Rachel Hatfield Rahn has a lot to get used to these days.
She has a new, triple-decker name and a new human being to raise. Soon, she'll be moving to a new home in South Carolina and trying to launch a career. There's a new marriage to a husband headed for Army training, and a new social reality to figure out with her friends.
And, oh yes, tonight she'll get a high school diploma with her classmates at Nature Coast Technical High, right on schedule.
For an 18-year-old, that's a full plate, and she's happy to be carrying it. "It's exciting," Rahn said recently. "I'm glad that I'm this far."
Last year, the future didn't look nearly so bright. Pregnant and unsure of what her future held, she let her studies slide.
"I didn't care about anything last year," she said. "I was focused on other things."
Things didn't get any simpler this year. Her son, Elijah, was born Dec. 19.
That meant enrolling in the teen parenting program at Nature Coast, where about 30 students — mostly girls but also a few boys — get a crash course in balancing school with their new parenting responsibilities.
The program provides direct instruction in the details any parent must face — how to burp a baby, how to establish good sleeping habits — as well as help with the challenges of being a young parent. For Rahn, that has meant helping to care for toddlers while their teen parents were in class, and leaving her own child in the care of peers at the center while she studies.
Life is different now. She has less time for endless chats with friends, more in common with people in the world beyond high school. Being a teen parent is never an ideal situation, and many students in the program struggle, said teacher Pat Lonergin. But the reality is that some teens will always need help coping with the consequences of unprotected sex, she said.
"I wish I was out of a job," Lonergin added, wishing for a world in which all teens waited to be parents. "But in their defense, they've chosen to raise their children. We help them be the best parents they can be, and the best students they can be."
Somehow, that's what happened to Rahn. Rather than grow more isolated and immobilized with the birth of her son, she became ambitious and focused. She attended night classes, studied online, did whatever it took to get back on track to graduate. Earlier this month, she won her school's Turnaround Achievement award for her efforts.
"Perseverance, beating the odds," said counselor Carmela Sardogan. "She did everything she could to make sure she came back and graduated."
Her husband, Joshua, was there every step of the way to help. But this summer, Rahn will be on her own, as he begins a new Army career and she adjusts to life as a military spouse.
She doesn't have the highest grade-point average, nor the easiest future. But her teachers say she can do it if anyone can.
"I guess I just grew up," Rahn said. "I just wanted to get out of school and do something with my life."
Nature Coast Technical High School graduates
James Baker Jr.
Patrick Danielewicz Jr.
Douglas Davis III
Paul Falcone Jr.
John Ferrara III
James Hausen III
Michael Liquori Jr.
Jaimee St. Hilaire