Copiague High School senior John Costa wore a big smile across his face Thursday night as he danced in the center of a circle comprised of hundreds of his classmates at his prom.
All their eyes were on the 17-year-old who sported a light pink suit and bow tie, and they waved their hands, cheering him on as he busted out a few dance moves.
The moment might not have seemed significant to anyone unfamiliar with Costa, but for those who knew of his struggles with extreme shyness, bullying, depression and family issues, it meant everything.
"I'm completely different, a better person," Costa said while taking a break from the party at Carlyle on the Green in Farmingdale's Bethpage State Park. "If I was still shy, I probably wouldn't even be here tonight."
Bradley Reminick, the assistant principal for the Class of 2015, said he remembered when John was a freshman.
"When he first came into school, he was petrified," he said. "Now, he's one of the most popular kids in the grade."
Costa has probably been through more difficult experiences than your average high school senior. In middle school, bullying problems led to him being sent to a school for troubled teens for part of eighth and ninth grades, he said. Then, he said his family was displaced from their home due to a serious fire. For six months, they lived with his grandmother in a senior living complex.
"It was really cramped, I slept on an air mattress, which was very uncomfortable, but I dealt with it," he said.
Costa said the turning point for him was somewhere around junior year. He found a group of friends that he connected with and started performing in the school's theatrical shows, playing characters that ranged from George in "Of Mice and Men" to McLovin in a sketch based on the popular 2007 comedy "Superbad."
At the senior dinner, he crowd-surfed three times, and he even competed in the "Mr. Copiague" talent show against 19 other male students.
Reminick said it's been "remarkable" to watch Costa come out of his shell.
"The kids think he's hysterical, the administration thinks he's hysterical," Reminick said. "I'm convinced he's going to be a writer for 'Saturday Night Live.'"
Costa, who plans to study film when he attends SUNY Purchase in the fall, said he also found a mentor, a "father figure," in his English teacher, Walter Wojcik.
"He's like Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society,' " Costa said, referring to the teacher role Williams played in the 1989 hit film.
Costa saw the movie the night before his prom, and said one of the famous speeches in it best sums up the lesson he learned from his time at Copiague.
"Carpe diem," he said. "You have to live your life and embrace high school. You are either going to make it a terrible experience that you're going to block out or a fun one that you'll want to remember."
Costa said he's happy he realized this even if the epiphany didn't happen until halfway through high school.
Before hitting the dance floor, he added, "I can't magine going through your entire high school career living in the shadows."