Laura McKeeman, 2012 Miss Florida and former Blue Mountain Beach resident, was all smiles Monday afternoon as she walked into Seaside Neighborhood School — her academic home during sixth and seventh grade.
"That's where I'd leave my xylophone," she remarked as she walked into the front office of the school.
Wearing blue jeans and a sleeveless, bright orange blouse, the Miss America pageant contestant was down-to-earth and excited to see how 30A has changed since she lived here 11 years ago.
"Some parts look exactly the same, which is weird because it really brings you back," she said while walking through the classrooms. "It's so beautiful it makes me never want to leave. It has the same warm feelings that I missed. I've got to get back here more."
After the tour, McKeeman introduced herself to the 131 Seaside Neighborhood School students in a brief assembly. Students greeted her with a glittery welcome banner.
Even in her sash and crown, McKeeman noted that she was a lot like the students — awkward moments and all.
"Sometimes middle school can seem a little funky," she said.
Most of those awkward moments happened right inside the Seaside school, which McKeeman was more than happy to share.
"I remember playing third baseman in a softball game," she recalled. "Someone hit a home run and I got so excited that I ran to home base. My little brother Dave, who is much cooler than me, wouldn't talk to me for a week."
Since middle school, McKeeman has learned the logistics of America's past-time and currently works for FOX Sports as a Southeast Recruiting Reporter, covering baseball and football.
Of all the things she has accomplished in her 24 years, there is one thing she wished she would've done sooner and that's volunteering. Community service, she told the students, looks great on college applications and feels great too. McKeeman herself is an advocate for Restoration and Preservation of Florida's Everglades and The Miracle League, an organization that custom-builds baseball fields for special needs children.
Miss Florida also offered a few more nuggets of advice to students. She told them about the importance of trusting themselves and trying new things — two important lessons that Seaside Neighborhood School instilled in McKeeman.
"I was given the opportunity to try different things," she said. "When they had band auditions I wanted to play the flute, but nothing would come out. I couldn't play any brass or wind instruments, so I tried the drums. It was so much fun."
Beyond the middle school band, McKeeman tried many different things like studying ballet in China, sports broadcasting and yes, even beauty pageants.
"My friends entered me in my first pageant," she said. "I did it as a joke, I had such a bad attitude. I had never even watched it on TV before."
After landing first runner-up and winning $1,000 in scholarship money, McKeeman saw that the Miss America Pageant System was more than bathing suits and world peace.
"They give over $300,000 in scholarships to women every year," she said. "If I can do it, you can do it."
Pageants were also a way for McKeeman to showcase another talent — ballet. Before going to college, she was accepted in the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.
During her short visit at the school, McKeeman graciously signed autographs and took countless pictures with students. She even ran into an old friend.
"I used to baby-sit you," she said excitedly to student Jack Berry.
In just a couple of hours, she left a lasting impression on the charter school.
"I thought it was pretty cool," said eighth grader Violet Mignot. "I liked all the stories, she made me feel like she's like all of us. It was inspiring."