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The Gibbs High arts graduate escapes all the traps that snared friends.

Her room is pale blue like the sky, with puffy clouds on the pillows.

But Melissa Thomas lives on the ground.

She is 17, black, fashionable, extremely serious.

"A lot of people think I'm mean. They say I'm blunt. I'm going to tell you the truth."

The newspapers have been heavy this year with bleak stories of young African-Americans doing bad things. Gangs shooting an 8-year-old child. Crime on the rise. Dropout rates. The achievement gap.

Adults like to talk big, to tell kids to rise above the world's evils. Like peer pressure is this tangible thing you can overcome if you try real hard.

But how about living it?

Melissa went to the "F" school. Her dad left. Her friends did drugs, bought laced weed and nearly died. Her ex-boyfriend got another girl pregnant. She's the only woman in her family not to be a mom by 17.

"They have been waiting on me to have a child for some years now."

How about getting called "white" because you're studious? How about the harassment? How about having no friends?

To Melissa, that's what those adults don't understand.

Something stands in the middle of her bedroom, a barrier that amputates a world of nonsense that she can't tolerate.

An easel.

- - -

"We lived in a shack. I didn't know it at the time."

Melissa sat perched in her art room at Gibbs High School, her black stiletto sandals wedged into a steel stool.She grabbed a scrap of paper and sketched a crude picture - her childhood home in New Orleans.

"It had rocks all in the front of it. ... Here's the living room. ... This was a room, but it wasn't supposed to be. I think it was a laundry room. We didn't have a yard."

Her dad had a degree in architecture and art, but he made his living as a musician, going out most nights to play piano in bars. Temperamental and controlling, he didn't let her mom work.

Her memories of him are sparse, but searing. When she was 3, he gave her a sip of wine while he watched Shaka Zulu on TV. Another time, he got angry when she painted the walls of her playhouse.

"It looked good, but I got in trouble. My dad made me clean it all by myself."

He usually picked her up from school. Then one day he didn't.

"Him leaving caused a lot of stuff. I was daddy's little girl. I was 5. It wasn't like I saw that there were problems in their relationship. I didn't trust people for a while after that. I still kind of don't trust people. I really don't let people in at all. I don't really get close."

Her family moved to St. Petersburg. Melissa's mom, Bridget Thomas, had worked in a dress shop before, but she didn't have a college education or a great job. She had babies young. Opportunity was hard to find. She wanted more for her kids, so she protected their image.

"My mom wasn't going to let us go outside looking like trash," Melissa said.

She wore neat braids, pigtails, glasses. She studied math and art, sketched pictures of Barney and Minnie Mouse. She was sweet back then, she said.

Before she put up walls.

Other kids thought she acted aloof, better than them. In seventh grade, she tried to eat lunch with a group of girls, but they pushed her books to the ground over and over until she sat somewhere else.

"I got picked on because of the way I spoke, the way I dressed. It hurt, and at the same time, I tried to fit in, but it didn't work. I do my work, and it's not accepted if you're black. They say I act white."

To get the family out of the Lake Maggiore neighborhood, her mother found an apartment in Clearwater, then a blue ranch home in Seminole. Eight people in the family shared four bedrooms - her sister, her aunt and her aunt's children. Her mom worked at Evatone printing and packaging company before getting laid off in March.

When Melissa was 13, she applied to the Pinellas County Center for the Arts magnet program at Gibbs without telling her mother. She got in. She rode the bus for more than an hour to get there each day.

In high school, she got a towering wooden easel for Christmas. She set it up between her bed and the TV.

She cut herself off from the noise and constant scuttle inside the house. The awareness that when she stepped outside, the white people in the neighborhood made her feel out of place, too.

She painted.

- - -

Her dark, brooding senior project lined the walls at school - oils and pastels inspired by the apocalypse. Scripture, people with vacant faces, hollow eyes. Souls lifted, bodies slumped in chairs.

Melissa is spiritual, but not particularly religious. She wasn't raised in church. When she was a little girl, her aunt gave her a Bible.

Revelation fascinated her.

Good people reaping their final reward. Their worldly baggage left behind.

Melissa spent high school being good, turning down weed, booze, pills. She has never been drunk or high, she said. Too many times, she watched her uncles get boisterous and sloppy.She saw two people go to the hospital with heart attacks from the drugs they did.

She volunteered as a teen leader for Be the Wall, a campaign from LiveFree! Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Pinellas County and Operation PAR. As a part of her community service for a Bright Futures scholarship, she spent three weekends painting a big anti-alcohol mural on the side of Banyan Scapes, a nursery in Childs Park. It says, What Teens Should See When It Comes To Alcohol - an angry mother making her teen pour out a bottle of booze.

She spoke on a televised panel discussion about kids and alcohol, seated alongside doctors and police officers, teachers and concerned mothers. She surveyed 1,000 kids at her school about underage drinking. The mayor signed her mural amid fanfare.

The attention was nice, but the whole role model thing felt weird. At 17, Melissa thought, nobody is a wise adult - even the class teetotaler. Even she didn't have completely pristine judgment.

Take men.

She dated a guy for three years. He wasn't a bad person, she says - just bad at relationships. He cheated on her, got someone else pregnant. He messed with her head. She paid on dates.

"I went through more with him than a person my age should have to go through with a man. Every time he cheated, I had a feeling. But I cared about him."

She painted.

A man bound in chains, crying. A distressed woman tied up with rope.

One night, Melissa left her boyfriend's house in tears. He didn't buy her anything for Christmas when he promised he would. Her mother picked her up. On the ride home, she talked to her daughter:

"You act like me."

Melissa was dating her father. Sliding into that world.

She dumped him.

- - -

Melissa graduated summa cum laude with a scholarship, bound for a fresh start at college in a new town.

No nephews. No sisters. No reputation.

Her family worried.

"They think I'm going to go out and go crazy because I don't go out," she said. "My mom thinks I'm going to go out there and die."

At Florida Atlantic University, she'll major in architecture like her father. She might go to a club on her 18th birthday, because that's what normal people do. Drinking? Maybe when she's old enough.

"I don't think I'll like it, though."

In August, she packed every corner of her mom's car with mattress pads, a microwave, a mini fridge, a TV, curtains and new sheets with shades of green.

One possession, she had to leave behind.

"It can't fit in my room. If I bring it, I won't have room for anything else."

Her easel.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.