TAMPA — The graduates weren't supposed to bring anything to the ceremony but themselves and their caps and gowns. So in the days leading up to the King High School graduation ceremony, and the night before at a senior banquet, they quietly disseminated fistfuls of plastic loops, symbols of what their class had lost.
There were two bracelets for Calyx Schenecker, who would have graduated Tuesday had she not died in one of the most shocking killings Tampa has seen. Her mother, Julie Schenecker, stands accused of killing Calyx, 16, and her brother, Beau, 13, in 2011. The bracelets were green, the girl's name branded in the signature font of her beloved Harry Potter.
There was one bracelet for Noah Kushner, who took his own life at 16 the same year Calyx died. His story did not garner as much attention, his friends said, perhaps because suicide is so complicated to talk about. But they wanted to remember him, too, how his feet seemed to tap dance below the desk during homeroom, how he carried a tackle box of favorite things around campus. The bracelets in Noah's honor were blue and said "Tacklebox."
Even though they weren't supposed to, the students teetering on too-high heels and straining to remember how to layer honor cords brought bracelets into the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall to pass out at tables where they perched before the ceremony.
They knew some things defied order.
"Do you have one for Noah?" Justine Cardenas asked Tatiana Henry.
One of Calyx's three best friends, Henry, 17, shared in the willowy beauty's love of Harry Potter. Cardenas, 17, was friends with Noah. But she remembered Calyx from class, how they playfully sparred over what was better — Twilight or Harry Potter.
Lines and cliques had blurred some time ago. When you are a teenager and you lose one of your own, lunchroom drama withers with the discovery that people are impermanent.
Henry handed Cardenas a blue band, which she layered on top of her green ones.
"It's weird," said Cardenas. "You go into high school thinking, 'I can't wait to grow up.' But something like this happens and it kind of forces you to grow up."
The students filed into the auditorium, tassels to the right. Most had been accepted to college, and more than a dozen would join the military. Calyx's three best friends were set to scatter, to Duke University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Florida.
If still alive, what would their friends be doing? The graduates couldn't help wondering.
"He'd probably still be running around, making up stories," said Noah's friend, Lauren Lange. "He loved to write."
Calyx dreamed of going to Thailand to study elephant training, or maybe packing up and trying a dreamer's hand at New York City.
"She was very adventuresome," Henry said. "She'd be doing something awesome that we'd all be interested in hearing about."
Senior class president Jacob Wasserman stepped to the podium. Calyx's father, Parker Schenecker, looked on from the crowd.
"There have been somber experiences here that have led to more lessons for us all outside the classroom," Wasserman said. "Many see tragedies as things that only happen to others, but that is not reality. Reality is what we experienced in our years at King. Our experiences are not things high school students deserve or expect. But our experiences are important and shape who we are now. Life outside the security of childhood is filled with adversity. The Class of 2013 has lived this adversity firsthand. We have experienced the worst manifestations of hardship and tragedy. However, we grew together and helped one another learn to endure."
One by one, the students walked across the stage with bands of blue and green peeking from their black gowns. They took their diplomas and moved forward.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.