to live with her grandmother.
She got pregnant again — this time somewhat intentionally, she said. She knew she wanted a future with Saul Perez, 27, a man she met at church who is now her husband. And, she said, "I wanted one boy and one girl."
Perez, a laborer who was born in Mexico and can't wait to teach the kids to play soccer, encouraged her to finish school. He believed in her, she said, when she struggled with math and when she found it hard to get interested in the reading passages.
She knows she needs to avoid the mistakes her mother made. "I keep that in my head," she said.
But the memories can be overwhelming. So "at the same time, I have to take it and put it to the side."
• • •
For some of the more than 10,000 Hillsborough students graduating this time of year, home is a nurturing place while high school is an emotional minefield.
For students at career centers, which exist for those who are at least a year behind in credits, it's often the opposite.
"They see this as a safe haven," said Washington, who has been at Simmons 10 years and wouldn't want to work anywhere else.
"They tell us, 'This is where I belong.' "
Mariah Taylor, 18, earned her diploma while working nights at her aunt's cleaning business and caring for her 2-year-old daughter.
Both she and Hernandez say they've missed out on aspects of their childhood. Even at the career center, they feel left out when the other students are ready to go out and party.
But the instructors have helped them focus on careers. Taylor is interested in psychology. Hernandez wants to help other teenage mothers.
"Here, I feel like they push you to do better, and they want you to succeed," Taylor said.
The Simmons campus also has a center for students with disabilities, and a teen mother program that shares resources with the career center.
It's such a small place, counselor Andrea Thurston said, that every teacher knows every student. "We don't have a case load of 400."
Standard diplomas used to be rare at the centers, where students were more likely to prepare for the General Educational Development test.
But the diplomas, which provide better opportunities for college scholarships or the military, are becoming more popular now that the state makes it possible to earn one with 18 credits instead of 24. Students often have enough elective credits to complete the full 24.
"That's become the culture of the school," Thurston said. "That's our goal and our vision."
• • •
In some ways Saturday's ceremony was like any other: The caps and gowns, the dignitaries on stage, staffers trying to maintain decorum in the audience.
About 50 students entered to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance. Perez held the baby with his left arm and used his right hand to shoot video.
Hernandez's sister, Yesenia Martinez, 23, scurried to his side in the front row, camera in hand.
There were welcoming remarks. There was a song. There was a heartfelt but lengthy speech by Plant City native and baseball player Kenny Kelly, who urged the students to embrace their fears.
School Board member April Griffin was more to the point, congratulating the students for getting their diplomas faster than she did.
"I was 24," she said. "I'm a high school dropout, and life does give you second chances."
Then, at the very end, came something you will not see at the big graduations.
Every teacher stood in a line at the front of the room so each could hug every graduate, one by one.
Six-foot-4-inch young men dabbed their eyes. Mascara ran down the girls' faces.
Martinez breezed right past the guards and bounded for her sister, taking a picture of every single hug with every single teacher.
Washington and Thurston used the same word to describe the yearly ritual: overwhelming.
"And every hug is individual," Washington said. "It's about Melissa. It's about Erica. You feel accomplished because they are accomplished."
In the auditorium and lobby, like a kaleidoscope, there were variations of the same scene. Graduates posed in their caps and gowns, some clutching babies, others soberly hugging mothers who may have thought this day would never come.
Hernandez stood eyeing her diploma, wearing the comfortable flip-flops, surrounded by family.
Martinez is trying to persuade her sister to attend her school, Southwest Florida College. "It's hands-on," she said. "They work with you."
But Hernandez is leaning toward HCC, and her husband agrees.
So which will it be?
"That's a matter of debate," Martinez said as they headed for the door and a cookout later. "As long as she goes to college."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected]