The Rev. Lawrence McKinney said a prayer of thanks as he sat in Constitution Hall this week high above a crowded podium and watched his grandson and namesake walk across the stage wearing a dark blue cap and gown and holding a diploma from Anacostia High School.

"I'm proud he made it through. He should've graduated last year, but a girl entered his life and he got distracted. All is well now, though . . . all is well.

"He'll always be able to go forward from here. That makes me feel proud. I'm so glad," he said.

"Yeah, but I'm sad," said another grandson, 8, who sat to McKinney's right. "My brother's going to the Air Force and I won't see him."

The McKinneys were among hundreds of families and friends who filled the auditorium three times for "back-to-back" ceremonies Thursday to watch their favorite high school graduates take that once-in-life ritual called the "walk."

Throughout the day, starting at 10 a.m. and ending more than 12 hours later, well-wishers of graduating seniors from H.D. Woodson, Anacostia and Frank Ballou high schools screamed and cheered as the youths, full of energy and aglow with pride, high-stepped across the stage, brandishing their diplomas.

Admonitions by principals to "maintain the dignity of the occasion" were ignored again and again as the graduates and their supporters marked the moment of passage with jubilation.

While scattered cheering sections urged them on, many robed, neophyte alumni clutched their diplomas, danced, and bowed deeply. Some paired off to give each other "high fives."

As one school's contigent left and another arrived, the same scene was played out as if a theatrical festival were in progress. Each school's ceremony mirrored the others' with smiles, laughter, tears, hugs, pats on the back and enthusiastic handshaking.

Speakers congratulated the graduates and reminded them that the future is bright for those who continue to work diligently and shun mediocrity -- that, as one speaker said, "luck is the point in the road where preparation meets opportunity." They urged the graduates to go on to bigger and better things, whether in college, the military or jobs.

Rarely do graduation speeches mention the failures of those students who are not present for the ceremony, but that was what happened Thursday for graduates of Woodson, Anacostia and Ballou, three of Washington's largest public high schools, where at least 30 percent of the Class of 1985 left school before graduation for a myriad of reasons.

Mayor Marion Barry, who addressed the day's first commencement, for Woodson High, urged graduates to "look round" at the empty seats and think of those "who started with you, but didn't make it." His message was repeated at the subsequent ceremonies.

A spokesman for the mayor said the message represented a concerted effort to emphasize how valuable a high school diploma is for city youths who must contend with numerous distractions and leap over social, economic and personal obstacles to succeed.

Although hundreds of their classmates did not make it, the 1,045 who graduated from Woodson, Anacostia and Ballou -- all east of the Anacostia River -- distinguished themselves, winning more than $2 million in college scholarships collectively.

"The Class of '85 is one of our best classes. It was a highly academic class," said Woodson Principal James W. Curry. "This class has won more scholarships than any previous class. Many of them want to be scientists, computer analysts, doctors, lawyers and teachers."

Ballou graduates, whose main speaker was Effi Barry, wife of the mayor, were honored for their success in raising money for the Ethiopian hunger relief effort and for developing a program to combat teen-age pregnancy.

Anacostia was noted for placing first in the the city-wide "It's Academic" television quiz show, for chess, and for its track and field and football championships.

Effi Barry described graduations in Washington as community get-togethers. "We are all the sum total of the many caring people who have touched our lives," she said. She told the graduates that "few of us can be great, but all of us can be good" and asked them to emulate Mahatma Gandhi's humility and determination, the Rev. Martin Luther King's "deep love for others" and Rosa Parks' refusal "to go to the back of the bus."

Claudine Stone, 17, one of two valedictorians at Woodson, told her peers, "Great lives are built on deep and enduring values. Let us continue to search for our uniqueness in a complicated world. Continue to reflect on the teachings of our school. May we never lose our zeal . . . . Good luck and Godspeed."