What with soccer practice and summer homework and planning her future and decorating her binders with photos and stickers and phrases cut from magazines, Allison Smith never got around to painting her car for the first day of school, a Paint Branch High School senior class tradition.

There is something decidedly anticlimactic about one's 13th first day of school, Allison, 17, of Silver Spring decided yesterday, as public schools opened in Montgomery, as well as Howard, Anne Arundel, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Allison had all but memorized the principal's usual P.A. welcome. She met her gang as usual in the H hallway first thing, chatted through the emergency card handout in homeroom -- "the last time you'll ever have to do this in your lives," said teacher Bob Vandegrift -- waited out a too-easy band class that she was incorrectly scheduled for and lunched with friends downstairs, as always.

But to 5-year-old Rochelle Etienne, everything was new. Sitting in Mary Paulus's kindergarten at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia, Rochelle looked overwhelmed. She cast her eyes toward her mother, Pat Etienne, for reassurance while Paulus read a story about the alphabet. Her mother raised an eyebrow and motioned for Rochelle to pay attention.

Etienne smiled as her daughter turned her eyes back to the book.

"They all look so eager," she said. "Oh, gosh, somebody's yawning. There's no nap time today."

Paulus emphasized to the children that they were "big kids" now -- which meant they had to raise their hands when they had something to say, push their chairs in at their desks and put their toys away when they were finished playing. At Paint Branch, Allison heard a slew of rules, too, except they were all familiar: No hats. No cell phones in class. No chewing gum in the Spanish room.

As Allison's software applications teacher read the class syllabus, 12 miles away, Paulus settled into a rocking chair in the middle of the classroom with the children on the carpet around her and read "The Night Before Kindergarten."

Some kids brought blankets or their favorite stuffed bear

In hopes they could nap like they did in day care.

Their parents exclaimed, "You're big kids -- Wow!

Let us hold your bears and blankets for now."

Rochelle was already exerting her independence, her mother said. At her preschool, the children had to wear uniforms. So Rochelle was especially excited to choose her first-day outfit, a T-shirt in her favorite color, pink, and matching socks.

Rochelle had also wanted a new pair of sneakers that lit up when she walked, but her mother preferred a pair that was more "orthopedically sound," she said. They compromised on a pair of Velcro sneakers with -- of course -- a touch of pink.

Rochelle's mother tries not to think that such bartering might be just a taste of what's to come during Rochelle's teenage years. "Oh, my goodness," Etienne said, rolling her eyes. "I would rather not. They grow so quickly that I really try to enjoy them at every stage."

Allison, too, picked her pink out Sunday, a cap-sleeved blouse, to go with a pleated tan skirt. She finished up the last of her summer homework, an essay about "Dubliners" and a five-page packet of pre-calculus review problems. And she thought more about college.

Allison has to complete her applications to Maryland, Pitt and St. Mary's. She has to figure out her "reach" school and her "safe" school. It's hard to pick colleges when you haven't picked your career, her parents point out, so Sunday night they brought up the future. "My dad was like, 'This really matters this year,' " Allison said. "My mom is always trying to discuss different jobs and get me to find different directions."

Allison's father, Don, said, "She's fairly private, and we keep nudging her about it, but long, heartfelt conversations are not her style."

This is the thing about senior year: You are looking back as you look forward, and keeping on top of now at the same time. "We're trying to look ahead and decide what we're doing for college, and we're looking at this year and trying to see friends as much as possible before we all leave," Allison said.

She said she's eager for the homecoming pep rally, when the seniors are introduced and run out onto the gym floor in Burger King paper crowns. She hopes her soccer team can have another winning season "and not mess up." She thinks the freshmen might look up to her a little, the way she did to seniors back then, and sure enough, after fourth period, when a girl shyly asked where the cafeteria is, Allison felt good.

Allison said that she is sad that she'll leave her friends soon and that while "it shouldn't be hard to make another home in a dorm room," she'll miss her starry blue bedroom with her childhood artwork all over the walls, her haven for 17 years.

She still remembers her first day of kindergarten: She was convinced she was supposed to arrive having mastered the multiplication tables. "I thought everyone would know them except for me," Allison recalled.

Math still worries Allison a little -- this time, Advanced Placement calculus. Already on the first day, the class work involved the instantaneous rate of change of a function and a bit of erasing.

The teacher, Teresa Fromme, told the class: "All the math you've done before, you will be using this year. You'll finally see why you learned it all."

Little Rochelle expressed no concern about multiplication; she can already do simple addition and subtraction. But when asked yesterday how many days she has left of school, the kindergartner's eyes grew wide and she just shook her head.

High school might as well be another universe for Rochelle, who was still unsure where to find her classroom cubbyhole.

In Columbia, fourth-graders Dajoun Love, left, William Kendig, Darren Jefferys and Jenna Pekofsky join in yelling the Stevens Forest Elementary chant to start the school year. Tameka Byrd wipes away daughter Tache's tears at Stevens Forest, where Tache is a fourth-grader.Kindergarten parents Christina Bird-Walker, left, and Michelle Kopp hug their sons, Cyrus and Jacob, before leaving them at Stevens Forest. Seniors Amy Kaylor, left, and Allison Smith hug one another on the first day of their last year at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville.