But with the fall of Iraq, the past pulls at them like a riptide. The memory of 1981 swirls through the school's decaying classrooms, finally forcing both teachers and students to confront its legacy.
"The nightmare is over," said Asim Qasim, the current principal. "I think now we can look back on these students as an ideal."
"We have to remember what happened in our school and in every school where students were executed," said Mohammed Thamer, a 17-year-old entering his final year. "This should be in our new history books."
None of the executed students' families received a body for burial. Only now are they able to express their grief, and they are demanding answers and justice.
"What happened at that school?" said Saadiya Hassan Ahmed Tuaima, 57, whose 17-year-old son, Nadhim Kasim Mohammed, was arrested in October 1981 and hanged in 1983. "They were just boys. Good boys."
"What did you do, my son, that they took you?" she said, weeping as she looked at her son's photograph. "Where is your tomb?"
The first graffiti, which appeared in the 1979-80 school year, was simply "Down with Saddam" scrawled in block letters on the blackboard of the high school's Section D, which had students who specialized in the sciences, according to Aladin Ahmed Morad, an Arabic teacher at the school in 1981 and now retired.
The 1979 revolution in neighboring Iran had electrified many among Iraq's Shiite majority, which had long been dominated by the Sunni minority. "The students were fascinated by the revolution in Iran," Morad said. "And they had a naïve belief that the government could be changed."
Founded in 1934, Kadhimiya High School was one of the city's most prestigious educational institutions. Among its graduates are the new education minister, Alaa Aldin Abdul Saheb Alwan, and a former interior minister under Hussein, Mahmoud Diab Ahmed, now in U.S. custody. The school, built around a courtyard, serves a bustling commercial district near a celebrated Shiite shrine honoring two 9th-century holy men, Musa Kadhim and his grandson, Muhammad Jawad. There was little loyalty to Hussein in the neighborhood, but its schools, like every other educational institution in Iraq, were tightly controlled by the government.
"Saddam realized the power of education, and he wanted to control it absolutely," said Sherzad Talabani, a Kurdish adviser to the new Education Ministry in Baghdad. "He wanted to mold every child from infancy."
Propaganda infiltrated nearly all subjects. Reading comprehension assignments in high school English textbooks included articles on the use of oil as a weapon against Anglo American imperialism; third-graders learned poems that lauded Hussein and recited lines such as "when he passes near, the roses celebrate."