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And now the future begins

Very soon, high school will be history. Sure, these graduating high school seniors can go back as alumni to see football games, hear concerts, watch plays, visit favorite teachers and maybe, in later years, see their own children attend their alma mater.

But it never will be the same for the Class of 1991.

They'll always be among the former: Former high school honors students, former athletes, cheerleaders, musicians, club members and clique members.

They have been told that in years to come they will wistfully recall their high school experience and relive it in their dreams.

For now, though, their dreams are of the future.

"Everybody keeps telling me that a couple years from now I'll look back and wish I was in school, but right now I have a hard time believing that," said Matt Hafer of Largo High School in Pinellas County. "I don't think so. I don't think I'll be crying."

Still, Hafer and other seniors _ from Inverness to Ruskin and points between _ may find themselves reminiscing at the most unexpected moments: When the radio deejay spins Madonna's Vogue during an oldie's show or when their own children beg to rent Home Alone one more time.

The war hits home

Not all memories will be upbeat. As these students were coming of age, teachers and friends and relatives _ or the friends and relatives of people they knew _ were on the other side of the globe in the Persian Gulf war.

The war, which liberated the tiny nation of Kuwait from Iraqi military forces, caused many to make themselves more aware of what lies beyond their corner of the world.

"I'm one of those people who just goes to school and goes to work. The war made me start to read the papers and worry about my friends," said Kerry Queen of Hudson High School in Pasco County. "I've talked to people who have come home (from the Persian Gulf) and it's, like, reality."

It was the worst part of Sherry Woodruff's final year at Hernando Christian Academy. "Everyone was down," she said.

But Jeremy Tidwell of Crystal River High School in Citrus County, said he never felt directly affected by the war. "I think we did the right thing. It had to be done."

The war did not deter Dave Schramm of Central High School in Hernando County from pursuing a career in the Marine Corps. "I decided I wanted to join while the war was going on, but it had no impact on my decision."

The conflict helped confirm for Citrus High School senior David Houston a chilling world forecast. Like a young Nostradamus, he predicts war in Israel and the Soviet Union.

On the nation's home front, America's sluggish economy forced businesses throughout the region and nation to layoff employees. Whether planning to go straight to a full-time job or attend college, the economy, too, gave graduates reason to ponder.

"It's been hard finding an after-school job this year," said Linda Perez of Leto High School in Hillsborough County. "No one wants to hire. No one's spending any money. With seniors, the biggest thing is gas. We were breaking open our piggy banks to be able to drive to school."

Jenni Phifer of Hernando High School said, "I think I will have to struggle a little more than my parents did, pinch pennies a little more and clip more coupons."

Thornton Wilson of Crystal River High isn't panicking. "I'm not worried about America falling into an economic wasteland," he said.

Whatever the economic future holds, Mike Smith doesn't plan to become a millionaire. "I want to do something that is good and that helps the community," said Smith of Tampa's Jesuit High School. "I don't think that making a whole lot of money is what life is all about."

A diverse class

These students readying to make their mark on the world have backgrounds as diverse as their views.

The North Suncoast counties of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco have predominantly white student bodies, whereas Hillsborough and Pinellas have a greater cultural mix that includes not only white and black students but also Hispanic and Asian youths.

Their futures include vocational schools, community colleges, four-year universities and immediate full-time employment. A random sampling of high schools throughout the region shows popular career choices include medicine, engineering and business.

Not to mention "undecided."

Heather Brunelli of Springstead High School in Hernando County said she has no particular plans and will take life as it comes. "I want to leave myself open. My parents say I can stay at home as long as I like, but I need my own independence," she said.

Keith Washington of Hernando High is vascillating, too.

"I might go to the Army, or I might go to college in San Francisco," he said. "If I'm not going to start on football (at San Francisco City College), I might go into the Army. You get paid quicker."

Dara Maynard of Lecanto High School in Citrus County got married this year and works at a Wal-Mart. She wants to attend a community college, but after that, the future is fuzzy. She may be a homemaker.

In contrast, Rob Zilay of Gulf High School in Pasco County has very specific ideas about his life: "Graduating from dental school in 1998, starting to work in a dental partnership, getting married and starting my own dental practice _ a pediatric dental thing. I'm more interested in helping kids than making dentures."

LaWana Brown of Lecanto High dreams of running a hospital some day. "I work well with people, and with the help of God, I'll make it. I know I will.

A medical career is Marlene Macklem's hope as well. Miss Macklem of Jefferson High School in Hillsborough County wants to work in an underprivileged country. "I'll probably make a poor doctor because I'm one of those people who likes to help others, whether they have money or not," she said.

Likewise, Howard Jones doesn't expect to find what money he makes as a mechanical engineer to be totally fulfilling.

"You could be working at this place and making all this money, but you may not be happy," said Jones of Northeast High School in Pinellas County.

Role models

Generally, students are willing to share the credit for their success through high school and their optimism about the future.

"Mrs. Virginia Wolbert. She was a teacher who really inspired me," said Brett Chianella of Hudson High in Pasco County. "She works great with the students _ one of the most caring teachers in high school. She's behind everybody, giving a helping hand."

Teachers, several other students agreed, can make the difference in one's life when coping with the stress of school, career decisions, peer pressure and serious family problems.

For Steve Roundtree, the difference wasn't so much a teacher as it was what a teacher showed him: "Watching a movie about (Mahatma) Gandhi in English class, I learned you can accomplish as much by not fighting as fighting," said Roundtree of Central High School in Hernando County.

Fellow students make an impact as well.

"Your senior year, people aren't as into who's who, but people accept people for who they are," said Ryan Estevez of St. Petersburg High School.

Of course, parents should not be forgotten.

"My parents are very strict," said Christine Ruediger of King High School in Hillsborough. "They believe an education is important and have worked hard in instilling that value in me. I put my best foot forward in everything I do. I'm very motivated."

Tamika Webb of Northeast High School in Pinellas County strives to please her mother, a single parent.

"In high school she did well also, and she wanted me to do well," Miss Webb said. "I followed in her footsteps because I wanted to make her proud of me."

Zilay of Gulf High also wanted to give his staunchest supporter public recognition: "Is there any way I can put a quote in here saying, "Hi, Mom' or "Thanks, Mom?'

"

Today, students give peers, teachers and parents some well-deserved thanks. Many tomorrows from now, they may give their grandchildren an earful about high school rivalries, the Persian Gulf war and rap music of their youth.

And, though some may not believe it now, they might also wish they could roll back the years.

"Everybody's going to miss each other: Friends missing friends, wondering what everyone's going to be doing, wondering if we'll ever see people again, wondering if we'll ever have this much fun again," said Graham Anthony of Osceola High. He paused, then added, "I'll make it fun."

_ Times staff writers Ted Goldman, Wes Platt, Steve Hegarty, Steve Persall, Marty Rosen and Amanda Griffin contributed to this report.

HERNANDO SCHOOLS BY THE NUMBERS

White students: 632

Black students: 46

Hispanic: 28

Asian/Pacific Islanders: 7

American Indian/Alaskan native: 1

Male: 341

Female: 373

Total: 714

District statistics

Total students: 12,700

Teachers: 824

Support services: 894

Administrative: 56

The district has nine elementary schools, three middle schools, three high schools and one opportunity school for students having trouble in regular classes.

Some 172 buses transport 10,000 students every day.

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