This graduation is just like every other one.

The graduates wear formal robes.

They march into the hall to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." Their parents, grandparents, teachers and friends beam and whisperproudly.

Members of the graduating class give farewell remarks; officials send their greetings. In the end, most everyone present has laughed and cried.

But this graduation is not like any other graduation.

Some years, most of the graduates are in wheelchairs. Some years, a few of the graduates wear seemingly torturous steel appliances to assist them in walking or standing.

This year, though, all walk to the stage unaided. Like every other year at the Carroll CountyEducation Center, this year is different.

The center, which instructs special students from age 2 to 21, is the former Exceptional Center; the name changed with the move to a modern, new facility. Somehow, the center remains exceptional, regardless of the nomenclature.

The teachers are exceptional. They live for the smallest possible gains by their students -- a new self-care skill, an improved small motor movement, response to a simple visual or verbal stimulus.

Theseteachers do not see their students score 1,300 on the SAT. Their students don't go off to prestigious colleges and universities. These teachers patiently help their students painstakingly build the most basic of life skills.

The parents are exceptional. They provide transport in specially outfitted vehicles. They assist with personal hygiene. They deny themselves vacations, nights out, even job opportunities, because their children need exceptional care.

The staff membersare exceptional. The custodians, bus drivers, office staff, principal, and supervisor -- each one plays a part in the lives of these graduates. Each takes personal responsibility.

Mary Louise "Mom" Clarkhas been the secretary at the center for 21 years. She has never seen a class like the Class of '91. For one thing, this class is all girls.

Said Clark: "They're just a great group, hard workers, I can tell you that. They're very proud of their achievements."

And well they should be. Five of the seven are employed; five are recipients of the Presidential Academic Award for Exceptional Effort.

The seven are Toni Cook, 20, of the Sykesville area; Linda Carlisle, 19, and identical twins Stacie and Suzanne Whitehurst, 20, of the Westminsterarea; Patricia Driver, 21, Theresa Mullinix, 18, and Shelley Turner,20, of Hampstead.

Toni, Theresa, and Pat gave the graduation address.

Of her years at the center, Pat said, "I have learned to get along with other people."

Theresa expressed her gratitude for the support of faculty, staff, and parents.

"Thank you for pushing me through the hard years of school," said Theresa.

Toni summed up the occasion and the school's philosophy best of all: "I feel inside just like you."

These young women are the embodiment of the democratic ideal of the American philosophy of education: that each individual has the right to reach his or her fullest potential.

They are the embodiment of the philosophy of Carroll County schools: that each individual has the potential to make a unique contribution to our society.

Their graduation represents a joint investment of their own hard work and that of all the members of the community who have supported them.

Robin Farinholt, the newly appointed acting principal, has been at the school for 11 years.

"These are some marvelous kids-- kids I've known since they were 2 and 3 years old," she said.

For the graduates, their families and center staff members, the long-term investment is the one that yields results.

So, in some ways, this graduation is like every other graduation.

The East Middle School Band plays "Pomp and Circumstance" with traditional dignity. Thestudent choir sings "Walk Tall" with enthusiastic volume. And Mom Clark and Robin Farinholt and other friends of the graduates beam and smile and cry.

Because this graduation is like no other.

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