Cesar Vence, 16, remembers vividly his first few days at Stonewall Jackson High School. Not only was he new to the Manassas school, he was new to the United States, having just arrived from Colombia.
"When I first came, I didn't speak any English and I didn't know anyone. I felt really lost, all the time," said Vence, now a junior. "I don't want people to be feeling like I was feeling."
So Vence and more than 50 other sophomores, juniors and seniors agreed to volunteer two days of their vacation time last week for an unusual, student-run back-to-school activity for freshmen.
Called "One of Us," student mentors were trained to lead tours, answer questions and fill freshmen in on life at Stonewall Jackson. The program is a contrast from the standard back-to-school event, which is led by teachers and designed for parents.
Organizers weren't sure how many freshmen would show up. The Thursday program was scheduled for one of the last precious days of vacation. There was no bus transportation arranged for the event. Principal Steven M. Constantino crossed his fingers and hoped that about 250 freshmen would attend.
Instead, he got "a grand slam," Constantino said. "Being a new concept, I never expected to see well over 400 kids there."
He estimates that 460 to 480 students showed up. The incoming freshman class is about 550 students.
The students packed into the gym for a morning assembly, then divided into groups and set out, maps of the school in hand, to tackle the building that will be their home for the next four years.
"It's good to be lost now than lost on the first day of school," said Emily Slough, 14, who attended Stonewall Middle School last year.
The turnout caused a few traffic jams. Registration for the event, scheduled to last 30 minutes, took an hour. Tour groups bumped into each other in stairwells and halls. But everyone agreed it was worthwhile to have an activity just for students, where they could get adjusted to school on their own terms.
"I've been helping the [English as a Second Language] kids a lot," Vence said. "I don't want them to be lost, like they don't have anybody. That was the point of me being in this project."
Shavon Barbour, a 15-year-old sophomore, signed up to be a student mentor because "I like helping people do things. I'm a people kind of person."
Besides, she recalled how her freshman year was a bit overwhelming.
"I remember the first day, I was wandering, I mean wandering," she said. "I was late many a day. Now, I'm pretty used to it."
During the morning assembly, the students were entertained by the fast patter of Mike Smith, a professional speaker from Albuquerque. Smith, who also trained the student mentors, has specialized in speaking at freshman orientations.
The most important part of the program is the student mentors, Smith said. "I can talk to a kid all day, but they're not going to listen to me," Smith said. "They are going to listen to other kids."
Constantino plans to keep "One of Us" presentations going throughout the year, to continue to acclimate new students to the school. He also has plans to take the show on the road and have student mentors visit the middle schools that feed into Stonewall Jackson.
After the tours and a pizza party in the cafeteria, the new freshmen said the event did help to ease some of their fears.
"I think it was a really good idea, because then you don't walk in here and totally not know what to do," said Erica Blevins, 14, who attended Parkside Middle School last year.
Amanda Anderson, 14, said she was "very nervous" about coming to Stonewall Jackson from Marsteller Middle.
"I feel better now because I met a lot of new people. I know a lot more," Amanda said.
CAPTION: Incoming freshmen Melissa Bernstein, far left, Emily Slough, Jaime Carter, Casey Pataluna and Michelle Calise joke during a pizza party after orientation at Stonewall Jackson High School. Cheerleaders Shahaadah Thompson and Jessica Lawrence, right, help freshmen find their way during the "One of Us" program.
CAPTION: Freshman Maria Rodriquez, above, finds her way around the cafeteria. Junior Cesar Vence, left, calls his group of freshmen together.