The students switched off their cellphones, placed them at the door and quietly entered single file into the classroom.
Taking his place at the long meeting table, Arie Fry, 14, an eighth-grader at Tomlin Middle School, struggled to suppress a smile opposite fellow student Colten Smith, 13.
No talking unless called upon by the president.
The meeting, an exercise in Robert's Rules of Order, was officially under way.
This was no ordinary meeting. The four Tomlin and three Strawberry Crest High School students were testing their knowledge of parliamentary procedure, the body of rules and customs that dictate how business and legislative meetings are to be organized.
Next week, they display their knowledge in a national competition.
The group will join a contingent of 100 students and adult chaperones from Hillsborough County on a trip to the FFA National Convention and Expo, Oct. 24-27, in Indianapolis. Thousands of FFA students nationwide are expected to compete in demonstrations of poise, leadership and knowledge of agriculture.
With a little more than a week to go, crunch time has set in.
For 15 minutes, the students — clad in their official "national blue" FFA corduroy jackets — raised motions, made amendments to the motions, debated the merits of each and took votes.
Then came the tricky part: responding to Tomlin teachers and FFA advisers Emily Petrilli, 29, and Jason Steward, 32, who tested their knowledge of Robert's Rules. The two scrutinized the students' answers and how they spoke, even their posture.
"What are the three regular forms of voting?" Steward posed to Ethan Parrillo, 14.
The middle schooler shot up from his seat.
"Um, voice vote, standing vote and silent ballot?" he responded.
Nice try. The correct answer: voice vote, standing vote and a show of hands.
After that plus a few other flubs, Petrilli decided more practice was needed. She wasn't about to let the students head home until they had settled on a date to rehearse again. Overall, though, she was pleased with their performance and commended them. The practice lasted about 30 minutes.
The Tomlin students are competing in the parliamentary procedures category. Their selection to the Hillsborough FFA delegation is unusual. This is the first year the annual conference has allowed middle schools to compete, and the Tomlin group is the only middle school from Florida that qualified to go.
Three of the seven students have moved on to high school, but because they qualified at the FFA's statewide meeting last spring they can still compete on the Tomlin team.
The students were excited, but the competition won't be easy.
"The hard part is all the memorizing," said Colten, an eighth-grader.
For Anna Conrad, 14, a ninth-grader at Strawberry Crest, the judges' questions pose the toughest challenge.
"You never know what they're going to ask," she said.
Winning teams will take home plaques and ribbons — plus bragging rights.
"This means so much more now because we're representing the whole state of Florida," Anna said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.