Nicole Castillo was determined to get President Clinton's autograph yesterday -- and wasn't about to let the crowd of 1,500 or a small army of security guards deter her.
The 13-year-old showed up for Mr. Clinton's visit to Mayfield Woods Middle School with a copy of "Leading With My Heart," a book by Virginia Clinton Kelly, the president's late mother.
For three hours, Nicole waited patiently, listening to a parade of speakers and Mr. Clinton's anti-drug speech. And as he worked the crowd afterward, she wormed her way toward him.
After 10 minutes, Nicole was close -- but not close enough.
"So I went through a guy's legs to get in," she said -- and came up staring at the commander in chief himself.
"I went, 'Bill! Bill!' Someone told me to call him 'Mr. President,' " she recalled.
She did -- and got her book signed.
As the crowd sweated in 86-degree heat under sunny skies waiting for the president's arrival, members of the Mayfield Woods Middle School band and choir were called on for extra duty.
"It was wonderful for us because it gave us an additional performance opportunity for a pretty important crowd," said music teacher Charla Phillips.
Tuba player Barry Dagold even made it through "Excalibur," his hardest piece. "It's sort of fast," he had said earlier, a little worried about making a mistake in front of such a distinguished audience.
The weather seemed to wilt everyone, from students in jeans to U.S. Secret Service agents in dark suits. Sixth-graders on placard duty -- they spelled out "Be Healthy And Drug Free" -- turned their cards into fans.
Mr. Clinton also seemed affected as he sat on the stage. At 11:21 a.m., he waved over a Secret Service agent and whispered into his ear. Twenty seconds later, the agent returned with a pair of sunglasses, which the president wore until he spoke.
A few members of the crowd, including one child, reported dizziness, although no one had to go to hospital, said Lt. Chris Canjemi, a Howard County fire department spokesman. Dawn Koloini and Karlen Murray, who were in the audience, complained that school officials sat on chairs in front of the stage while some students were forced to stand.
"That was wrong," Mrs. Koloini said of the seating arrangement. "This was for the kids."
Security was tight. Sharpshooters perched on the school roof. Plain-clothes agents watched the woods. Uniformed police watched the buses. Unmarked police cars formed a road block on Red Barn Way.
At one point, parents had to stand in line for more than an hour to pass through portable metal detectors set up by the Capital Park Police. Police sought to downplay that experience by joking with parents and children who set off alarms.
"You must be fun in an electrical storm," one officer told a woman wearing five bracelets and three sets of earrings.
A 30-year-old woman who lives next to the school answered her door yesterday morning to find Secret Service agents and Howard County police officers. "They checked our house, asked if we had any weapons," she said.
A strong supporter of Mr. Clinton, the woman took a short stroll with her 2-year-old boy to watch the speeches. Agents searched the diaper bag on the way in.
The woman said she knows only too well about illegal drugs. "I saw a life very close to mine get ruined."
Many students in the crowd said they hadn't used drugs and said Mr. Clinton's message would keep them from doing so. But one eighth-grader said he smoked marijuana as a sixth grader in another state before moving to Howard County.
"I tried a joint before," he said. "It was kind of nasty."
Asked if he still uses drugs, the student said he doesn't -- although his friends snickered at the answer.
Of all Howard County eighth-graders, 63 percent have tried alcohol and 6 percent have tried marijuana, according to the most recent study by the county. And Mr. Clinton said in his speech that marijuana use is increasing among teen-agers.
But judging from their cheers and excitement, most students in the crowd were impressed that the president had come to their school.
"It was cool," said sixth-grader Martin Williams, still beaming about his handshake with the president. "He looked taller, bigger, everything."