NEW PORT RICHEY — The royal blue graduation gown — a one-size-fits-most kind provided especially for formal cap and gown portraits — swallowed Alyssa Baladad's petite frame.
"It's HUGE," said Baladad, 18, sporting a grin Tuesday as classmates Chris Seltman and Cameron Rodriguez sifted through an assortment of pressed, white button-down shirts and clip-on ties in the media center at Ridgewood High.
These are pictures for posterity. It doesn't matter what's going on underneath — shorts, jeans, well-worn flip-flops. There's still time before these seniors will break out the formal heels and parade into the gymnasium while the band plays Pomp and Circumstance.
Sixteen days and counting till school's out for seniors, Baladad announced. "If you don't include the weekends."
Between now and then there's lots to be done: Advanced Placement and senior exams, Friday's powder puff football game, grad bash, grad practice, awards night, prom, senior countdown and that last language arts assignment for seniors, writing a letter to a favorite teacher who has made a difference.
It's definitely been a year of change for this year's senior class. New administrator. New rules. Shorter lunches to make room for special critical thinking classes. A heightened focus on improving academic performance at a school that has received three straight D grades from the state.
Even so, for a kid like Carrie Davis, 17, Ridgewood has provided the last leg toward the lifelong dream she shared with her dad to go to the University of Notre Dame.
"We watched all the football games on TV together," said Davis, who plans to study business and eventually go into law. "He's an avid fan."
Best high school memory?
Probably getting that acceptance letter.
"Pep rallies," said this year's varsity captain, Chris Seltman, 17. "And my first ever varsity football game in my sophomore year. I remember that like it was yesterday."
"Spirit week," Baladad added. "The dance-offs."
Cameron Rodriguez, 18, will always remember the time classmates counted Jhamal "Ralphy" Dawkins' dreadlocks — "all 154 of them."
Others will never forget the cool teachers like economics instructor Christine Knoll, who was always ready to lend an ear; and coach Kent Reed, who dressed up as Napoleon Dynamite, Soldier Boy and a rather hysterical Miley Cyrus — cropped shirt, wig and all — during the annual Mr. and Mrs. Ridgewood bodybuilding competitions.
This year there's a talent show planned instead.
That's not always a bad thing — rather something to be embraced for kids like Davis, who will realize her dream this fall when she shows up in South Bend, Ind., and attends her first home football game as a Notre Dame student.
Chris Seltman will trek to Tiffin, Ohio, to continue his football career on a scholarship to Heidelberg University. His friend and teammate, Cameron Rodriguez, will join him there in pursuit of an education and a career as an EMT, paramedic and eventually a fireman.
Jhamal Dawkins and his dreds are headed to Bethel University in Tennessee.
"I'm going up there alone," said Dawkins, 18. "But I'll just have to meet new people."
And Alyssa Baladad will move not so far from home to study environmental science at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.
"My mom's tearing up all the time because she's putting together my grad video. I'm like, 'Mom, it's going to be all right,' " said Baladad.
"It's exciting — a little nerve-racking, too, because you don't know what's coming next," she said. "You know it's going to be different — being on your own, not having your parents make your dinner for you and have it all ready when you get home."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.