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Ringing in a new generation

Career aspirations, hobbies or cultural heritage. Class rings today are more than a symbol of where you went to school.

A tiny Cuban flag waves from one side of Joseph de Armas' high school class ring.

It is a sign of his heritage, an expression of who he is, a symbol of what he values.

"I'm a first-generation American, and my mom is from Cuba," the 18-year-old said.

The Clearwater High School senior made a statement when he picked his flag out of a ring catalog two years ago. For years, students had teased him, asked if he "floated" into this country. Little did they know de Armas would take those negative comments and turn them into a positive self-image.

"It's Cuban pride," he said. "I'm proud to be American, but I also have Cuban heritage."

The class ring, once a symbol of where you went to school, is now a tiny blueprint of who you are or what you may become.

Across Pinellas County, students have slipped on rings featuring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the Virgin Mary, even a figure that vaguely resembles Elvis Presley.

The companies also have rolled out new sides for their rings that reflect hip sports such as in-line skating, snow boarding and surfing.

"It's almost like automobiles," said Lynn Zirkle, a representative for Herff Jones, a ring manufacturer. "There are so many options now, you have to sit down and think about it."

What's in at one school may not even be considered at another.

Balfour representatives fill a lot of orders for rings featuring the emblem of the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School, while a drama symbol is in demand at Gibbs High School, home of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts.

It's a little like "wearing their yearbook on their finger," said Susie Fenlon, a regional representative for Balfour.

All the choices also amount to an economic sign of the times.

The popularity of rings has slipped in the last four decades _ from about 85 percent of students purchasing a class ring in the 1960s to between 35 percent and 40 percent making the purchase today, Zirkle said.

At the same time, discount chains and jewelry stores have stepped into the market, selling generic class rings at lower prices.

Back in the day, students didn't have so many choices.

"We had two choices. You either got it or you didn't," said Carl Zimmermann, a television production teacher at Countryside High School who graduated from high school in 1969.

But today's students demand the freedom of choice and the option to exhibit their lifestyles.

A lively bass is etched onto Jon Yanek's ring. The 17-year-old Largo High School junior really fishes for trout, snook and redfish, but the picture of the bass was as a close as he could get.

"People see my ring and it tells them a little bit about me," he said.

Heather Wilson, a Countryside High School sophomore, tried on her class ring for the first time last month. On one side is a cross, Bible and the Christian symbol for fish.

The avid soccer player chose the religious symbols over a soccer ball.

"Soccer is a temporary thing," said Wilson, 15. "My Christianity is a way of life."

Lifelong decisions are influencing the selection of high school rings. Students no longer want to wear them for a few years only to toss them into some jewelry box.

Megan Jenkins, a Countryside sophomore, wants to be a firefighter and paramedic. A member of the Safety Harbor Fire Explorers, she is determined to help people.

"If I know I can do something to help somebody, I want to do it," said Jenkins, 16.

Her ring sports medical symbols, including a cross.

Some rings are a bit demure.

Elissa Scharmen's doesn't exactly come right out and say that she attends Largo High School. An "L' in the center of her ring is the only clue. Largo is the home of the Packers, but Scharmen, 16, didn't really want a pig on her ring.

"I didn't want to be like everybody else," she said.

But even the students say all this individuality is expensive. A simple ring, with few or no options, costs about $100. Those with options, including precious metals, can cost as much as $500.

Which is why so many students have passed on the old-fashioned class ring. There are so many other things on a high school student's wish list _ prom, graduation, pictures _ that the ring has been kicked to the curb.

"You got to be a millionaire to pay for everything," said Lindsey Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Largo who didn't buy a class ring.

And then there are those who prefer tradition. They want their rings to look like class rings, sport the school's mascot, the school's colors and their school activities.

"I think they're worth it," said 17-year-old Stacey Esteves, a Largo junior. "You only graduate once."