Four years ago, Tishuana Nixon wasn't sure she'd graduate with her friends.
"Freshman year, I thought I was the class clown, always getting in trouble," Nixon said. "I messed up. But at the end of freshman year, I saw the seniors who didn't graduate. And I didn't want to be like them."
That revelation put a scare into Nixon -- the thought of seeing her friends graduate without her didn't sit well with her. So in a move that showed growing maturity, Nixon put herself back on track.
On Friday, the college-bound 18-year-old graduated from Port Chester High School -- not only on schedule, but with a scholarship. Like Nixon, 17-year-old Carol Torres also earned scholastic honors. Torres graduated in the top 10 percent of her class, and she's headed into fall with two scholarships under her belt.
Aside from their school, hometown and free period antics, the teens share another bond -- they've both been working with children at the Carver Center, serving as tutors, mentors and friends to the younger kids.
As a kid, Nixon attended programs at the center, and as an older student she realized she could return the favor by lending a hand -- for local kids, she said, it's "somewhere you can come where you won't be in trouble."
Torres and Nixon say they recognize the importance of such a place for kids, and they want to be part of the solution. The Carver Center has 120 kids in its after school program -- it's got a playground, the only indoor pool in town, and it offers classes on everything from dance to playing the violin. Kids can get help with their homework, take a swim and sit down to dinner, all before their parents pick them up at 6 p.m.
The center bridges that crucial time gap between school dismissal and the arrival of mom and dad -- about 14 million kids go home to empty, unsupervised houses after school, and books have been written about the societal and psychological impact.
"We're not school," said Elizabeth Cook, the center's development director. "We seek to align ourselves to compliment the schools, but we also try to set ourselves apart by being a place where kids can come and have fun, and experience things that they might not get to otherwise."
To help provide a safe haven during otherwise unsupervised after-school hours, the center relies on volunteers. Nixon and Torres were two of those volunteers, until they joined the staff of the Carver Center as real employees.
"They were so good, we couldn't let them go," Cook said.
For the past year, Torres and Nixon have been helping kids with math problems, taking them on in water polo, chasing them around the playground and sharing stories with them during snack time.
Although Torres will move on to the adult world and Westchester Community College in the fall -- she wants to be a nutritionist, or a businesswoman, or maybe a publicist -- she's learned a few things by hanging out with third-graders.
"It's fun," she said. "It's kind of like being a kid again too."
Torres and Nixon say they'll miss joking around during free periods in the library, Assistant Principal Joseph Puglia ("He was the cool principal. He reminded me of Mr. Rogers."), and mentoring the kids at the Carver Center.
But what will they miss most?
Torres shook her head -- she'd already gone back to visit her teachers, just five days after graduation. Then she considered the question: "The people, and my friends."
Nixon nudged Torres with her elbow.
"Awww," she said, "I'll miss you too."