Twelve years ago, a front-toothless first-grader named Tiffany Chillemi made a promise to her teacher: "I won't smoke because it stinks," the Mount Airy Elementary pupil penciled in 2-inch-tall letters.
Yesterday, with two weeks left until high school graduation, Chillemi and four former classmates returned to tell their teacher, Cindy Compton, that they have kept their pledge not to light up.
"It's bad for you and I've always thought of it as a turnoff," said Chillemi, now a South Carroll High senior who plans to study elementary education at Western Michigan University in the fall. "People do it because they say it looks cool, but it's not."
Of the teachers in the 200 Maryland schools that participated in the American Lung Association's Smoke-Free Class of 2000 program, only Cindy Compton of Mount Airy Elementary has followed her first-graders through to graduation, as far as association organizers can tell.
Compton began with a packet of materials, incorporating the dangers of smoking into story time, coloring pages and class discussions. Each of her 25 first-graders received a bright yellow T-shirt, signed a pledge and penciled a promise onto a chart that an assistant superintendent stashed away in a closet.
Compton met with them again at the end of fifth grade and "at that point, it was still me mostly talking," she recalled.
But three years later, as the Class of 2000 neared the end of middle school, Compton's pint-sized students had grown up, and the group's meeting became more of a discussion.
"We talked about smoking and how it would be difficult because of all the peer pressure of high school," Compton said.
Although none of her students said they had experimented with tobacco, "I knew their critical years were coming up."
With all the talk of Y2K last year, Compton realized that this was it: Her smoke-free first-graders were graduating. And so began the task of finding them for a reunion.
She mailed 25 invitations, asking her class to gather beneath the pin oak tree they planted 12 years ago as a seedling. Compton included an anonymous survey, asking whether the students had smoked, had been pressured by their peers to smoke or had purchased cigarettes.
The school system could not locate addresses for seven kids who had moved. Four were enrolled in Frederick County schools -- the Carroll-Frederick County border divides Mount Airy.
Of the 10 students who returned the surveys, eight said they had kept their promise.
All five of the young women at yesterday's reunion beneath the now 20-foot tree -- Chillemi, Becky Moser, Heidi Weddle, Kathleen McLellan and Erin Murphy -- said they have never smoked. Each said Compton's efforts had played at least a subconscious role in their decision.
"It meant a lot to me and I kept that promise," Weddle said. "I used to parade around the house in my T-shirt and say, `Granddad, look at my shirt.' My mom, my dad, Miss Compton, they all told me that smoking could be the stupidest thing I could do with my life."
Weddle's grandfather, who smoked, died six years ago from throat cancer.
The Smoke-Free Class of 2000 was a national education and awareness project co-sponsored by the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.
Rising to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's challenge for a smoke-free society by the year 2000, the project offered age-appropriate activities about peer pressure, advertising and the health hazards of tobacco.
"The effort that the program made 12 years ago when it first began was rather insightful in the fact that it's important to start with kids at an early age," said Nancy Seiss, communications director with the American Lung Association of Maryland. "Otherwise, it's merely the influence of their friends or the barrage of very slick advertising of the tobacco industry -- neither of which provides them with the information to make an educated choice."
With her girls gathered around her on a sunny afternoon that was filled with hugs and reminiscing, Compton offered some final advice: "Now that you're graduating, your parents say, `Grow up, act like adults.' I tell you to act like first-graders because everything is so clear about what's right and what's wrong. When you're in first grade, it doesn't make sense to put this smoking stick in your mouth. So what I wish for you is lots of first-grade moments."