This class has always gone first


They've been upperclassmen the entire time they've been at Winters Mill High. They've taken the reins in establishing everything from organizations to team spirit. They've introduced traditions.

Along the way, they have gained a sense of confidence few of them could have imagined when they walked through the doors three years ago as 10th-graders.

They are the first graduating class of the Westminster-area school that opened with 590 ninth- and 10th-graders in August 2002. On Wednesday, 283 seniors will receive their diplomas in a ceremony at McDaniel College.

They've always been the school's oldest students. In a sense, they've been seniors since their sophomore year.

"Everything around us, you look at and think, 'We did that,'" said Garrett Love, 17. "Everybody who comes after us will be imitating what we've started. We're the originals."

Love admits that when this school year began, he and his classmates shrugged off the idea that there was anything special about being the school's first graduating class. But as their senior year draws to a close, many of them have begun to reflect on their high school years.

The experience has fostered a sense of maturity most of them are just beginning to appreciate.

"In our sophomore year, I don't think we saw it that way," Love said. "It was hard work. It was a lot of responsibility having to get everything started from nothing. But looking back on it now, it didn't hurt us. It helped us."

Love said he would head off this fall to study business in an honors program at the University of Maryland, College Park, with confidence in his leadership abilities. He attributes this self-assurance to being able to assume greater responsibilities early on, such as being captain of the golf team since his sophomore year.

Principal Sherri-Le Bream said she was most proud of the leadership that she has watched blossom in this class of students - and it's what she would miss most.

"They've gained quite a bit of confidence," she said. "It's the leadership they've demonstrated, without a lot of role models."

On Friday, as the seniors made their way out of the building for the last time as students, many of them gathered in the school's foyer for hugs, goodbyes and a few tears.

Becky Harrison, 17, said it was just beginning to hit her that she would be leaving behind so many friends, especially those who are now juniors and who had started there with her three years ago.

"All the juniors here think they're graduating with us," Harrison joked as she wiped away tears after reading a letter from an 11th-grade friend. "It's going to hit them on Monday, when we're not here."

Laura Bailey, a 16-year-old junior, hugged Harrison and agreed that the building would seem especially empty tomorrow.

"Because we started out together in a new school, it has always seemed like we were one class," Bailey said. "There has been a bonding thing."

Bailey and Harrison were among the large crowd hovering in the school's foyer beneath two long rows of commemorative banners - 115 of them emblazoned with messages in the school's colors of burgundy, white and silver - bearing good wishes such as "Follow your dreams" and "You're out of here!"

The banners, created as a means for parents to honor the graduates, are just one example of the kinds of traditions being set this year, said Gordon K. Love, assistant principal and Garrett Love's father.

"We heard no other school had done senior banners," the assistant principal said. "We attempted to make sure our seniors had as many experiences and activities as any other senior class might have in the future. ... They will be able to look back and say, 'We've had a pretty good three years.'"

Other activities many hope to see continued include the dinner cruise seniors recently enjoyed as well as a senior breakfast, where the students thanked their families for their support.

Stephanie Fiore, 18, class president, agrees that she and her classmates were reluctant trailblazers, but says she and her fellow Falcons quickly adapted to their roles as leaders.

"It has been stressful without having seniors beforehand to set the example for us," she said Friday in between hugs and goodbyes. "We were doing everything for the first time. ... We hated it at first, but we love it now."

She's not quite sure what to make of one teacher's declaration that this senior class had left a legacy for future students to follow.

"I can't tell if it's that's serious," Fiore said. "But we have put a good mark on [the school]. We have carved a good path."

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