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A shared childhood

Teenagers who practically grew up together at a Catholic school gather to share memories and take one last group photo.

[Times photos: Amber Tanille Woolfolk]
Looking at a St. Paul Catholic School photograph on Sunday, Brian Eanes, 10, documents the day for his brother and Michael Gerardo, 17, tries to identify classmates.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Twenty-five high school seniors met at St. Paul Catholic School on Sunday to strengthen the ties that have bound them for almost two-thirds of their lives.

photo
Mary Burns, 17, left, and Zina Barnash, 18, laugh while watching a video of themselves as first-graders in a talent show and Christmas show.
They gathered in the afternoon under a towering canopy of trees that were only saplings when they planted them in June 1990, at the end of first grade, before they became best friends.

The teenagers met for the first time as 6-year-olds. Their teacher, Barbara Sheridan, dubbed them "the awesome first-grade class." She knew from the beginning that they were special.

"They were very talented and very loving toward each other," she said. "They always supported each other and they weren't ever mean to each other."

Sheridan had the chance to observe them as 9-year-olds when she taught them in fourth grade.

"One was good in art; one was good in English," she said. "They came together to make a newspaper, to make a play."

Not all of them stayed at St. Paul's through eighth grade, but with only a few exceptions, they remained close.

Their lives intersected in various ways. Many of the boys were altar servers. Most of the girls belonged to the same Brownie troop. They performed together in school plays and competed against each other in talent competitions. They learned to play softball, volleyball and soccer, as well as guitar, piano and drums.

Throughout the years, their parents stayed interested in what they were doing and encouraged their friendships. Sunday's reunion was the idea of one of the mothers.

Deanah Soto brought the class together at the end of each school year for a picture under the tree that grew along with their kinship. She wanted them to meet for one more photograph before they leave for college.

"I just thought it would be really neat for them to get back together to rediscover why they liked each other so much," she said.

In the course of the afternoon, that's exactly what they did.

They compared notes on the earthworm-collecting project they did for science class. They reminisced about sending letters and yellow ribbons to the Desert Storm troops. They pored over photo albums, reverently touching frozen images of their childhoods. They laughed as they watched home videos of themselves carving pumpkins at Halloween, acting out a Nativity scene at Christmas, cheering the basketball team to victory.

Jennifer Gaskey surprised herself by remembering the words to the song she sang in a talent show chorus line with seven other little girls. Meagan Wray laughed until she cried as she watched herself and her twin sister, Kristen, wrapped in huge bath towels, singing Splish Splash.

Their memories tumbled out in a rush of words during the two hours they spent together.

Patrick King remembered being the shy, quiet member of the class.

Alexis Wenning remembered having to keep a note on her desk that said "Keep it zipped," to remind her to be quiet.

Meredith Masi remembered being a flirt.

The friends also talked about a recent, sad event they shared: the death of Mary Burns' father in July 1999. Burns had been the maintenance man at St. Paul's and all the kids knew him.

Alexis remembered him as "my favorite "almost father.' " She said his death brought the friends closer together.

Mary was glad to have them around her.

"They were really there for me," she said. "They all called and stopped by. They offered their support. They came to the funeral."

Although they attend different high schools -- St. Petersburg Catholic, Boca Ciega, Lakewood, Northeast, St. Petersburg High -- their lives continue to intersect. They get together to go to the movies, to attend Mass, or just to hang out.

Jason Merritt thinks they have become even closer since the days when they had the same classroom.

"Back then we just went to school together," he said. "Now we're best friends."

Zina Barnash said they have been friends for so long, it's just natural for them to stick together.

"We have to work at it, but it's easy, because we're all so close," she said.

Patrick Hamilton believes they'll always know each other.

"We're probably going to move into retirement homes together," he said.

They're a long way from retirement, but their lives are moving forward. All of them have plans. Casey Baird has applied to the University of Florida. She wants to be a journalist. Stephen McEntegart has applied to Notre Dame. He wants to be a teacher.

Jonathon Gibson is thinking about joining the Coast Guard. Michael Gerardo wants to go to the University of South Florida to study computer technology.

Barbara Sheridan isn't surprised that things have turned out like this. She saw it coming back in 1989.

"They were unbelievable kids," she said. "They turned out to be unbelievable adults."

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