After 12 years of pondering the complexities of American history, chemistry, literature and algebra, Kina Holmes had just one question left: Which side does the tassel go on?
"He has his on the right," the 18-year-old graduating senior from Annandale High School noticed as caps and gowns were passed out in the media center earlier this week. "But I think it's supposed to be on the left. I read that."
For Holmes and the other 470 Annandale High School seniors who are to walk across the stage at Constitution Hall tonight to receive their diplomas, all that's left is to flip the tassel from right to left and soak up the adulation.
But once the cheering has died down and the cameras have stopped flashing, graduation will mean very different things to those whose paths crossed briefly at Annandale, a school off the Capital Beltway in the heart of Fairfax County.
For Kina Holmes, it will mean the beginning of what she calls her "second life," a journey through higher education that she expects to take her to the summit of the legal profession. For William Cross, it will represent the last stop in the educational line, his final farewell to the classroom as he leaps enthusiastically into the working world. And for James Donnen, it means the end of a tight web of friendships he proudly called "the family," and a reminder of his responsibilities to a family of a far different sort.
Like many children, Kina Holmes looked up to her mother as a toddler and told her she wanted to be just like her.
And her mother, Bernice, who works as a secretary for the Department of the Navy, would answer firmly: "No, you don't want to be a secretary like me. You want to be more than that. You want to go to college and make something of yourself."
Kina took that to heart.
At Annandale High, she compiled a 3.3 grade-point average and won more than $5,500 in scholarships -- among the top award recipients in her class. In September, she will enroll at Old Dominion University in hopes of becoming the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college.
"I'm really proud of that," said Holmes, who is short, quiet and self-assured. "What's really been keeping me going is my mom . . . . I wanted her to look at me and realize her struggle was worth it."
The only daughter of a single mother who never married her father, Holmes is leaving nothing to chance and has already drafted her life's script: At Old Dominion, she'll major in business law and minor in social work. After graduating, she'll attend law school. After that, she'll begin her career and focus on the issues of young blacks like herself. And after all that -- maybe -- she'll think about getting married and having children.
"You can't get to a house without directions," she said simply.
She prides herself on earning everything for herself, whether at school, in her job at a local department store or at church, where she heads the youth group.
"I depend really on no one," she said. "I can say, 'This is what I did for myself.' "
And yet, despite her yearning for independence, Holmes picked Old Dominion in Norfolk partly because a chapter of her church is located there. "That'll make feel like I'm at home," she said.
If William Cross carries one lesson out of Annandale High School tonight, it came from a marketing class: Rich people got started early.
So Cross plans to bypass college, go straight into the work force and begin earning his fortune. At 18, he's already worked part time at $5 an hour for a year and a half for a local car dealership, and will begin full-time after commencement. He hopes to paint cars in the body shop, and he points to a 19-year-old friend who makes "big money" working for a Porsche dealership.
"The way I see it, if you're hungry enough to get a start at an early age, then you'll accomplish something by your early twenties," he said. "I'm not lazy. I'm very hungry for it."
Nothing of a Trumpian nature, mind you. Cross said he would like to be comfortable, earning, say, $25,000 a year before he moves out of the home he shares with his mother, stepfather and two younger siblings and perhaps $30,000 or $40,000 before he thinks about having children.
Having his own money has always been important to Cross, a quiet, thoughtful young man who loosens up during a long conversation.
"I'd go to my mom and say, 'I want this,' and she said, 'I'll buy you what you need, not what you want,' " he recalled. "So I got a job and buy what I want. You can't go nowhere without money."
He figures he's as well prepared for the job market as he can be, after splitting his high school years between his academic classes at Annandale and his auto mechanic vocational classes at Edison High School in Franconia.
While roughly 70 percent of his classmates are going on to college, Cross concludes it wouldn't help him much. "I don't need to go to four years of college to know I want to paint a car," he explained.
But Cross said he is in no rush to start a family.
"Priorities, man," he said. "School was first. I got rid of that. Now it's work. I got plenty of time for that later."
James Donnen has plenty of time for that now. He has to.
With a daughter who will turn 14 months old today, Donnen has found that his options after graduation have been dictated in part by concerns not faced by most of his peers. While his close-knit group of friends is scattering to places such as West Virginia, Chicago and Washington state, Donnen will be living in his mother's basement in Dale City, commuting to George Mason University.
The slightly built young man with shoulder-length hair pulled out a picture of his daughter and raved about her like a typical father.
"She's going to be real good-looking when she grows up," he said. "She's only 14 months, but she has a vocabulary of 30, 35 words, she can do double-syllables, she walks all the time, she has a great disposition." And, he adds with understatement, "she has a very proud father."
Although Donnen said he has no regrets about fathering the girl during his sophomore year, he said the experience helped him grow up much more quickly.
When his then-girlfriend became pregnant, he and his father fought and Donnen eventually moved to his mother's town house in Dale City. After attending Gar-Field High School for a semester, Donnen longed to return to his friends at Annandale, so he told school officials that he had moved back in with his father and commuted each day.
So the way Donnen sees it, graduation is more of a confirmation of an independence and adulthood he began long ago.
"I've looked at other people and I see that it's a huge step for them," he said. "It's the first time they're getting away from their parents. I've already done that."
Donnen, who has won several awards in state and regional electronics contests for high school students, wants to become an inventor when he's older; the house he will eventually build, he said, will come equipped with floating chairs in the living room.
He chose George Mason in part because he didn't feel he could leave his daughter, whom he sees several times a week even though he no longer dates her mother.
Most of all, he said he will miss the tight circle of friends who have done so much together and been so inseparable that they have dubbed themselves "the family." But he's not sure he's ready for marriage.
"Maybe not right away," he said. "I still have some growing up to do."
This is last part of a series on Annandale High School in Fairfax County and Fletcher-Johnson Education Center in the District.