NEW PORT RICHEY — At 8 p.m. Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times Forum rocked as Republicans neared the climax to their national convention — the nomination of Mitt Romney for president.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stood backstage, ready to talk about education. The big screen lit up with a slick 106-second video featuring children — "the next generation of Americans" — who the narrator said had "the drive to reach their dreams. Will they be equipped to pursue them?"
"I want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg," said 13-year-old Abi Williams as she walked through a crowded school hall.
"I want to be a teacher," said Laura Agudelo, 12, with a confident smile.
Friday morning, the children were still enjoying the attention at their New Port Richey charter school, Dayspring Academy.
"Do you know how many people watch the Republican National Convention?" asked Kasey McNaughton, a 13-year-old with dreams of Broadway. (Nielsen estimated that 21.9 million viewers tuned in to the several networks showing the convention's final night.)
Kasey had no lines in the video. But she was fine with that, she said. "I was just an actor."
That's right. The kids made no bones about it as they excitedly talked about their experience. The lines were scripted.
Abi, who in the video wanted to be like Facebook founder Zuckerberg, said she really wants to be a pediatrician. She said she had to ask who Zuckerberg was.
"When I first got there, I was like, 'Why do they need me?' " she said. "Then I looked at the script. I went to my line and it said, African-American girl. I'm like, 'This is why.' "
She and her friends laughed at the story. But it was serious business for the Republicans, who have a recognized gap in minority group support.
"They really wanted ethnic diversity," said art teacher Kelly Covic, who helped organize the students for the filming.
Jack Abberger, another aspiring actor, had to repeat his line — "I want to be the next Stephen King" — at least 50 times. The directors wanted to hear it with different inflections each time, said Jack, 13, who actually considers himself a mediocre writer and hopes to be a professional athlete.
"By the final time, I just placed my head on my desk. I was so relieved," he said, adding with a grin that he accidentally said "Stephen Hawking" in one of the takes.
The lengthy day of filming then gave way to anticipation. Would the video air? Would they be in it? Would it show up on television or just on the convention floor?
Hope Greenier intently watched the events unfold on her television as the time for their debut neared. She was waiting for that moment.
Then came the tinkling piano music and images of Americana, with the narrator's deep intonation, "What is this American dream?"
"I thought, Maybe this isn't it," Hope, 13, related Friday morning. "Then my ring showed up, and I was like, 'That's me!' Then they showed my face."
She scrambled to Facebook, where she quickly updated her status to let everyone know she had just been ON NATIONAL TELEVISION for two seconds. Several of her classmates were doing the same thing.
Then they spent time rewinding and watching again, showing it to their friends.
Forgot to hit the record button? It's on YouTube, too.
That's how Devon Rivera knew they had made it.
Several of the students' friends, family members and acquaintances saw it, as they quickly learned.
"I usually go to my friend's house (each morning) and they'll drive me down to the bus stop," said Tyler Corbin, 14. "His dad was there and he opened the door and said, 'I want to be a scientist.' "
That was Tyler's line.
He said Friday that the entire experience, from the long hours taping and waiting, to the tired next day at school, to the ultimate showing, was totally worth it — a feeling that everyone shared.
If only, they said, the school could now could get a similar gig for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
"I want to go to North Carolina so bad," Kasey said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.