There were the usual exhortations to follow dreams and be responsible.

There were the whoops and teenage insider jokes, the gentle ribbing of favored teachers and nods to school spirit. But then something unusual happened at the Liberty High School graduation ceremony Saturday afternoon.

Kathleen Herndon spoke.

For about five minutes, the 17-year-old valedictorian launched broadsides at meat-eating, gun ownership and her school's Junior ROTC program using a raw and passionate tone that caused uneasy shifting in seats, muttering and even a few hisses.

She was imperious and provocative.

And when she was done and the ceremony reverted to its original, more traditional form, she left many in the audience talking or rolling their eyes.

"I've been teaching for 25 years, and that was the best graduation speech I've ever heard," said Tom McIntyre, a U.S. history teacher and an assistant football coach at the Bealeton school. "She had a lot of courage to say what she said."

A graduate who did not want to be identified said: "I think she's kind of weird, and I didn't agree with anything that she said, but it was cool that she had the guts to do it."

One parent, insisting on anonymity, said, "She shouldn't have done this at graduation."

Indeed, Herndon herself noted how out of tune she was with the student body.

Liberty graduated 286 seniors. Earlier that day, 345 seniors at Fauquier High School in Warrenton received their diplomas. On June 11, 19 seniors graduated from Highland School, also in Warrenton. And on June 12, 16 seniors received their diplomas from Wakefield School in The Plains.

After Herndon's talk at Liberty, as graduates posed for pictures and said what in many cases will be their last goodbyes, Herndon's father gave his review of her speech: "I didn't write it," said Horace Eugene Herndon Jr., hugging his daughter.

In her speech, Herndon said that during her four years at the school, she has battled the "close-mindedness" of her classmates on the issues she was tackling from the stage.

"I can't convince people in a few hours that guns are ridiculous to protect," she said during her speech. "And I'm not going to end war in a few days."

Uniformed members of the Junior ROTC program winced visibly as she said, "I have to restrain myself from criticizing the school's J.R.O.T.C. program."

Her voice quivering with ardor, Herndon said that "if I learned anything in high school, it is that I'm not always right -- that there are some problems for today and some problems for tomorrow."

As she began to cry ("I blame that on my mother," she said afterward), several dignitaries in the audience looked at their watches. One elected official asked a reporter, "Are you going to write about this?" School Superintendent Dallas M. Johnson suppressed a grin.

"Martin Luther King had a dream, but I have a plan," she said. "I waited four years to release the secret of my plan." With a dramatic pause, she added, "My plan is you."

McIntyre, the teacher and football coach, said it wasn't just her message but her method that made Herndon so affecting.

"It was just the way she carried herself; I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Speaking in a sea of blue-robed graduates, Liberty Principal John Harrison said that Herndon's message, though unconventional, was part of what students at the school are supposed to express.

"We want them to say what they think," he said. "Now she's a thinker, and you don't want to cut that off."

Harrison related a story about Herndon as he shook hands and tried to locate a lost diploma.

"When she was a freshman, someone asked her what it was that she wanted to be," he said. "She said, `Secretary of state.' Now, she didn't say lawyer or housewife. She wanted to be the secretary of state. And you know, she may do that."

Herndon expects to work at a bookstore this summer and then will attend the College of William and Mary to study international relations.

CAPTION: The speech at Saturday's ceremony by Liberty valedictorian Kathleen Herndon got mixed reviews.