It wasn't exactly a goal from the start. It was more of a dawning, a realization that came to Richard Dossel in the fifth grade. He was one of those people -- those people who are inclined to show up early, finish their homework, make deadlines, suppress routine illnesses and shun self-pity.

"It occurred to me that I had never missed a day of school," the 18-year-old recalled. "I thought, 'I better just keep on going to school. I know I can do it.' "

And so his quest for perfect attendance began, an odyssey of sheer iron will that involved pressing on through open-heart surgery, chronic asthma, bouts of flu, exhaustion and many mornings, Dossel admits, when he would rather have stayed in bed, like other mortals. He didn't, though. Dossel, who is Baptist, said that God told him to go.

"I was determined to do it," he said. "I told myself, 'God will take care of me.' "

The official finish line was yesterday, when the senior class of C.D. Hylton High School was scheduled to graduate at Nissan Pavilion, after Prince William Extra went to press.

In all, 3,478 seniors will graduate from Prince William County schools this year, 412 from Osbourn High School in Manassas city and 107 in Manassas Park.

With the end approaching, Dossel, of Woodbridge, reminisced last week about his journey. There certainly were tough times.

"Sometimes, I would have asthma," he said. "And I'd just feel like, 'I just don't want to go to school.' "

But Dossel, wheezing and coughing, packed the inhaler and went anyway, even after spending long nights at the emergency room. "If he was willing to do it, I was willing to do anything to get him there," said Sharon Dossel, Richard's mother.

The asthma that dogged him through elementary school subsided as Richard got older, but his heart condition, aortic stenosis -- he has two imperfectly functioning heart valves, instead of the normal three -- worsened. It left him tired and out of breath, and eventually required open-heart surgery, which was scheduled two weeks before his first day of eighth grade.

"I recovered really fast," Dossel said. "I went in on a Tuesday and got out Friday."

He had a scar down his chest and could not carry more than five pounds, but he started school on time anyway, having his mother or his classmates carry his books.

"My ribs were hurting some," he said. "But I was determined to do it."

Relatively speaking, it was downhill from there.

Dossel seemed to save up the routine bouts of flu and other viruses for holidays, waiting "until it was okay" to get sick, he said. He spent his spring break last year laid up, for example.

For procrastinators and malcontents, it may be painful to learn that Dossel's odyssey was otherwise made easy by his attitude towards his studies.

"Sometimes I wanted to go to school because I love to learn," he said. "Sometimes I do want to stay home, but I just can't. . . . I just can't afford to miss the material, because then I'm going to have to make up the work and it's going to be a pain in the butt."

Dossel played clarinet in the high school band and especially loves history, World War II history in particular, "because you're dealing with Stalin, Winston Churchill, FDR," he said.

This year, he received all A's on his report card.

Dossel wants to attend Northern Virginia Community College and eventually go to George Mason University, where he will study to become a teacher.

For accomplishing his goal -- one that his older brother achieved, and one that his younger sister, who is finishing eighth grade with perfect attendance, may as well -- Richard Dossel has the privilege of wearing a gold medal, the principal's award, during his graduation ceremony.

"It feels awesome," he said. "It feels like I accomplished something."

Richard Dossel, who graduated yesterday from Hylton High, has never missed a day of school, even though he suffers from asthma and had open-heart surgery two weeks before the start of the eighth grade. He wants to attend Northern Virginia Community College.