When teacher Sammie Real first came to Harford County as a member of the Marines, he said he heard one thing time and time again: "You don't want your kids to go to Aberdeen [High School]."
That was before Real was offered a teaching position at the high school and discovered the perception was wrong.
"Within a couple of days, I realized I had been lied to," Real told the class of 2013 during their graduation, in their gymnasium dedicated to the AHS Eagles, on Tuesday night.
"This is quite possibly the most warmest group of students I have ever dealt with," Real said. "There is no cookie cutter that will fit Aberdeen High School."
He told the soon-to-be graduates, sitting quietly in their blue and gold caps and gowns, to ignore the nicknames of "Aber-dumb."
The 324 members of the Class of 2013 were more than eager to show off that warmth and confidence, giving standing ovations to each of their school speakers and telling passionate stories about their lives and time at the high school.
Class president Charise Scruggs said she learned the importance of staying positive after her father died when she was 12, just after Christmas.
She said his absence left an emptiness in her and she turned to God before realizing that without her father, she would not be standing on the stage Tuesday and pursuing forensic science and social psychology.
Her motto for the speech was "moving out, on and up," she said, telling her classmates that "after tonight, everything changes."
Charise said obstacles do not have to stop students and she encouraged them not to wallow in self-pity or take the easy path of cynicism.
"It's going to get hard sometimes and you are going to want to give up on more than one occasion," she said before explaining her pastor said one should have a bouncy-ball mentality.
"The only place to go from down is up," she said. "It is time for us to rise up."
"I have no doubt that each one of us will soar like the Eagles we will always be," she said to a loud roar of applause.
Shayla Schlossenberg, who described herself as "just a student that was interested in giving a speech on behalf of the students," also got a lot of cheers for getting the focus for her speech from rapper Drake, as well as a Google search on how to write speeches.
"Started from the bottom; now we're here," she quoted from a Drake song.
She recalled when the graduates were awkward freshmen but soon learned what great teachers they had at Aberdeen.
"I will miss Mr. [Joel] Leff," she said about her math teacher. "Everyone in here has a Mr. Leff, one faculty member you will remember or who brightened your day."
She also remembered teachers who gave her plenty of fly-fishing advice "I will probably never use" or whose true love is the Revolutionary orator Patrick Henry.
A few other members of the Class of 2013 who were waiting anxiously before the ceremony said they were still preparing themselves to walk across the stage.
"It hasn't set in yet," Jamie Blanchette said while talking to Janey Alvarez in the hallway.
Both girls plan to go to Harford Community College, and Jamie wants to pursue early childhood education while Janey will study general education because she will be moving out of state.
Janey said she was mostly "nervous about people," explaining she was anxious about walking across the stage.
She also said she felt "relief" about finally graduating, while Jamie said she thought it meant "starting our adult lives."
Other state and local officials also wished the graduates well.
One was Harford County Councilman Dick Slutzky, who represents Aberdeen and who has not missed a graduation since 1973, Principal Michael O'Brien said.
He advised students to investigate everything, learn just for fun and not think they are smarter than the rest.
State Del. Glen Glass recalled the many unique aspects of Aberdeen, like the Bush River, Chesapeake Bay, Ripken Stadium and "friendly, hard-working people."
Board of Education member Thomas Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, gave his first graduation speech at Aberdeen.
"Whatever you choose, always remember that the choice is yours and yours alone," he told the students.
Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell, the senior commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was also sitting on the stage, as state Sen. Barry Glassman pointed out.
Glassman noted that Ferrell has reached out to Harford County and taken part in parades and community events like no one else has.
He urged students to "thank a soldier" for all of their many freedoms as Americans.