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Life, interrupted: The toll on five local students, from kindergarten through college

Goodbyes not said, celebrations on hold. The pandemic stole precious moments for those in the midst of transitions.

The news rolled in steadily, each announcement obliterating another plan, another milestone.

It kept friends apart and put everything on pause.

Then, dreams began to die.

“At first,” said Asianna Williams, a new Florida State University graduate, “I didn’t believe it.”

Tampa Bay Times reporters talked to five young people on the precipice of change to chronicle how their lives have been upended by the pandemic.

• • •

Leaving kindergarten: Janai

Janai Pinner, 6, has graduated to an even bigger bike -- and she can do it on her own. [ Abriana Drisdom ]

Janai Pinner, who turned 6 in January, misses her kindergarten teachers at Tampa’s Miles Elementary. “They’re both nice to me,” she says. “They’re really, really, really nice.”

She understands why school had to shift to a laptop: “We don’t want the coronavirus spreading around.” But it felt really weird, changing things up like that.

“I didn’t say goodbye because I didn’t know,” she says.

Her family devised a plan. On school days, while her mom works, Janai stays with Auntie Bri.

Abriana Drisdom, 30, is used to working remotely as an appeals coordinator for WellCare, with virtual nursing school on the side. Janai, sitting beside her aunt at the table, is getting the hang of laptop life: Wake up. Breakfast. Brush teeth. Try to knock out an assignment or two. By 10 a.m., she’s waving at her classmates on Zoom. (Her auntie reminds her, “Sit up nice and tall.” Or, “Don’t look at me! I’m not here!”) After a mostly quiet hour of class, it’s time for a break. Then they tackle the rest of Janai’s assignments.

Janai sounds out words in the stories her teacher sends. Bop. Hop. Flop. She writes sentences about what she sees in pictures. If a word doesn’t come easily, she can be hard on herself. Her aunt reminds her, “You’re too young to be stressing out.”

Some days she feels sad. Like the day she didn’t get to watch TV when she wanted.

And sometimes, life can feel strange. Like wearing masks everywhere, and having to wash her hands all the time, and celebrating her brother’s birthday at home, not at a restaurant.

But mostly, to be honest, it feels okay.

She still sees her friends online.

Her church is streaming on Facebook.

And there’s plenty to do. She plays house with her dolls, Hearts and Stars, and draws in little notebooks, making pictures for her mom. There are grits to eat and ropes to be jumped.

Best of all is seeing so much of her family. Before all this, she came over every other Friday to spend the weekend with her auntie, Grandma and Pop Pop. Now she gets a long, long sleepover. Her grandparents go outside with her so she can use her Hula-Hoop. With her aunt, she bikes the Lake Magdalene neighborhood. She’s onto a bigger bike these days, no training wheels.

— Claire McNeill

Leaving elementary school: Abigail

Abigail McAuley, 10, feeds a stem of kale to her rabbit, Alice, on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, at her home in Spring Hill. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Abigail McAuley loves school. “It’s like my favorite place in the world,” she says.

She’s grown up at Chocachatti Elementary in Hernando County, moving from prekindergarten all the way to fifth grade this year. Soon, it’s on to middle school.

Because of the pandemic, Abigail, 10, had to say goodbye to elementary school suddenly when classes moved online. The traditions and farewells she planned on won’t happen.

And the students lost a quarter of the school year, time they would have spent with friends.

“Most fifth-graders feel like elementary disappeared,” she said. “I’m really upset by it.”

The biggest disappointment is the fifth-grade memory show, organized by Abigail’s mom, a teacher at Chocachatti. Students help choreograph dances and pick songs based on their favorite parts of the school year.

Abigail still meets with classmates to practice scenes on Zoom. “We hope that after this is all over, we can get together and do something,” she said.

People are what Abigail will miss most about elementary school, she said. She’s close with all her teachers and said their classrooms always felt special. She loved her music, dance and drama classes for giving her “the stuff you’d never get to experience with just pencils and paper.”

Some of Abigail’s friends from Chocachatti didn’t get into Gulf Coast Academy, an invite-only charter school where she will start in the fall. It’s known for “field studies” or educational trips that supplement instruction, and Abigail worries those won’t happen because of the virus.

Her biggest fear, though, is not being able to meet her teachers by the time next school year starts. Middle school is already kind of scary. What if it has to start online?

— Megan Reeves

Leaving middle school: Stefan

Stefan Iltchev, 14, of St. Petersburg, poses with his drone at home on May 15. He will be attending Boca Ciega High School in the fall and will be shooting videos of high school football games with a new drone. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Stefan Iltchev is an eighth-grader at St. Petersburg’s Azalea Middle School.

His favorite class? An aviation and aerospace elective, with drones. "Drone class."

Favorite thing in his bedroom? A DJI Mavic Mini. "It's a fun little drone."

Favorite way to kill time since his school sent everyone home? YouTube. “Drone tech videos.”

Stefan, 14, isn’t a young man of many words or, unlike most of us during the pandemic, many concerns.

His biggest worry? “Uh, I don’t really have one right now.”

Maybe we should all be more like Stefan. Even the prospect of starting high school this fall at Boca Ciega doesn’t distress him.

"It's just like when you start middle school," he said. "You don't know what to expect, so you go for a couple days and see what it's like. Everyone does new things once in a while."

The kid is logical. It makes sense he’d like to be an engineer someday, doing something with drones. Or maybe planes.

He’s not happy about being stuck at home — he doesn’t prefer it — but he’s fine. He doesn’t delude himself thinking he’ll somehow go back to get closure at Azalea Middle. “There were a couple people and teachers that I would have liked to say bye to,” Stefan said, a shrug in his voice. “I guess I’ll never see them again.”

Two weeks ago, he took a test, from home, answering questions about aviation law and the weather. He is now, along with Azalea classmate McKenzie Bell, one of two middle school students in the world to finish the Unmanned Safety Institute's CAPE Certification Level 1. He's certified in drone safety.

The answer to why Stefan so easily adapted to being stuck at home might be in the many aerial photos he takes. His favorites include a wide shot of downtown St. Petersburg off in the distance and a tangerine sunset on the horizon, captured from high in the sky above his suburban home.

Stefan Iltchev took this photo of downtown St. Petersburg with his drone from above his St. Petersburg home. [ Courtesy of Stefan Iltchev ]

Stefan has long been going places where most of us can’t. And he still can.

— Christopher Spata

Leaving high school: Ally

Ally Crusey, a high school senior and lacrosse player at Newsome High School, poses for a portrait May 10 at her home in Valrico. Her mother decorated the front door to celebrate her daughter. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Classes moved online. Prom went virtual. Sporting events were canceled. Graduation was pushed to July, but who knows what things will be like in July?

Senior year has looked a lot different than what Allison “Ally” Crusey pictured.

She thought she’d be able to play at least one more lacrosse game before the season was cut short. A student at Newsome High School in Lithia, Ally was the captain of her team.

Her father, the team’s coach, delivered the news: That was it — school was out. The season was over.

Ally, 18, got on a FaceTime call with her teammates. A few of the girls started crying.

“We all kind of realized that game, where we lost and didn’t play the greatest? That was our last time playing together, ever,” she said.

The last two months of her senior year have been absent of the usual milestones.

For prom, Ally and her girlfriends put on their dresses and hung out on a Zoom call. Her exams are now all online — a series of email links and timed questions. A couple of times a week, Ally grabs her lacrosse stick and heads out to coach a younger girl in the neighborhood. She senses the sixth-grader is going a little stir-crazy, too.

Ally misses her teammates. They talk daily, via group chats and Snapchat, but it’s not the same as seeing them in person.

In the fall, Ally starts college at Florida State University, where she plans to study politics and government. She’d like to go to law school one day.

She tries not to worry too much about the future but wonders what college life will look like. Will she still be able to room with her best friend? Will she even have classes to go to?

For now, there’s still the promise of graduation, tentatively scheduled for July. It would be so nice to see all her classmates again. It might give them all a sense of closure.

“It’s something that my entire class, we’re all going through."

— Helen Freund

Leaving college: Asianna

Asianna Williams is the first person in her family to graduate from college. No one was there to celebrate when FSU held its virtual ceremony in May. [ Kiswood Diogene ]

Asianna Williams knew people were getting sick in China. But for spring break, she and three other seniors at Florida State University went to Cancun. Three days later, when President Donald Trump announced more travel bans, Asianna and her friends flew back to Tallahassee.

“We had no idea,” she said, “how much we were about to lose.”

Asianna, 22, is the only child of a single mom who worked extra shifts at doctors’ offices to pay for dance lessons. Her mom is Cuban and Jewish. Her dad African American. She barely knew him, but his family embraced her. Asianna grew up straddling cultures at home and in school.

At 15, she decided to combine her love of performance with her passion for athletics. She was going to become a sports broadcaster.

She got a full scholarship to FSU — and became the first in her immediate family to go to college. She couldn’t wait for her grandparents to come for graduation.

She had applied for summer internships at dozens of TV stations, sports networks and marketing agencies. A couple had promised to call back.

Then college basketball canceled its tournaments. Professional basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer shut down. The coronavirus froze the industry that Asianna was poised to enter.

She was so mad. And felt so cheated.

“Of course, this had to happen in my senior year,” she said.

After days of fuming and venting and commiserating, Asianna scolded herself for being self-absorbed. Everyone in the world was suffering, somehow — many much more than she was.

“If I couldn’t chase my dream,” she said, “I had to figure out something else.”

Her mom wanted her to move back home. “That would feel like failing,” Asianna said. In Tallahassee, she worked in the office at a student apartment complex, and her boss told her she could stay.

But she wanted an adventure.

She made a spreadsheet of job openings in PR and social media, in Atlanta, D.C., New York. Her best friend had just landed a cybersecurity job in Chicago, so when she heard about a position leasing apartments there, she applied. And got an interview.

She wrote 100 cover letters, followed up with emails to CEOs she found on LinkedIn, sent references, clips of articles she’d written, links to videos she reported.

Only 15 companies replied. No one was hiring.

Then FSU canceled graduation.

Asianna wept. “My grandparents would never get to watch me walk.”

Instead, Asianna logged onto her laptop at work to see her commencement ceremony.

On the livestream, university officials stood 6 feet apart on stage. Asianna listened to Pomp and Circumstance and watched classmates’ names scroll across the screen.

She thought about all the friends she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to, the parties they’d planned, all the things she had to forsake.

“Everything felt so … I don’t know … incomplete,” she said.

The call came five days later. Asianna was at work and tried not to scream.

“We want to offer you the position,” the woman said. “Are you ready to move to Chicago?” The job was similar to what Asianna had been doing in Tallahassee, but for adults instead of students, $19 an hour instead of $10.30, full time, with health insurance.

Asianna asked, “When can I start?”

She is so excited, and a little nervous.

“I’m going to learn to navigate mass transit, see snow, trade my bathing suit for a winter coat.”

She knows it might be months, even a year, before sports resume. She wants to believe they’ll come back, and she can still follow her dream.

Chicago is a much bigger sports market than Tampa Bay, she pointed out. Just being there will expose her to possibilities.

“I’m going to start a podcast called ‘She’s Got Game,’ where I’ll interview athletes about cooking and fashion,” she said. “I’m going to email NBC sports in Chicago about an internship.” She had applied for one months ago, but it’s on hold indefinitely.

“My class of 2020 can’t let this define us,” she said. “We have to move forward.”

— Lane DeGregory

• • •

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