NEW PORT RICHEY — "Ten!" The underclassmen stared quietly from the second-floor balcony above the cafeteria. Below them, about 300 seniors rioted with goodbyes.
"Nine!" The graduating class screamed and waved. The senior countdown had become an annual tradition at Ridgewood High, old as most of the students now echoing off the walls.
"Eight!" The seniors gathered each year before the last bell of the last day and called out their last seconds. All others, the underclass students, were forbidden, stopped at doors and stairwells by teachers standing guard.
"Seven!" There were murmurs this one would be different. Last year seniors had run laps around the cafeteria, had banged on doors, had hoisted principal Randy Koenigsfeld upon their hands and chanted, "Mister K, Mister K!" With his departure came a new rule: no bodysurfing. That horrible likelihood of high school assemblies, of "being lame," seemed close at hand.
"Six!" But as the clock ticked closer to 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, and the crowd began to grow, the seniors showed no signs of backing down. They started to shout, louder and louder, began to whistle and sound air horns and chant this year, their year — "2010! 2010!" A teacher let his students out and stood for a second sealing himself inside, watching the mayhem through his classroom door.
"Five!" The upper balcony filled with onlookers, some spans three freshmen deep. The crowd shouted for new principal Andy Frelick to be hoisted, to surf, but he backed slowly into the safety of his administrators. Girls and boys took his place, climbing atop the mob of every club and clique mashed together.
"Four!" Tyler Gomez, wearing blue-and-orange argyle socks, surfed. Vinny "Scrat" Salvagno, the leader of the "Ram Rowdies" spirit group, surfed. Coach Reed and coach Kinzel and coach Baker surfed. A roll of toilet paper traced arcs across the crowd, bouncing once off a girl's crafted hairdo.
"Three! Two! One!" The seniors kept yelling now, louder than before, and erupted into a final roar. They paired off with hugs and chest bumps. One student slipped in her flip-flops. Another did a backflip.
With the countdown finished, the crowd's core began to separate. The outer layers peeled off, fringing out to drive home or wait for rides or board the school bus for the last time.
Most stayed, at least for a little longer.
They clumped back into small groups, taking pictures. The spot where they had all crowded, a patch of just-buffed beige tile, was pimpled with multicolored Silly String.
Emrah Hamzic walked to join his friends near a vending machine. During his senior year, as a forward for the basketball team, he helped the Ridgewood Rams go to 25-4 this season, reaching the Class 4A tournament's second round. But with the countdown over, he walked away from the dwindling crowd with slow deliberate steps, his hair covered in sweat, his last hoorah vanishing into memory.
Jesse Passarella, a sophomore, laughed.
"Ours is going to be so much better than y'alls," Passarella said. "Y'alls was wack!"
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.