For nearly a decade, three friends have been almost inseparable and now, by choice, they are headed in different directions. They're not sure how they'll handle the parting, but they're certain their friendship will remain solid.
Academy at the Lakes seniors Nikhil Ferris, 18, Daniel Pitcairn, 17, and Michael Setteducato, 17, are so tight that school staff members and other students refer to them as "Three," as though they're one unit.
"When we have a project that needs help, a campus tour, volunteers — anything that we need — we just put out a call for Three," Mark Heller, Academy at the Lakes headmaster, said with a laugh.
"We always know who will help," Heller said, adding that when they graduate, there's going to be a huge vacancy at the Academy, a college prep school with about 400 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12.
Nikhil, son of Rashmi and Vijay Ferris of New Tampa, will head to Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel, son of Debbie and John Pitcairn of New Tampa, will take on studies in international relations at Yale, joining a sister already there. And Michael, son of Marianne and Nick Setteducato of Lutz, will take on academics at Johns Hopkins, with a long-range goal to be a physician.
All three received early acceptance at their first-choice schools and are looking forward to the challenges ahead.
"My feelings are mixed, a little bit intimidated by Yale but also very excited," Daniel said.
Michael nodded in agreement: "I know I'll be among the best and it will be exciting."
"We've spent the last four years preparing for this. We've learned how to interact with all ages and to integrate with all kinds of students. We are definitely ready," Nikhil said.
Daniel's been at the Academy since second grade; Nikhil since third and Michael since fourth.
So what makes such a long-lasting friendship for young children growing into teenagers?
"We all like many things," said Daniel, an athlete who plans to try out for the Yale soccer team and recently played a key role in HMS Pinafore, the Academy's annual drama performance.
"We all want good grades," added Michael, who also handled a leading role in the recent drama, is a vocal soloist and on the school's baseball team.
"We're all driven within ourselves and our own personal goals exceed even the goals our parents have for us," said Nikhil, who is active in athletics and is an accomplished pianist and conductor.
They acknowledge their similarities but also note their differences and eagerly discuss their views of politics and religion. Daniel's the liberal thinker, Nikhil is the conservative and Michael says he tends to lean according to issues discussed.
"Michael's often the peacemaker in political discussions," Heller said as the boys erupted in laughter.
Michael's solid in his Roman Catholic beliefs, something Daniel respects and sometimes finds frustrating compared to his Unitarian Universalist background.
"My religion teaches that we find our own spiritual journey. I don't always feel a solid background like I see with Michael, who is always very sure of things," Daniel said.
Graduation will be a time for celebration — and a time to say goodbye. As Heller looks at "Three," his smile fades and his face grows sad. "They've been the core for a long time," Heller said, his voice almost breaking. "It's going to be a big spot for other students to fill."
The conversation grows solemn as the boys consider each other closely, realizing their days together are numbered. Daniel will be the first to leave for Yale in mid to late August. Michael moves in at Johns Hopkins on Aug. 28 and Nikhil will check in at Wharton on Sept. 3.
The miles might separate them, but they'll be just a phone call away from each other.
"It's hard to grasp that we have a friendship this deep," said Michael. "No distance can separate us."