NEW PORT RICHEY — It was hot and humid an hour or so before all the pomp and circumstance Friday night as the class of 2008 trickled into courtyard C at River Ridge High for the very last time.
Breanna Daniele, 18, was fanning herself with her mortarboard as friends Meaghan Jameson, 18, and class president Briana Suojanen, 17, showed off their "Thanks Mom and Dad" temporary tattoos.
"No way am I ready for this," Daniele said, as her eyes welled up. "I'm going to cry."
Julianna Lewandowski, 18, all ready in purple cap and gown and silver peep-toe pumps wandered about snapping pictures of herself with fellow graduates.
"I'm going to miss it," she said. "It's so easy to make friends in high school. Once you leave you're on your own."
English teacher Laurie Peterson gathered with the graduates in room C107 to help with last minute details such as bobby pinning those wayward caps, while Travis Henry, the middle school band director, tried to find the owner of the lost cum laude cord he had found.
Outside, Kyle Richards, in an untucked white dress shirt and loosened tie, was catching flak from his friends for his disheveled appearance. Not to worry: Richards, 17, had spent two hours on YouTube learning how to tie a Windsor knot in preparation for moments like this.
"It was just something I figured I needed to know," he said.
Inside the school gymnasium, Michael Maillis' family had arrived early to secure prime seats in the front row, while scenes from the class of 2008 flashed on two big screens to Green Day's Time of Your Life.
"It's exciting. It's overwhelming. It's a relief," said his mom, Dawn Mailles.
The family of Amanda Zampella — her dad, Mike, mom Adriane and brother Michael — were there, too, in a bittersweet way.
Amanda was in the seventh grade when she died in early 2003 from a genetic disease called ataxia telangiectasia.
"The one thing a bereaved parent fears is that their child will be forgotten," said Mrs. Zampella.
Years ago Amanda's classmates planted a butterfly garden on the River Ridge campus in her honor.
There was a place for her, too, at graduation. In the last row, where Amanda would have sat, was a chair holding her picture, a white sash bearing her name, a class of 2008 tassel and a bouquet of white roses.
It took 17 minutes for the 380 graduates to file in.
Then came the speeches.
Principal Jim Michaels quoted Nathanial Hawthorne and Drew Barrymore. Co-salutatorian Tiffany Hull lamented about summing up 13 years in a few minutes. "I can't," she said.
Her counterpart, Brian Schiffer, thanked his teachers "who filled my head with great ideas."
"Maintain a healthy diet," were the first words of advice from valedictorian Jacob Comisky, who showed an earlier, chubbier version of himself on the big screen before espousing on the "importance of beginnings."
Names were called, diplomas handed out, tassels turned — and despite the urgings from their principal, there was Silly String, bouncing smiley-face beach balls and yes, an air horn or two.
In River Ridge tradition, the graduates filed out to the flagpole in the front of the school to toss their caps and help Adriene Zampella release about 20 painted lady butterflies.
"This is for Amanda," Mrs. Zampella said, as the last one took to the sky.
Michele Miller can be reached
or (727) 869-6251.