The three middle-aged women -- wearing strikingly similar blue print dresses and pearls -- huddled closely in the corner, their eyes following each of the former high school classmates who walked through the door. They had only been there about 30 minutes, and sat nervously over their drinks.

Their whispers and nervous giggles grew louder. One woman clutched her pearls so tightly the long strand broke. Her old roommate and best friend till this day shredded a crumpled napkin. The third chewed furiously on her long, perfectly manicured nails. She repeated how sick to her stomach she felt and that she wasn't sure she could make it through this reunion.

All because he was coming. Her first love, she explained. The man of her dreams. But she was the daughter of a wealthy professional man. His father was unemployed. So, after they graduated from Mary Potter High School, a private school for black students in Oxford, N.C., she went to college and married a lawyer. They live "a very nice life with very nice children," she said, her voice starting to quiver, but a day hasn't gone by in 25 or so years that she hasn't thought about him. Whom has he married? What does he look like? Does he ever think of her?

Twenty minutes later a tall, rugged man with graying hair appeared at the door. Just like in the movies, their eyes met. "Honey Bunny, is that you?" she shrieked, leaping across the room into his arms.

"It's me, Sweetcheeks," he replied. Tears ran down his face. His wife wasn't nearly as excited to see Sweetcheeks.

It was the Mary Potter High School Reunion at The Hyatt Regency Hotel, with about 600 graduates from across the country attending, about 100 from the Washington, D.C., area.

Founded in the late 19th century, Mary Potter was primarily a boarding school; however, it also accepted students from the country and a nearby orphanage. It was one of the few preparatory schools for blacks in the South. The 71st commencement, in 1969, was the last commencement. Mary Potter is now a public junior high school.

At Friday evening's Hawaiian luau, the Potterites, as they call themselves, described their strong attachment to the school. Many of the graduates went on to become doctors, lawyers, ministers and educators, and credit their success to the difficult course work and strict discipline.

"I've done a lot in my lifetime," said William West, class of '40, now a professor at Howard University's College of Medicine, "but those were the finest years of my life."

Ralph Jackson, class of '45, who works for the Washington, D.C., Department of Recreation, said nothing can compare to his high school years. "They were beautiful, beautiful times. We weren't classmates, we were a family. That's why after all these years there is still so much love here."

Jackson and his friend Marshall Colston, vice president of West Virginia State College, recalled the days when lights out was a 9 o'clock, the students marched to church in a straight line, and boys and girls could only socialize from 4 p.m. until dusk on weekends.

"We finally convinced them to let us have a dance with both the boys and the girls together," Colston said. "When I see what goes on in dormitories today, I realize things have certainly changed."

The oldest graduate at the reunon, Rev. Paul Johnson, class of '28, said the regimented atmosphere had a positive influence. The teachers and the rules were absolutely inflexible. "But it made us hard workers. What I learned at Mary Potter I carried with me for the rest of my life."

Saturday night there was a formal dinner dance for the Potterites, sort of like a grown-up prom. Marilyn Tyler Brown, assistant superintendent for the D.C. Schools, acted as emcee. "This is just jubilation," said Brown, class of '52. "Seeing these people again in such an intense feeling, I can't even express it with words."

They danced to the music of Potterite Jimmy Tyler and his band. Old sweethearts swayed slowly. "Hey, you look as good as you did in the 10th grade," said a pudgy, balding man to the woman with whom he was dancing. "What's your secret?"

"It was easy," she responded with a smile. "I got rid of you."

In between songs, the showed each other pictures of the children, the grandchildren, and even the pets. They discused Tupperware, marriages, the problems of black youth.

"We were black, but we were lucky blacks," said one Potterite to the people at his table. "Even the kids from the orphanage had a fantastic opportunity. Mary Potter opened doors. I think too often we forget those, black and white, who are not as fortunate."

The graduates listened to the words of Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. from the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, both at the dinner dance and at the farewell brunch yesterday. Charles E. Gregory, a 1931 graduate and teacher at Mary Potter for 27 years, was moved by Chavis' words. "He told us not to forget our roots," explained Gregory, who was honored for his dedication to the school. "I believe what he said, we should work together to make things better for our race."

As the Potterites packed their cars to head home, many made the usual promises to stay in touch. They exchanged addresses, telephone numbers and final embraces.Honey Bunny and Sweetcheeks awkwardly shook hands. "Don't worry," he joked, "next time I'll leave my wife at home."