Shelby DeRamus walked into the classroom and suddenly she was everywhere. She hugged students and tied shoes. She danced and sang along to a ditty about numbers. She raced cars, dressed up dolls and solved minor disputes. DeRamus, 24, even answered an imaginary phone. The kids relished it. "Miss Shelby," several of them said, "look."
DeRamus has a way with children. Everybody can tell.
Whether in the neighborhood or the classroom, kids gravitate to her. To her smile. Her energy. Her empathy.
It's her gift, one she wants to share as an elementary school teacher.
Now she's one step closer.
This afternoon, DeRamus will walk across the stage at the Pasco-Hernando Community College spring commencement ceremony in New Port Richey and receive her associate's degree, becoming the first person in her immediate family to attain a college degree.
Next up is a bachelor's in elementary education from the University of South Florida.
But just getting to this stage was a difficult journey.
Taken from her drug-addicted mother as a baby, she lived with her great-aunt through her early and teenage years. She never knew her father. Her mom bounced in and out of her life.
She failed third grade, then fourth.
In high school, the troubles continued.
Two days before Christmas of her sophomore year, her mother was killed. The culprit, her mother's boyfriend, was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
When DeRamus was a senior, her great-aunt, Mattie Goodson, died at age 90.
"I had a hard struggle going through school, I did," she said.
But she never stopped. She never took time off from school. She never gave up her pursuit of higher education.
"I'm trying to get to that point where I can finally feel like I've got ground beneath me and I can stand on it without it falling apart," she said. "I'm almost there - just have to get my teaching degree. More than halfway."
Cary Cox, a financial aid adviser with PHCC, is amazed by DeRamus' accomplishments.
"If it wasn't for her fortitude and doggedness, she could have been a statistic and never accomplished any education goals beyond high school," she said.
But DeRamus gives credit elsewhere: to her great-aunt and a lifetime of great teachers.
"My teachers really kept me going on everything," she said. "That's why I definitely want to be a teacher. Because of them. Because they've been there for me."
This was especially true in her earliest years. It's no surprise DeRamus wants to teach kindergarteners.
"I feel like that's the time in their life when they're going through stuff," she said. "That's how I was when I was little. I needed somebody to look up to, someone that would hold my hand and guide my way."
She gives kids something a lot of other people can't: empathy.
"I know what they're going through," she said. "I try to give them as much love as I can."
DeRamus' godmother, Kim McNeal, said kids have always been drawn to DeRamus - as if she were the leader of a little army.
"It's the coolest thing I've ever seen," she said. "She gets through to them. She can get to their level and talk to them."
She's a great role model for the kids, added Jaimie Pagels, a close friend.
"She lets it be known that she makes good choices on purpose," Pagels said. "I believe she was meant to work with children."
Pagels said DeRamus is just a great young woman.
"If you know Shelby, you just love Shelby."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.