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Sept. 11 muscles in on their memories

People like Candace Crawford will look back on 9/11 as a touchstone, a fateful day when dreams collided with chaos.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2002

People like Candace Crawford will look back on 9/11 as a touchstone, a fateful day when dreams collided with chaos.

PINELLAS PARK -- Candice Crawford had a lot on her mind.

Keeping up her grades, which her mom was hounding her about. Leading the mock trial team. Choreographing the color guard routine and picking out uniforms everyone liked, "which turned out to be difficult."

Then Candice went to school on Sept. 11.

The Pinellas Park High School senior was in her third period Advanced Placement European history class. Someone ran in and told her teacher to turn on the TV.

She saw a second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Candice called her mom, "just kind of to touch base. Everyone was freaking out." When she walked to her next class, she remembers that the usual yelps in the hallway were replaced by whispers.

Pinellas Park High, home of the Patriots, was stunned silent.

The Class of 2002 will always be linked to Sept. 11, as the Class of 1964 was to Kennedy's assassination and the Class of 1991 was to the Persian Gulf War. Thirteen of Pinellas' 16 high schools hold graduation ceremonies today. Pinellas Park High students graduated Wednesday. For some students, Sept. 11 is just a page in the yearbook. In Pinellas Park's "On the Outside Looking In," it's page 16.

In Candice's world, it's the moment she lost control of her well-crafted plans, the ones she started to figure out in elementary school.

It was supposed to go like this: Coast Guard (to diversify her resume). College to study history and political science. Law school. Corporate law job.

Then, the Democrat said, a political campaign. One day, maybe a run for the White House.

"Not a lot of high school kids say that," said Candice, 18. "A lot of kids take their parents' view that politics is evil."

But after Sept. 11, she talked to a Coast Guard recruiter. He couldn't promise she wouldn't have to travel overseas at some point. Even, he said, if all she wanted to do was test water samples.

"I'm not into the whole combat thing," she said.

So, now she'll start at the University of South Florida this fall. Maybe, she says, she'll consider the Coast Guard in a couple of years.

In October, her mom lost her sales and marketing job at a Clearwater Beach resort. She didn't find another job until January.

And her boyfriend, Mike Gundel, thought briefly about signing up for the armed forces. "That kind of freaked me out," Candice said.

She persuaded him to pursue a pharmacy career instead.

Veteran biology teacher Pat Hughes said she has noticed subtle changes in the students: They clap louder when they hear a peer is pursuing a military career; more recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The older kids have more of a sense of reality," Hughes said. "The younger kids are so protected."

So, the angst over the terrorist attacks slowly faded. Students moved on.

So did Candice.

"It was just another thing you deal with," Candice said.

Oh, Candice's classmates in the criminal justice academy magnet program still talked about Sept. 11, the history of Afghanistan, their proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, the Sami Al-Arian controversy. But the all-day TV viewing stopped a couple of weeks later, just in time for homecoming.

Candice is slender and stands almost 5-foot-10. Her sandy hair frames her face, curling at her chin. For her last day of high school, she picked out khaki capris, a fitted flowered T, pearl studs for her ears.

In her circle of friends, she's called CJ -- for Candice Joy -- and she's the one who thinks of everything.

She knows all the rules for graduation, like the pantyhose requirement for women. To keep track of graduation festivities and guests, she mapped out her schedule hour by hour.

On her last day of school, Candice's friends freaked out. They kept pointing out the lasts -- last Pledge of Allegiance, last cafeteria fries, last time the soda machine eats our money.

Sometimes, Candice looked amused. Mostly, the senior, who smiles wide and often, looked serene.

"You know what's going to suck?" Candice asked her friends, Crystal Pierce and Ashley Fells, who also will attend USF. "When all the parties are over, we're going to be sitting around. No more teachers. No more friends. It's going to suck."

They remembered their senior ski trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where five girls and five guys played late-night charades. Five months later, Candice is still perplexed about how she ever could have acted out the movie Reservoir Dogs.

They remembered the homecoming dance and the prom, when Candice's strapless lavender dress had nine layers of crinoline. "Everyone called me Cinderella," she said.

Candice signed an endless stream of yearbooks, each message starting the same: "Wow, 4 years all gone. I'm really glad I got to know you."

"I mean, really," she confided. "You run out of things to say."

Then in the afternoon, she put on her red cap and gown for the first time. On the last day of class, seniors in the criminal justice academy walk in a "move up assembly," moving up to the stage in the auditorium. The other grades move to new seats, leaving one area open for this fall's freshman class.

"I'm not going to cry because it's over," Ashley decided. "I'm going to cry because it's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."

Candice beamed when she collected a $1,000 award to pursue law and when she marched onto the stage. At the end, when she and her classmates were urged to remember their roots, she cried.

She hugged the program director and her guidance counselor. Wiping her eyes and sniffing, she wandered the stage. She finally found Mike, who squeezed her hand and kissed her nose.

Then it was time to go. Candice had to get ready for a graduation party.

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