ST. PETERSBURG — Girls swabbed on blush and bobby-pinned their silver graduation caps in the room under the Palladium Theatre, and Davion Only-Going shook his head to see his orange tassel bounce.
He always knew he would graduate. Knew he needed to. But he had stalled these last few years, chatting instead of working through math courses, until he felt ready.
Now 20, he stood tall and broad, but with the same round cheeks he had at 15, when he walked into a church as a foster child with sweaty palms and asked, please, to be adopted.
"I’ll take anyone," he said then, unaware his plea would soon rocket around the world. "Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be."
That was four and a half years ago. Now the theatre hallway smelled of cotton candy perfume and polyester sweat as a school staffer wrangled the giddy high schoolers into shape. They had practiced lining up — Davion walked before Ortiz, behind Neal — and had taken a triumphant photo, all 56 of them, while cars honked.
It was time.
Many at the Pinellas MYcroSchool, a charter high school in a strip mall near Tropicana Field, knew hardship. They had siblings gunned down, unplanned pregnancies, untold abuse, and in Davion’s case, more than 35 foster placements.
They showed up with a mess of unfinished credits. Many never thought they’d graduate at all.
So on Thursday evening, as they filed into the red-curtained theater in their best sneakers and glittery heels, screams of pride drowned out Pomp and Circumstance. Some students stunted for the cameras, but Davion played it cool.
"For some it’s been easier than others," school superintendent Linda Dawson told the graduates. "For some it’s been a struggle the whole way."
They’d proven wrong a system that had planned for their failure, St. Petersburg College trustee Deveron Gibbons said: "They start planning for a prison cell, and you said, ‘That’s not happening today.’"
"That’s right," Davion said to himself as the crowd erupted. "That’s right."
By 15, Davion lost count of all the places he’d lived. That summer, in 2013, he sat at a library computer and searched for his mother’s name. He knew he was born while she was in prison. And there was her mugshot. Then, from just a few weeks earlier, her obituary.
Softspoken, he was living in a group home with a dozen teenage boys and nobody to drive him to football practice. Nobody to tell him he mattered. Picnics and portraits in hopes of adoption hadn’t gone anywhere.
And now he knew no one was coming to get him.
"A forgotten child," said his adoption specialist, Connie Going.
He dropped 40 pounds. He got his grades up and tried to tamp down his anger. And he got the idea to put on a too-big suit and take the pulpit at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church because, he told the crowd: "I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either."
Thousands of calls flooded his agency as ABC and Al-Jazeera amplified his plea. Going flew with him to the set of The View, where Barbara Walters asked about his perfect family. "Anyone who would love me," he said.
After a few false starts, there was a match. Davion flew to Ohio to join a minister’s family. He got baptized. But when he got in a fight with one of the minister’s kids, Davion was sent back to Florida.
More homes. More high schools — four in a year. Davion was 16, too old to be wanted, he told himself.
But he needed to talk. Finally he called the one number he knew by heart, Miss Connie’s, to ask a question he had asked before. This time she was ready for it.
"How do you feel about adopting me now?"
From Largo High School to Lakewood, from Ohio to King High School in Tampa, Davion only remembers the fights. He collected only piecemeal credits, but somehow managed a good GPA. The schoolwork itself had never been hard.
When Going formally adopted Davion, they tried Gibbs High School, where his new siblings Carley and Taylor went, but he couldn’t make up for the lost years.
They tried homeschooling to help Davion settle in. He retreated to his room to play shooter games. At night he slept fitfully.
Going reassured him: "You can’t get rid of us. Nobody’s leaving."
Over time, she saw Davion’s spiky fight-or-flight instincts soften.
"All of a sudden what I saw with Davion was, ‘I can do this,’" Going said.
He enrolled in Pinellas MYcroSchool about two years ago. Capped at 275 students from ages 16 to 21, it seeks to right the ship for those who have fallen through the cracks. Students set their own pace as they make up credits with mentors close by. When outbursts happen, staffers don’t dwell on them.
"Every day is brand new," said Principal Steven Humphries. "Whatever happened yesterday is yesterday."
Davion, a night owl, chose the school’s afternoon session, from about 11:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., and worked nights at Publix, where he fries chicken tenders.
Burned out from all the upheaval, Davion moved slowly through his classwork, vexing the teachers who saw his smarts. Too often he came home having done little but chat.
When he had a bad day, Ms. Faye let Davion lie down behind her desk. Mr. Wolf, who teaches exceptional student education, worked on building up Davion’s self-worth and watched him mellow. Once, when two girls fought, Chris Wolf said, Davion was the first to jump in to stop it.
As a school tradition, Humphries lets students who finish the work needed to graduate ring a bell. In April, it was Davion’s turn.
Students poured into the hall to catch a glimpse of who was moving on.
Davion jostled down the theatre stairs and outside amid a flock of other graduates. His whole family had come, adoptive and biological, including a brother and sister he once didn’t know he had. All jockeyed for photos with him.
His siblings picked him up, chanting, "One, two, three, drop!"
"Who else wants pictures?" Davion asked in mock exasperation. He beamed for another, now with Going. "Alright, alright, who else?"
Graduates in their shiny robes kept emerging in packs with their families, who juggled flowers and cupcakes, finding their own patches of sidewalk for pictures.
"Here, sweetheart," Davion’s grandmother said, setting him up for another portrait. A friend called out, "Davion, look!"
This fall, he’ll attend Pinellas Technical College’s culinary program on a full scholarship. Then he wants to go to culinary school.
He started cooking at 7, he said, frying bacon and flipping omelets for the other half-dozen kids in his foster home, eventually shut down for poor supervision. No one taught him how. He just had an instinct.
He wants to be an expert on food, to travel and learn other cooking styles so he can make his own. "It’ll be different," he says.
For now he’ll keep working and saving for a car. He’ll get back to his gym regimen.
"Usually when people say ‘I’m a success story,’ it means they stagnate," Davion said. "I’m not stopping."
He still doesn’t sleep very well. Sometimes he sneaks into Going’s room. The door creaks open and then it’s quiet, until Davion leaps onto her bed.
Times files were used in this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]