US Airways Arena has been a hectic yet joyous venue over the last week as parents, friends, students and Prince George's County school officials gathered to take part in commencement exercises for the Class of 1999.

From Bowie High School, which held its first commencement on June 1, to Friendly High, whose seniors graduated yesterday, 18 of the county's 20 high schools used the arena for their programs, while Fairmont Heights and Forestville high schools opted for the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.

There was no shortage of admonitions, anecdotes and challenges offered by school officials during the commencement programs, but the most telling statements may have been those made silently by members of the graduating classes who have thousands of tales of personal achievement that cross race, culture and economic lines. There was Northwestern High football star Kurt Coy, who is one step closer to the National Football League, and Eleanor Roosevelt High honor student Tiera Watkins, who is one step closer to medical school.

There were students who graduated with honors and others for whom it was an honor just to graduate.

For James and Felicia Osei, who immigrated to the United States from Ghana in 1982, having two children graduate from Parkdale High School with honors was their latest installment of the American dream.

Kofi, their son, received a scholarship to the University of Maryland while their daughter Nana is going to the University of Michigan on a scholarship.

After graduation, there were lots of parties, including an elaborate one staged by parents for graduates of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. There was a homemade volcano and a waterfall. The party ran until 5 a.m. The idea, of course, was to keep the teenagers in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

In a year where schools across the country have been the scene of violence, it seemed like county residents savored every moment of these ceremonies, parties and family events. Then they collectively exhaled and began to look forward to summer.

CAPTION: At top left, Bladensburg high senior Devon Bell hugs a relative. Above, Anjeli LeNoir gives friend Dani Davies, 18, a quick tip in hula dancing before they get a photo taken for their scrapbooks. At bottom left, Bladensburg High graduate Rommel Carter sings the school alma mater during graduation.

CAPTION: At near left, Eleanor Roosevelt High School students are treated to a graduation party. Above, Julia Owen, 17, takes time out to write some memories down in her friend's yearbook.