Everything came and went pretty fast for 17-year-old Chong Hyong Yi.Moving from Andover to North County High for his senior year, merging with a former rival school and keeping his grades up were all challenges he took in stride.

Not that it seemed to bother him. Monday,the South Korean-born student with the 3.94 grade-point average became North County's first valedictorian.

"It's pretty neat being the first val," said Chong with a wide smile before graduation. "That means no one can ever beat that." Chong is headed for the honors engineering program at the University of Maryland.

Once the program began Monday, there was little hint of theparental fears and teacher complaints that once greeted the notion of merging rivals Andover and Brooklyn Park.

Rows of students in robes -- girls in red and boys in black -- gathered at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for the school's first graduation exercise.

Principal William Wentworth was there, apparently putting asideworries about money for a permanent school site. The County Council is holding up the money until Board of Education members agree to review a countywide redistricting plan.

But this was a night to focuson the graduation.

"I'm very excited and very proud," Wentworth said.

"They are not only the first graduates from North County, butit is the first time in the county's history that students were asked to leave their old schools and graduate from a new one. They established a new tradition. That was done professionally, and they set thestandards for all future graduates.

"Being former rivals was never an issue. Other issues of money for the school are not a concern. The elected officials will meet the needs of their constituents."

After a morning of rehearsals, 294 graduates stepped proudly to the ceremonial beat of "Pomp and Circumstance" performed by the school bandand listened to a two-page address from Chong.

His message urged students to maintain their individuality and be prepared to face the adversities that lie ahead by establishing a strong foundation of values.

"Do not become a house of mirrors," Chong told fellow graduates, "someone who only reflects others. Instead, become a house of brick -- think for yourself, stand strong on your beliefs and become an individual.

"Be true to yourself and do not force your views on others; accept them for who they are and do not try to make them mirrorimages of yourself. Be a house of brick, one who will survive the tragedies and the hardships."

On stage, Chong, salutatorian Kevin Lascola, class presidentKeisha Dotson and student government representative Thomasina McCoy looked out over classmates and friends -- some of whom they have known only since September.

In her farewell address, 18-year-old Keisha reminded classmates that their year at the school will go down in history.

"We are the first class, and we set the standards and the precedent," she said. "Remember today, but look forward to tomorrow."

Today, nine months after the great experiment began, these teary-eyed graduates say they had too little time together. And they offer advice to those who follow.

"Don't let anyonetell you how things are going to be between Brooklyn Park and Andover," Kevin said.

"They didn't believe that we could come together and be successful. We've proven them wrong."

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