It's official: The Class of 2004 has left the building.

Over several days last week, about 3,200 seniors from 10 Howard County high schools walked across the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion and received their diplomas, marking the end of their high school days and the beginning of their journey into adulthood. Reservoir High School, which opened last year, didn't have a senior class this year.

"Welcome to the world, Class of 2004!" shouted senior LeKesha Lewis in her speech, which opened the graduation ceremony for Long Reach High School on June 2.

The seniors already have some real-life experience. They began high school at the dawn of a new millennium. A year later, they watched in horror as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. As juniors, they hunkered down in their classrooms during the sniper shootings in the Washington area. And their final year has been marked by continued fighting in Iraq, with some students staging protests and others bidding farewell to friends and family called to duty.

There are also the good times -- class picnics, the prom and senior week at Ocean City.

"I've always found a way to make school a place to get away," senior Matthew Smith said in a speech at Long Reach's commencement.

Before the ceremony last week, students lined up outside the pavilion and fidgeted with their mortarboards and adjusted their gowns. One parent eyed the rows of students nervously, wondering, "Are they really going to cross that stage?"

Within about half an hour, the students were accepting their diplomas amid cheers and applause that drowned out even the sound of the cicadas.

"You may not realize it, but everything that makes Howard County such a great place to live begins and ends with the schools," Board of Education member Joshua M. Kaufman told Long Reach graduates. "And that's a direct credit to you."

-- YLAN Q. MUI