The first day of school is rarely about specifics. The first day is about heart, and guts, and nerves.

Sure, the start of the 1999-2000 school year yesterday in the District and in Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard, Calvert, Charles and Loudoun counties raised the curtain on a lot of Big Issues.

Many districts are trying new security measures, including identification badges, police drills and surveillance cameras. In Prince George's and Montgomery, new superintendents have promised to inspire improvements in learning and, ergo, test scores--particularly among low-income children. Principals everywhere are trying to squeeze an ever-increasing enrollment into aging buildings and the trailers behind them.

To this day, administrators are searching for more teachers, and policymakers are figuring out ways to make those teachers better. And class sizes, particularly in the primary grades, are being shrunk.

But that wasn't what was on everyone's minds yesterday.

For principals, the question of the day was not, "How much will reducing class size from 25 to 18 affect learning?" but rather, "Will everyone get on the right bus?"

For teachers, it was not, "Which method teaches children to read faster--phonics or whole language?" but rather, "Is the one with the ponytail Caitlin or Carly?"

For students, it was not, "What is the atomic number of helium?" but "Does this tank top go with my new capris?"

There were some glitches, of course. At Cedar Lane Elementary in Loudoun, some moments of near-chaos involved the teacher who became ill shortly after school started, the parents who cornered the principal to discuss child custody matters and the day-care center that wouldn't pick up three kindergarten students. Elsewhere, there were a few late buses--there are always late buses on first days--some students without schedules and complaints about children having to walk along busy streets.

But all in all, things went smoothly. Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey judged the success by the silence: "I was out all day in schools, and I never got beeped. I had to call Lois"--his assistant--"and ask if my pager was working."

So there were no fiascoes. There was still anxiety. No matter who you are, the thumping concern yesterday was: "Will they like me?"

And: "I hope I don't look dumb."

Which isn't to say the first day of school is all about fear. It's about anticipation, rituals, the chance to start fresh.

Look at it through the eyes of the new kid. He's spent two hours picking his outfit, which is difficult, of course, because who knows what will be cool at school this year until you actually get there.

Once he gets there, he works his way through a maze of hallways and fumbles through a locker combination that is all odd, forgettable numbers. He meets his new teacher--she seems nicer than the one last year. He tells her that everyone calls him Chip, not Christopher.

That's what's nice about being new: You can do that, even if you have never, ever been called Chip.

In each school, in each county, the scenes were new, yet familiar:

Prince George's County:

A School's Fresh Start

Her students were due any minute, there were a million things to do, and Highland Park Elementary teacher Tara Mullins had no time. Literally.

As she raced around her first-grade classroom stacking plastic toys and crayons, pasting "MISS MULLINS" in large block letters on her desk, Mullins noted that workers renovating the building had not yet installed clocks.

"Hopefully, we'll get them soon," she said. Here, time had stopped and was moving at warp speed all at once.

This was Mullins's first day teaching in Prince George's, making her one of 1,400 new teachers in the county. It was the beginning of a new chapter for the school itself, reopening in Landover after it was closed 26 years ago when the county began a court-ordered busing system to integrate the school system.

The staff worked all weekend to prepare. Yet the tile still was not laid in the hallways, the library is full of boxes, and orange plastic fences mark unfinished construction.

"My nervous energy kept me up until 1 a.m.," said Mullins, who rose at 5:15 a.m. yesterday to get ready. "I'm not scared to do this," she said. She spent one year as a kindergarten teacher in Bethlehem, Pa., before coming to Prince George's. "I'm just anxious to get started. I'm excited. I think I can do well here."

By day's end, she will have learned her students' names, read them a story and shepherded them through recess with no disasters.

But right now, Mullins was fetching her colleagues, and they were walking to the front hall to greet the buses. And now the children were streaming into the building, and Mullins reached into her pocket and pulled out a list of her students, and a dozen young faces were lined up in front of her.

And no one needed a clock to figure out the time.

It's show time.

-- David Nakamura

Howard County:

Ready to Learn

Julia Shipley, who insisted she was "not even one bit" nervous about starting kindergarten, bounced around her living room and recited the rules.

"Raise your hand," said Julia, 5. "Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Share."

Julia also knew her teacher's name, the alphabet, that 10 plus 10 is 20. She had finished her breakfast of Lucky Charms and was wearing a new pink and purple skort and white tennies.

Aaron Cornell, 5, and his mother drove up, and Julia stopped bouncing long enough for a few snapshots with her pal. They slipped on their stiff, monstrous backpacks--purple for her, Star Wars for him. They climbed into the back of the minivan, and five miles later they climbed out, into their new world, Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel.

Variations on this theme happened across Howard County, where 66 schools welcomed 42,530 students. Some were visited by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey on his last first day. He leaves in June, and the search to replace him is Howard's main priority for 1999-2000; others include reducing class size and improving reading, alternative and special education.

Outside Gorman Crossing, Cathy Huebner lined up her new pupils, flip-haired and freckled Julia first. Ann Marie Shipley watched her daughter and recalled everything about her own first day of kindergarten--the poufy yellow dress, her teacher, Mrs. Tanner, her mom skipping work to send her off.

She's young enough--31--to remember all that, but this is her firstborn going off to school, so Shipley feels "very old," proud and a little sad.

"I'm gonna miss you," Shipley told Julia. "Let me tie your shoes. I love you." A kiss, a pat on the head. "I'm so proud of you."

When Huebner led the kids inside, parents snapped photos and leaned in the doorway and waved. Inside the classroom, the kids drew themselves.

As Julia colored her skirt, the fair-haired girl next to her asked for help. Julia started with the hair: "Here. Blond is yellow, yellow is blond." Then the girl confided, "I don't like going to school."

"I know," Julia reassured her. "It gets kind of nervous the first day. Then after you get done with the first day and the second--poof!"

-- Linda Perlstein

Charles County:

Going First Class

On the first day of his junior year, having the right outfit or backpack was the least of Brad Nickerson's concerns.

The teenager--one of 22,838 Charles County public school students who started classes yesterday--had only one thing on his mind as he left his house to make the 12-mile journey to Maurice J. McDonough High School: getting one of the few coveted spaces in the student parking lot.

This year, Brad, 16, is driving to school in style--in a 10-year-old silver Toyota Camry that he can call his own. No longer will he be squished between two other growing teenagers in a seat made for two in one of those terribly uncool yellow school buses. "It was really cramped and uncomfortable," he said.

Exactly two weeks after getting his driver's license, Brad walked out of his house with his mother, Patty, just as the school bus he used to ride drove by. Patty Nickerson handed him his lunch bag and the keys to the car that used to be hers.

For Patty, it was a bittersweet moment, one of "not having any control and handing it over to your child," she said. Her days as a "soccer" mom are over. Now he'll drive to tennis practice and the pool where he works as a lifeguard all on his own.

For Brad, yesterday was a time to rejoice. After all, he's the first among his friends to get a driver's license. Both hands tightly clutching the steering wheel, he slowly turned a corner where four teenagers were waiting for the bus he used to ride.

"It feels good" not to share the corner with them, he said.

-- Nancy Trejos

Anne Arundel County:

Changes From the Top

The new boss was midway through her first real day on the job yesterday, but already the staff was buzzing about the dramatic new changes she had planned.

"Pam wants to put turkey and gravy on two lines!" cook Dora Buchanan whispered to a visiting supervisor in the cafeteria kitchen at South River High School.

It was a time of new beginnings for the 75,000 Anne Arundel County students returning to school this week. (Most started classes yesterday, though seventh-, eighth- and 10- through 12-graders begin today.)

And so it was, too, in the mysterious world behind the lunch counter that most students never see. Dozens of cafeteria staff vacancies this summer left officials scrambling to hire and train enough newcomers to open the kitchens.

At South River, the newcomer was Pam Durbin, a former elementary school cafeteria manager stepping up to the big time. At Davidsonville Elementary, she had 500 students, two employees, one cash register and a menu of three entree choices dictated by central office staff.

In her new job she has 1,500 students, 10 employees, five cash registers and an ever-changing smorgasbord to plan and fix every day. Yesterday, the menu included steak subs, crispy chicken, char-broiled burgers, french fries, pizza, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, rice, chilled fruit and carrot sticks.

When she learned that she was to become cafeteria manager at South River, she polled community members to see how they felt about food services at the school. There was an easy consensus: "The turkey lines are too long."

Turkey and gravy, a twice-monthly special at South River's cafeteria, is so popular that students once even tried to order it for prom breakfast. It's also the most labor-intensive recipe in the kitchen archives.

So even though adding a second turkey serving line will mean ousting the regular pizza option for a day, Durbin plans to do just that.

"If this is what my customers want," Durbin said, "I'd like to give it to them."

-- Amy Argetsinger

Loudoun County:

A New Journey for Everyone

It was her 15th first day of school, but Principal Nancy E. McManus couldn't stop fretting about afternoon bus dismissal: Would the youngsters know which bus to get on and when to get off?

Yesterday was the opening day of Cedar Lane Elementary in Ashburn. No bus had ever navigated these freshly paved roads. No child had ever been been transported to this new campus.

Many of the classroom teachers joined McManus and Assistant Principal Carlene Lydic in herding an estimated 726 students onto 12 buses. The right buses. It took about an hour, but they seem to have pulled it off.

"The buses--this is the big issue today," McManus said.

Just hours before, they had welcomed the same busloads of children, and the parents who had followed them to school, snapping pictures and shooting videos of their arrival.

Inside the 84,000-square-foot brick building of wide hallways and bright skylights, parent "greeters" gave every student a big grin, a "Good morning!" and directions to their classrooms.

In a neighborhood lacking a city hall or any other community center, Cedar Lane immediately became a gathering place. "We are the hub of the community," McManus said.

It is one of four campuses opening this year in Virginia's fastest-growing school district. Next year, three more will come off the assembly line, and they'll keep coming--about 22 new schools in the next six years--to handle the onslaught of new students from residential development in Loudoun's eastern suburbs. Total district enrollment is close to 29,000 students.

First-day jitters aside, parents complimented McManus as if the campus were her home. "You did a good job," one mother said. "We love your school."

-- Liz Seymour

The District:

Greeting a New Assignment

Principal Courtney Fletcher stood outside the cafeteria of the District's Eastern High School, trying to direct traffic through still-unfamiliar corridors.

"Excuse me--where's the gym?" one young woman asked.

"The gym?" Fletcher himself had gotten lost looking for the gym the week before. He flagged down another student to escort her.

For the first time since 1972, Fletcher was opening the school year somewhere other than tiny Francis Junior High School, where he began as a teacher and worked his way up to principal.

This year, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman tapped him to lead Eastern, a 1,600-student high school that is the city's largest. All day, he shook hands with students and parents, between reminders to youngsters to take off their hats, clear the halls, get to class.

"I'm similar to the children. I'm trying to learn my way around," Fletcher said. "I'm just trying to become part of the family."

Despite some problems with bus pickups, school opened smoothly in the District's 145 traditional schools and a half-dozen special education and alternative centers. Eastern is one of 24 schools with new principals this fall. One in five teachers in the approximately 71,000-student system also is new.

Ackerman toured six schools, finding enthusiastic teachers and sparkling clean buildings. "You could see your face in some of the floors," she said. "People have an upbeat kind of attitude . . . that hasn't been there before."

At dismissal time, Fletcher stood outside the school on East Capitol Street NE, shaking hands as he had in the morning and smiling when students remembered his name. He vowed to learn each of their names within a month.

He got a wave from one student he had chided for arriving late that morning. "Be there on time tomorrow, bro," the youth promised.

Fletcher will be on the brick walkway to greet him.

-- Debbi Wilgoren

CAPTION: New Principal Courtney Fletcher greets Renee Morgan, Vanessa Henry and Damall Kellen at D.C.'s Eastern High.

CAPTION: Katie Harnet, 5, wipes away anxious tears on her first day at Cedar Lane Elementary in Ashburn as she stands in line to go to class.

CAPTION: Children pour off buses on Cedar Lane Elementary's first day of classes. Bus assignments were a big concern for staff members at the new Loudoun school.

CAPTION: Tara Mullins, one of 1,400 first-year teachers in Prince George's, talks to a student at the newly reopened Highland Park Elementary in Landover.

CAPTION: Brad Nickerson, 16, a junior at McDonough High School in Charles County, gets ready to drive himself to school for the first time.

CAPTION: As students change classes, new Eastern High Principal Courtney Fletcher sends them on their way, at least when he knows the way.