It was 7 a.m., the start of a typical day at Tuscarora High School in Frederick. The students began arriving in a trickle, then a flood. As the bleary-eyed teenagers shuffled through the front door, heading to class, Kristen Riordan and a few friends stopped by the flagpole, formed a circle and waited nervously.
Then, in a scene repeated at schools across the country, the students bowed their heads and prayed.
They spoke one at a time, and their quiet voices were difficult to make out over the roar of cars driving past. Dear God, they said, please help the people who are struggling with Hurricane Katrina. Let New Orleans be rebuilt. Protect the soldiers in Iraq. Look out for those of us going about our daily lives. Thank You for being there when we have troubles. Give us all a light and help us shine.
Elsewhere, groups sang Christian songs or read Scripture, but prayer at schools -- including public schools such as Tuscarora -- remained the centerpiece of the 16th annual "See You at the Pole" event. Organizers hoped to draw more than a million students at thousands of schools yesterday, according to the National Network of Youth Ministries, which promotes the event.
The event is organized entirely by students, and network officials said they will not know how many students participated for at least a week, based on reports from local student leaders. Last year, 1.2 million to 1.5 million students nationwide showed up for the prayer meetings, Jim Byrne, the regional coordinator for the network, said in an interview.
"It is the largest youth prayer movement in American history," Byrne said. "There is nothing that is close to us."
Students organize the gatherings in part to keep them a genuine expression of faith among the young and in part to avoid the issue of prayer at public schools. The Supreme Court has ruled that students are allowed to pray on school grounds as long as the prayer takes place outside class time. Staff and teachers are not allowed to encourage or discourage participation.
"They need to be student-initiated, through, for example, a club, versus the school actually promoting the activity," said Marita Loose, spokeswoman for Frederick County schools.
Riordan and her friends, Tuscarora students who are starting a Christian fellowship at the school, were concerned about how many of their schoolmates would show up and how other students would respond. Only seven of the more than 1,500 students came to a Bible reading group last year, and the group's signs were vandalized, she said.
Riordan recalled worrying, "Oh, my gosh, there's going to be people yelling at us."
As the praying students stood in a circle, there were curious glances from students walking past. Other students joined the circle in ones and twos, until the initial group of about 15 had swelled to more than 40, including a couple of teachers who remained silent. One girl's shirt read, "I Will Windmill Kick You in the Face," an odd sentiment for the solemn occasion.
Toward the end, after the students joined hands for a final round of prayers, a girl, her voice quavering with emotion, spoke. "We are your children, and we are your army," said Rebecca Mena, 16. "We are supposed to be the light of the world. We are supposed to show your light, God."
For a moment, students said, it was possible to forget what waited outside the circle: a popular culture that makes it hard to be a good Christian.
The school's buzzer sounded insistently, and a student began to read the morning announcements over the public address system. The students parted hands and rushed off to their classes.