When the new school T-shirts came out, Monique Griffin was one of the first kids to get one. White letters scream across the black shirt: "Save Southside!"
Monique wore it the next day, and lots of days after that. She was proud of that shirt — back in December.
When she still had hope.
"We didn't really think they'd shut us down," says Monique, who was in seventh grade at Southside Fundamental Middle School. "I mean, how could they do that to all of us?"
She and her friends wore their protest shirts. Their parents wrote letters, spoke at heated meetings. But in January, the principal told them over the intercom: It was official. The School Board was closing Southside.
"I was in language arts when I heard it. And it made me so mad," says Monique. "It's just not fair that because they have to save money, and our school is small and old, we have to get shut down. Don't they care what that does to us?"
To trim $2 million from the Pinellas schools' budget, the School Board decided to shut down two middle schools and six elementary schools this summer. That means next fall, 2,800 students will have to go to new schools.
Some, like Monique, have been with the same classmates since kindergarten.
"Do they even know what that means?" she asks. To be 13, in the middle of middle school, and have to start all over, figuring out who you can be friends with, negotiating new school rules and hallways — not to mention the lunchroom.
Monique lives in a comfortable home in southern St. Petersburg with her mom, dad and 10-year-old brother, A.J. She goes to church, takes ballet and hip-hop, wants to be a pediatrician. She says she's "sweet and sassy."
Monique's parents found out that Southside kids were being sent to Madeira Beach Middle School. That's 12 miles away! "No way I'm driving you all the way out there every day," her dad told her.
So while most of her friends will go to Madeira Beach next year, her dad said she would have to go to Thurgood Marshall Middle School, much closer to their home. And he didn't want her to wait until the fall to try to get in through the lottery.
Thurgood Marshall has a few openings right now, he told her in January. We gotta get you in there to secure your spot. Monique begged. And cried. Pleaded and pouted. The first week of February, her dad told her: You're moving now.
All that last day, she typed her friends' cell numbers into her phone. Call me! TXT me! They promised they would. But she knew it wouldn't be the same.
That night, Monique's mom got really sick. Something went wrong with her intestines and she had to go to the hospital and have surgery.
"It was too much," Monique says, shaking her head. "All that at once."
She got herself up the next morning, thought about wearing her Southside T-shirt, then thought better of it. She didn't want anyone looking at her. Someone was sure to say Southside is stupid or something. Her aunt picked her up and drove her.
The school was so big. So new. And all these strangers streaming through the wide halls, swarming and laughing and knowing where they were going and talking to friends. They all had friends.
She had made her own lunch, so she wouldn't have to navigate the long line. As she was clutching her brown bag, scanning the room, she heard someone call, "Monique! Over here!"
Her friend Sidney was waving. She scooted her chair over, made room for Monique. Sidney had been at Southside with her, and had just transferred that day.
Yeah, her folks made her too!