NEW PORT RICHEY — River Ridge seniors arrived Thursday morning at Spartan Manor for their senior breakfast, sharply dressed and all smiles for their last gathering before graduation.
Then amid the happy din came a small reminder of reality.
"This will be the last time you will have to listen to me," principal Maria Swanson said as she tried to quiet the crowd. "Come Monday, you will wake up, and realize your high school career is over."
For Desirae Snyder, it has not quite sunk in yet.
"Maybe when midsummer rolls around and everybody talks about having to go back to school, and I won't be going back to school, I think then, I will really feel strange," Snyder said.
Zach Thornberry said the end hit him last Friday, when he joined other seniors forming lines in the cafeteria for check-out day. The seniors returned textbooks and paid fees they still owed. In the final line, they picked up their purple caps and gowns.
"After they handed it to me, they just said goodbye, and that was it," he said. "Nothing more, it was just over. It felt like a punch."
Thornberry said he made it all this way thanks to his mom's support. He wants to be a police officer one day, especially after having dedicated his senior project to writing about law enforcement.
Seniors are required to partner up with a mentor and write a report on a career they may want to pursue. Thornberry worked with the school's resource officer, Cpl. Arthur Morrison. Thornberry plans to enroll in St. Petersburg College and wants to major in criminology.
Anthony "Tony" Koubek said he has thought about college since the seventh grade, when he was awarded the Take Stock in Children Scholarship.
This fall, he will study political science at Saint Leo University.
The 18-year-old said he already misses his friends and some of the activities he was involved in. From the chess club to being the football game announcer this year, he said, high school will be unforgettable.
"I am very happy we all have come this far," he said. "Just glad I will be around to visit, or maybe even continue helping with the football games."
Before the senior breakfast wrapped up, the lights were dimmed and all eyes were on the screen where a slideshow flashed memories of some of the students since they first met in the sixth grade.
Laughter and sighs were heard all across the room.
"If I could give some advice, I would say to really work hard freshman through junior year," Snyder said. "If you do that, senior year will be the most fun time you'll ever have."
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6247.