Their exams were done. Yearbooks had been signed. And they had walked across stages to receive their diplomas. It was now: party time!
More than 900 of Loudoun County's 1,385 public high school graduates celebrated their success last week at all-night drug- and alcohol-free parties. The five "Project Graduation" parties, which cost as much as $25,000 apiece, were designed by parents to help steer graduates away from drunken driving.
Pumped with all the cola, candy, pizza and buffalo wings they could eat, teenagers raced from room to room to engage in bungee-cord runs, get henna tattoos, play blackjack (for movie tickets and brightly colored hats), sing in karaoke "bars" and go face down in pie-eating contests from midnight Thursday until sunup Friday.
Potomac Falls High: Out on Their Own
Sitting on the tile floor in the school foyer, three newly minted graduates frantically tried to sort out the first crisis of their adult lives: how to get 17 teenagers to North Carolina's Outer Banks.
"We thought I was going to have two spaces in my car, but now it's all changed," said John Maynard at the Sterling school's party Wednesday night. "I just want to get there and boogey-board."
John Horn added, "I hear there's a paint-ball arena not far from there."
Each has been working part time to save money for a share of the $3,300-a-week beach house. Maynard does "whatever the manager asks me to do" at Kohl's clothing store in Leesburg. Horn and senior Laura Chornock delivered pizzas. Each strictly budgeted a small portion of their earnings for "Beach Week" fun money.
At 2 a.m., Maynard was trying to do the transportation math: apportioning more than a dozen seniors into four, well maybe it's five, cars. But, wait, a passerby tells him that another driver has backed out.
"He dropped because he didn't tell his parents about it," Maynard said.
Bummer, said his fellow travelers. But that's the best part -- no parents for a week.
"It's weird," Chornock said. "We'll be on our own" -- eventually. Her dad is driving her and a friend down and back to make sure they get there safely.
Loudoun Valley High: Leaving Familiar Haunts
Jennifer Worcester scanned the crowded gym at Lovettsville Community Center where she had been dozens of times before. On this very special Thursday night, the basketball hoops were folded away and the dingy, cinder block room had been turned into a "Mexican Odyssey" -- complete with a cantina dispensing nachos and booths of ball tosses and hoop rings where players could win sombreros as prizes. She chuckled at classmates who dared to try sumo wrestling in oversize costumes in the middle of the floor.
"This [place] is part of my routine," Worcester said, as she got a temporary tattoo of a three-eyed blue martian on her leg. "Here I know everyone. I know what they think of me. I know what to expect. I can't believe I'm leaving everything I grew up with."
She laughed as she recalled how she daydreamed about graduation day and thought "it would never come."
It came. It went. It wasn't quite as emotional as she had anticipated. She wished she had dressed up for more "Spirit Days," she wished she had gone to more school dances -- because now there would be no more. This fall she will attend Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.
"It snuck up on me all of a sudden; it's over," said Worcester, who lives in Hamilton. "It's shocking" -- and she stopped in mid-sentence as a classmate tried to drag her off to make a music video featuring the two of them.
"I've got to go out there in the real world," she said. But at least a few more months remain before she has to face it. So she grabbed her friend's arm, and they headed off to the makeshift video studio in an upstairs office, giggling.
Park View High: Concerns -- About Hair, Nails, Clothes
Never mind navigating a college campus, getting along with a roommate or passing exams, Charlee Franklin's biggest concern about being a freshman at Hampton University in the fall is that most basic of all questions in the life of a teenage girl.
"How am I going to get my hair done?" Franklin asked sometime between midnight and dawn Friday, as she waited in line with four girlfriends to have a caricature drawn in a school hallway.
"What about my nails?" Autumn Alston asked. She displayed her fingernails with a twisty black and red design on them.
"Where am I going to get my clothes?" said Denisha Johnson, who will room with Alston at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Hold on, said Leah Potts, injecting some cold perspective into the conversation. She was more nervous about undertaking a biology major at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton.
Franklin was slowed but not stopped: "I know it's not your number one priority," she said of her beauty and primping rituals, "but it's on up there."
All of them erupted in laughter.
Broad Run High: A Sleepless Night
At 3:15 a.m. Friday, Jim Fincher, father of two Broad Run alumni and one new graduate, sipped his third 20-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee as he manned the door at the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion, monitoring the comings and goings of Broad Run graduates.
"Once you leave, that's it," he reminded a handful of departing kids. "You're out. No readmittance."
At that point, he was a man to be reckoned with: He had been awake since 6 a.m. Thursday. But he thrived on the excitement of this -- his last all-night graduation party.
It was his sixth year of helping out with everything from pushing stair-step machines aside in the gym to printing name tags, including one for Kristen, his only daughter and youngest child.
"I believe in the cause," said Fincher, 44, as he signed out a 6-foot-tall senior carrying a huge Super Soaker water gun. "If they're here, they're less likely to go out and drink. But it gets tiring for us" -- the very-post-graduates.
Fincher, his wife, Caroline, and about 140 other parent volunteers started planning a year ago for the $15,000 party night, with a rock-climbing wall and moon-bounce obstacle course. But as at any party, problems arose. After five hours of gambling play money in a racquetball court turned casino, senior Matt Detar was about to break the bank.
In keeping with casino protocol, the dealer escorted Detar to the cash-in table where he redeemed his cup of chips for $33,150 in persuasively counterfeited bills.
"I love [gambling]," Detar shouted over the roar of hip-hop tunes, waving the wad of cash at his friends. At the prize table, he selected a fan and a CD rack for his dorm room at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
In the future, most of Detar's dealings in silver and gold may involve teeth instead of dice. He plans to major in chemistry, on his way to becoming a dentist.
Loudoun County High: Winding Down, Tired Out
Jeff Papirtis rested his bowl-cut blond head against a wall at Ida Lee Park and Recreation Center in Leesburg. He had done it all: thrown footballs, yanked on ropes in a tug of war, jumped on inflatable rock walls and run flat out while tethered to a bungee cord.
Even for Papirtis, a Virginia Group AA discus champion at Loudoun County High, it had been a long day and night.
"I'm beat," he said, closing his eyes occasionally as he waited for the door prizes to be announced.
It was 4:30 a.m., and organizers were popping the balloons and letting the air out of the climbing toys. The theme signs that read, "Anchors Away" were stained with red punch and soda.
Papirtis chuckled at the one bit of advice he could recall from the school's graduation speaker, Channel 4 news anchor Paul Vance, nearly 12 hours previously.
"Be careful when you lie down with dogs, you might wind up with fleas," Papirtis laughed, wrinkling his brow and puzzling over its meaning.
"It's too late," he said. "I've graduated."
CAPTION: Gleeful Loudoun Valley High School graduates, above, throw their caps into the air at their graduation ceremony Thursday. Morgan May, right, one of 270 graduating seniors at Loudoun Valley, hugs a friend at the end of the ceremony. After the speeches were made and the diplomas handed out, many of the county's new graduates celebrated at all-night alcohol- and drug-free parties. At the Loudoun County High School party Thursday night at Ida Lee Park and Recreation Center, left, the festivities included spirited karaoke renditions. Left to right, Mark Manocchio, Ashante Duncan, C.J. Nicolette, Pablo McCarthy and Justin Gorman sing their hearts out.
CAPTION: At the Park View party, Somephane Rattana gets a wild hairdo.
CAPTION: At Park View High's all-night graduation party Thursday, Amanda Nemmers, far left, and Melody King, right, watch Janeen Marshall try to maneuver her way through a doorway with a balloon sculpture on her head. The five "Project Graduation" parties in the county were designed by parents to steer graduates away from drunken driving. At Loudoun County High's party at the Ida Lee Park and Recreation Center, below, Niall Dunseith tries to get through an inflatable obstacle course.