Backstage at the Capital Centre. The 297 members of the Class of 1987 don their gowns and straighten their caps.

They are all dressed in black or gold, symbolizing the "Yellow Jackets" of Brandywine's Gwynn Park High School.

"This is no joke. We're now in the real world," valedictorian Cynthia Barber would tell the Prince George's County students an hour later. "The pressure is on for all of us beginning now."

But first, backstage, the final dictates of the senior year: exchanges of summer plans and fall addresses, pledges to keep in touch and, of course, party lists.

"I'm gonna party all weekend," said class president Junnette Pugh. "I wanna be with my friends as much as possible. We've been together four years."

"We've been partying the whole senior year," said Scott Birckhead. "Since October."

Decorum interrupts. "Take the gum out of your mouth," school administrator George Denney Jr. warns, as the final corsages are pinned.

Teachers and other administrators shift about nervously as strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" filter backstage, signaling the start of the ceremony and the end of an era. "This is it," says principal Mary P. Cunningham as the 297 students begin filing in. "I'll see you on the stage in a few minutes."

The giddiness and the decorum, the exuberance and the solemnity are all parts of a scene that has been repeated dozens of times this month.

More than 8,000 teen-agers in Montgomery County and 7,000 in Prince George's County will graduate by the month's end, walking across stages at the Capital Centre, Kennedy Center, DAR Constitution Hall and their school football fields to receive diplomas.

The graduates have been addressed by politicians and educators alike, who challenged them to serve their communities and countries, fight drug abuse and make political changes.

At Gwynn Park, as in most Prince George's County schools, the Class of '87 had earned a special place because it was the first to spend four years at the school. Ninth graders were introduced to most high schools in Prince George's County in 1983.

As a result, this year's graduating class has one of the deepest relationships with the school faculty and staff.

"This class is something special," said social studies teacher Barbara Graves, looking out at the familiar faces that passed by her in the processional on Friday.

The class included the undefeated county tennis champion, valedictorian Cynthia Barber, members of the state high school basketball champions and triplets Wanda, Wendy and William Cooper, all three outstanding students who received full, four-year scholarships from Nashville's Fisk University.

"There are some classes you're glad to see go. This isn't one of them," Graves said.

"Hopefully, we can all keep in touch," class president Pugh told the three other class officers as the graduates formed their lines backstage. "We at least want to see each other once a week," she said, outlining the lunch or dinner dates she has already lined up with a corps of friends who by September will be off to various"I'm gonna party all weekend."

-- Class president Junnette Pugh

schools in different states.

Pugh plans to major in accounting at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

Fast friends Rene Hudson, Stacie Burgess and Deborah Jackson were making similar plans.

For Jackson and Burgess, the immediate future means passing a cosmetologist's certification exam, while Hudson plans to study nursing at the University of Maryland.

They have all formed strong bonds, the kind that comes through shared memories and experiences -- like the time an entire class cheated on an English exam.

"We're a small school and everybody knows one another," said Erika Tillery. "I will miss the gossip."

Their theme was "That's What Friends Are For," the popular song by singers Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder that has become a graduation anthem.

The theme of friendship was more than clear backstage at the Capital Centre, and again onstage as Pugh's voice cracked and her composure broke while she addressed her classmates. "We have been blessed by not losing any of our classmates to illness or accident," she said. Then, the final promise. "We will be together someday," she said, "because that's what friends are for."