ST. PETERSBURG — They wore sterling blue caps and gowns. They entered to Pomp and Circumstance.
All were accomplished. All ambitious. All loved Jesus.
They were Heritage Private School's Class of 2009, homeschooled by their parents through the Christian program composed of 18 students from St. Petersburg, Largo, Oldsmar and Pinellas Park.
For years, they've gone to school meetings and ice cream socials and homeschool prom together. Yeah, they're Facebook friends. But let's not get too warm and fuzzy.
After all, it's still high school. Distinct social circles and awkwardness abound.
Even in a class of three.
• • •
When Colleen Turner walked to get her diploma at Park Street Baptist Church on Friday night, her steps were measured and sure.
Like her life.
The Kenneth City teen is engaged to be married, proficient at Mozart on piano, on her way to becoming a pharmacy technician.
She got her diamond ring this year en route to church. Her boyfriend knew that she liked Seminole Park. As they strolled, she sighed.
"Man, now would be the perfect time to propose."
"Well," he said, "actually ..."
She'll wait two years, have a modest cake reception and wear a dress she bought for $100 from a thrift store.
"I kind of always thought I'd get married young," said Colleen, 18.
She plans to homeschool her own kids one day, just as her parents did their six kids.
Colleen took her fiance to the homeschool prom. She wore her first short prom dress, a red and black number on sale at Dillard's. She danced a bit, but her music tastes are country and the Gaither Vocal Band. Not dance beats.
She wanted Perkins breakfast after prom but had to get home early. She had a church talent contest the next morning.
• • •
Janelle Sweitzer scampered to get her diploma in strappy white sandals.
"Hey," she chirped at the podium, and read a Bible verse.
At 17, she has tumbles of raven hair and a perfect tan. For prom, she wore a hot pink strapless dress with matching shoes. "I looked like a Barbie."
By age 2, Janelle owned 32 pairs of shoes. She always insisted that her hair ribbons match her outfits.
But perfection is tiring. When she went to a private school, girls trumped one another every day. New shoes, new backpacks, new jackets.
"We were spending a lot of money to have her come home crying every day," said her mother, Beth Albertson.
From fifth grade on, she schooled at home. Her friends didn't understand her choice.
"They say we're not social," said Janelle, who lives near Disston Plaza and wants to be a lawyer. "I feel like we do a lot more than people in high school. I think we make better decisions. We choose better people to hang out with."
Her mom taught Janelle about the pressures of the real world. She knows. She got pregnant with Janelle at 16.
Janelle has been extra wary of boys. She took her best girlfriend to prom.
But she did dance with one guy.
• • •
Dustin Bueller strutted toward his diploma with a swagger. His friends hooted.
During the ceremony, the Tyrone area teen plucked his glistening cherry bass guitar and hammed for cameras.
At 18, Dustin is the youngest in his family — a surprise fifth child with a sense of humor. Once, when a baseball knocked his eye swollen, he came in the house and said, "Yo, Adrian, I did it!"
At 15, he had headaches. One night, he tried to read a book and nothing made sense. Doctors found a benign brain tumor the size of a half-dollar.
He found a verse from James that said trials are joy, because they make you stronger.
"That really, really helped me through. It gave me peace about it."
In ninth grade, he took a girl to a dance. That was boring; he had to stay with her the whole time. This year, he went stag.
"I danced with 15 girls," he said. "I counted."
Janelle was one.
• • •
Dustin figures he'll keep up with Colleen on Facebook and run into her at St. Petersburg College. But she's getting married, so, you know.
He hasn't picked a major yet, maybe something in music.
As for Janelle — all those years, and they never really talked much until a newspaper interview.
High school was already over.
"We started texting a little," said Dustin. They made plans to skim board at the beach.
On stage at graduation, they leaned their caps in, whispered and laughed.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.