To her graduation, a glowing Nicole Lewis wore a new white backless dress with shimmy-shimmies at the bottom and matching strappy shoes.
Marcus Armstead and his date rode in a black limousine to his after-graduation dance, and then, with some other couples, went for a late dinner at an upscale restaurant in Prince George's County.
Another group of recent graduates celebrated with a class party at Cattail Creek Country Club in western Howard County. Parents hired a disc jockey, and the club served a catered meal, poolside.
Nicole and Marcus are both 13.
The country-clubbers are 10 and 11.
Some say it's a sign of wealth. Some say it's a sign of the times.
In recent years, parents and schools have begun to put more emphasis on end-of-the-year ceremonies for elementary and middle school children. No more saving the glitz for high school graduations; they've fattened up the fifth-grade programs and are going for more glamour in eighth.
Instead of just a cheerful awards program and a cookies-and-punch reception, schools have added slide shows, memory books, field trips, picnics and keynote speakers. Parents bring roses, balloons and gifts to school and hold private celebrations.
Anthony Harold, Nicole's principal at Harper's Choice Middle School in Howard County, said that when he started in education 23 years ago he never saw 13-year-old girls in glittery dresses and pin curls, or dates leaving middle school dances for dinner and after-parties.
"I am seeing a significant difference in the elaborateness of the celebrations," Harold said. "We've gotten away from the totally casual."
Jackie Klamerus, assistant principal at Pointers Run Elementary, said she has noticed end-of-the-year celebrations becoming more elaborate over the past decade or so.
And not just because of parents. Even schools - which are discouraged from staging overly flashy events and are prohibited from calling the events "graduations" - are doing more.
This year, Pointers Run had to hold its event at River Hill High to hold more guests. The 120 fifth-graders traveled to the high school a day early to rehearse - how to walk in, where to sit, who's singing and when.
"It was really a big deal for them," Klamerus said. "They were walking around on cloud nine in anticipation."
At Burleigh Manor Middle, the last week of school is deemed eighth-grade week, complete with a trip to Gunpowder Falls, an ice cream social, a student/faculty basketball game, a closing ceremony, a dance and a breakfast.
"It sounds like a lot," said eighth-grade team leader Toni Ireland. "But it's really spaced out. We've gradually added things as the years have gone by. The parents really do the majority of it."
Keeping it simple
Not everyone has stepped up the celebrations, however.
Gregory Eckles, Carroll County director of secondary schools, said he didn't know of any extensive ceremonies for young pupils. Eighth-graders go to Hershey Park, as they have for years, and there are all sorts of awards programs.
"I have heard that some people really make a big deal ... that some people even have caps and gowns for kindergartners, but I haven't seen that here," Eckles said.
In Howard County, Centennial Lane Elementary School PTA President Cindy Feinstein said her school also attempts to keep the festivities fairly tame.
"They don't want to make it comparable to what happens when you move on from high school to college," she said. "It's just a chance to say 'Congratulations, you did a good job.' "
But some parents want to make the moment more memorable.
A parent at Bushy Park Elementary arranged for the departing fifth-graders a pool party and catered cookout at the posh Cattail Creek Country Club, where she is a member. The fine cuisine? Hamburgers, chicken breasts and mac and cheese.
Marcus, who finishes up next week at Kettering Middle in Prince George's County, said there were about 10 other limousines that dropped off pupils at the school's eighth-grade dance last week, in addition to the one he rode in with eight others.
He thought it was a little much for a group of 13-year-olds. "But it was fun, though," he said.
State Board of Education spokesman Ron Peiffer said graduation ceremonies for younger kids have been going on for years, but the more extravagant parties are probably more recent.
"I think it's symptomatic of the wealth in society now," he said. "People have much more disposable income than they did 15 or 20 years ago."
But Harold, principal of Harper's Choice, said all the extras that today's kids get are worth it.
"You have to think, 'What kinds of things did [kids] have to overcome then?' and 'What do they have to overcome now?' There's so much more that they have to overcome to reach this point than they did 23 years ago."
"I know it's just a middle school promotion," said Nicole's mother, Alice, of Columbia. "But these days, high school is a major milestone. And it takes a little more time and interest just to plant that seed to spur them on to get to high school."
Vicki Beck is a child psychotherapist at the University of Maryland and a consultant at Mercy Medical Center.
Beck said celebrations marking transition periods in children's lives are more important than people think. The events help kids to let go of the past and embrace the new, and encourages them to develop a sense of self-worth, she said.
Emphasis on education
"If done right, it really places the emphasis on the importance of education," Beck said. "Regardless if you're at the bottom of the education chain or the top, it says, 'Congratulations. You made it.'"
Beck said celebrations should be appropriate; she frowns on limousines and overnight parties for youngsters. Even co-ed dances, for elementary school kids, are a bit much, she said.
Nicole Lewis wasn't thinking about self-worth or milestones as she danced (some) of the night away in the Harper's Choice cafeteria to Puff Daddy and Britney Spears. She danced with her boyfriend of two weeks, whose neatly pressed shirttail hung low. She danced mostly with her girlfriends, many of whom had traded their chunky heels for stocking feet.
It was their last social event toGether, and they just wanted to have fun.
"I'll miss all of them if they go different places," Nicole said. "I hope we all stay together."
Eighth-grade math teacher Brad Barth has seen it all many times before, and he has made an observation. No matter how much money parents spend, no matter how elaborate the celebrations, one thing will stay the same.
"After the last song everybody cries," Barth said. "And then they all go away and live happily ever after."