Nikia Hall doesn't spend much time in her neighborhood.
But looking out the metal and screen door of the apartment Nikia shares with her father and brother, she has seen the drugs, the drinking, the girls her age and younger carrying babies on their arm.
"I don't let that pull me away from what I want to accomplish in life," she says.
Most everyone agrees that Hall, 18, already has accomplished a lot. Valedictorian at Tampa Bay Tech High School, she is graduating with a 5.09 grade point average. She has earned so many stipends and scholarships that her guidance counselor is making a computer printout to keep track of them.
This fall she will leave the apartment in the welfare and working class neighborhood just south of Temple Terrace. A place with no telephone, unfinished wooden stairs, a rattling air conditioner and framed posters of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
She will be off to Tallahassee, with a full Presidential scholarship to Florida A&M, enrolled in a five-year master's program in the school's prestigious college of business.
She is the first in her family to attend college.
It will be a bittersweet time for Hall. She has dreamed for so long of going to college.
But she is leaving behind the man she loves. The man who she says led her to this point in her life. A man who decided his daughter's life would be different than his.
"I'm really going to miss my father," Hall says.
Growing up in rural Metcalf, Ga., Warren Hall learned all about hard work. His mother's people were sharecroppers, scraping out a life on other people's land. His father's ancestors were farmers who owned some land and leased more.
His father, a thick tree of a man, started a pulp wood business with only a truck and his muscles. He pulled trees out of the swamp and lifted them onto a truck. Warren watched his mother rub the cramps out of his father's muscles as the big man lay writhing in pain on the ground.
"My father was the breadwinner, but he was a workaholic," Warren recalls. "He wasn't the type to sit down with me and have a one-on-one conversation."
Willie Hall's son grew up muscular and strong. A champion high school wrestler, Warren joined the Marines after high school.
He had a girlfriend back home. She bore him a daughter and three years later, a son. They were planning a wedding after Warren Jr. was born, but then something happened to her.
Doctors said it was schizophrenia, a mental illness that had been passed along from her father. When Hall came to visit one day, he found the children alone. Nikia was only 3.
From that moment, his future became clear.
"There was nothing left for me to do except stop, settle down and raise my kids," he says.
He left the Marines when his hitch ended and came back home. For a while he tried to be a father and a young single man _ still hanging out with friends, drinking and smoking. But the combination didn't work.
"I decided it was time for me to leave that stuff alone. To set an example for my kids," he says.
He moved with his children to Tampa, where he had family, looking for opportunity. He wasn't crazy about the idea of Tampa. If he was going to live in a city, he preferred Atlanta. But he ended up staying here and settled into learning to be a father.
He made some rules. There would be no drinking or smoking in his house. He would be particular about the friends he invited over. And he would give his children something only he could give _ his attention.
"All these things I longed for from my father _ attention, time, some one-on-one conversations. Things I didn't get. I really tried to give those things to my children."
He knew early on that his daughter, Nikia, was special. She was a loner, like her dad, but also very studious.
She loved books and schoolwork. It came easily to her.
He taught her to cook and clean the house. He joined Allen Temple, a church in Ybor City, and invited her to go with him. He kept a Bible on the bookshelf in the living room.
She picked up everything quickly. While she was cooking, she would have a book open on the table in the small dining room off the kitchen.
She studied so much that her father worried about her.
"I'd talk her into taking a break and going with me on an outing, then I'd look in the back seat and she'd be reading a book," Hall says.
Nikia began looking out for her younger brother, who was smart, but a lot more social than his sister or his father.
As Nikia entered adolescence, Warren Hall started talking about boys and sex. He used his favorite phrase _ "No-no-no-no-no!"
"I told her boys can wait. I know for a fact _ by me being a guy _ just having a boyfriend is dangerous. We can be very convincing," Hall says.
He spoke up for her virginity. Told her it was precious. And warned her about the consequences of teenage sex.
There were girls in the apartments around them who would try to talk Nikia into joining them in their adolescent adventures. But Nikia refused and eventually saw her father was right, as each of those girls became teenage mothers.
So now when Nikia is not at school, or at her weekend job at Busch Gardens, she is home studying, working in the small flower bed outside the apartment, or doing chores.
Warren Hall, 36, works two jobs, rising at 4 a.m. for a maintenance job at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome. He comes home around the time Nikia gets home from school. He naps a while, then they talk. That talk is part of their everyday routine. Then, he is off to a night job at a pet supply warehouse.
At 10 p.m., when he comes home, Nikia is in bed, but she has left her father's dinner in the refrigerator for him. She checks the next morning to see that he has eaten.
It's a relationship that Warren Hall never quite expected. In raising a daughter, he got a companion. A confidant. Someone who worried about him as much as he worried about her.
He had hoped she would win a scholarship to USF, so she could live at home while going to school. USF did offer her money, but nothing like the package Florida A&M offered.
So Warren Hall is getting ready to let Nikia go.
"Oh man," he says, shaking his head, "I'm going to miss her."
Being the top student at Tampa Bay Tech hasn't been a breeze for Nikia Hall.
She earned a B, her first one, in an honor's English class this year and worried how that would affect her No. 1 status. She wanted to make sure her grade point average stayed above 5, which she achieved by taking special classes.
She was in and out of Louise Harvey's guidance office asking the same question _ "Am I still on top? How much of a lead do I have?"
Harvey, who steered her toward the business college at FAMU, her alma mater, and made sure school officials there knew about her top student, told Hall not to worry so much.
"She was already so far ahead of everyone else," Harvey says.
So Nikia pressed on, doing her best with literature and essays, wishing she could trade them for subjects she liked better, like grammar, vocabulary and especially math.
At home this year, she has allowed herself to watch her favorite soap opera, Guiding Light, but not much else. She has tried to stay focused.
"I always have something on my mind I feel I have to do," she says. "It's just who I am."
And the credit for who she is goes to one person.
"My father really helped me. He's kind of strict. He's always on me about doing the right thing," she says.
And she listened.
"I just do what he asks me to do," she says.
She has told boys that she is not allowed to date.
"When they ask me out, I just explain to them I can't really have a relationship right now."
That's why she was at home studying on the Saturday night this month when the rest of the senior class was at the prom.
On the surface, Nikia Hall seems to fit in at her high school. Like most students, she favors denim and shorts. She likes gold necklaces and rings with settings that spin when she moves her hand. She wears her hair in a popular finger wave _ processed and flattened on her head. It's fashionable, but also easy to maintain.
When she smiles and lets go, Nikia Hall's face lights up. But the face she generally shows the world is serious.
Candace Moore met Nikia in 10th grade and didn't like her.
"She was real quiet and didn't say anything. I thought she was mean," says Moore.
But now they are best friends. Sharing laughs and secrets. Wondering how they will survive their upcoming separation _ Moore is going to USF. She hopes that next year, she might join Hall at FAMU.
The two meet everyday at lunch. Around them, kids in jeans and FILA sneakers are jostling and laughing. But their table, in the middle of the cafeteria, is quiet.
Moore, Hall and their friend Dionne Semple bow their heads over a meal of fried chicken and french fries.
"God bless this food to the use and nourishment of our bodies," Moore prays.
Moore, Semple and Hall are Tampa Bay Tech's top students. Moore is No. 3, Semple number No. 2 and Hall is No. 1.
Moore says it has been easy for them to avoid some of the temptations around them.
"As long as we stay focused on what our parents taught us and what we learn in church, we are okay," she says.
Nikia admits that she is already worried about college.
"I think about it. I made a B in high school, how will I do in college?"
She says looking forward to her life in Tallahassee brings some mixed feelings.
"I'm looking forward to having a little more freedom. But I'm worried because I'll have to do everything on my own _ without my father."