Instead of marching across a stage to receive her high school diploma, Brooke Tanner will celebrate her graduation at the Great Wall of China, along with nine other North Harford High School seniors this summer.
Tanner is one of the 56 singers from northern Harford County traveling to Beijing and Shanghai in late May to perform in a pre-Olympic choral festival.
"There was no way I was not going to China," Tanner said, even if it meant that the 17-year-old would miss her high school graduation.
The 12-day China tour cuts into senior activities and high school graduation, but the county Board of Education authorized the 44 North Harford High School choral students to miss nine days of class in order to make the trip.
They will join a dozen adults from Deer Creek Chorale, a community choir in Harford, in performing folk and patriotic songs. There also will be four other American choral groups joining in the performances throughout China.
The theme is "to perform in harmony with the Olympic spirit," said choral director Martha Banghart.
"It's hard to believe here in Pylesville we're going to China to be a part of something like this," Banghart said. "It's an incredible cultural exchange. We're going to be making music with residents of Beijing and Shanghai, singing with our Chinese counterparts, accompanied by the Beijing Orchestra and soloists from the Beijing conservatory."
Between performances, singers will visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and the Beijing Opera.
For many of the singers, it's their first time getting a passport and traveling overseas.
With family members tagging along, 84 people from North Harford will be making the 20-hour-plus flight.
"Not a lot of public high schools are taking kids on international trips," Banghart said. "Everyone says how risky it is with all the liability. But I wanted my kids to see the world."
The biggest hurdle is the $4,000 per-person estimated expense of the trip.
"Everyone's emptying their bank accounts," said Tanner. "We've sent letters to corporations asking for donations."
The students have sent about 400 letters to businesses in Harford County asking for donations and also plan to organize car washes.
Banghart said they hope to raise $55,000 but have only raised about $14,000 so far.
"It's hard to raise money, especially with something like this that's not need-based," Banghart said.
Parents are also making sacrifices to send their children to China.
Fallston resident Donna Brown and her husband canceled their 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii to fund the trip for their 15-year-old son, Justin.
"We gave him our little slush fund, and he had to come up with his spending money. He saved money from Christmas and birthdays, and he does chores around the house," Brown said.
"Anytime he gives me lip, I can threaten him. Anytime he'd misbehave, I'd say, `I'm going to cancel your trip and I'm going to Hawaii.' It shuts him up pretty good."
Performers will memorize more than a dozen musical pieces, including "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Oh Shenandoah" and "Steal Away" before their May 25 departure. They'll also sing the Carmina Burana and hold a farewell performance before leaving for China.
The group from North Harford is one of five choirs performing in China under John Guthmiller, chairman of the music department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Other singers are coming from Iowa, Kansas and Virginia.
Since the singers will not get to rehearse together before landing in China, Guthmiller will have to harmonize the choirs once they're all overseas.
"We'll have to be able to make adjustments quickly," he said. "Among the main concerns is that when people travel, often their voices are very fragile and they could lose their voices."
The choral festival in China will end in early June, two months before the Summer Olympics begin.
Guthmiller said he's not disappointed the choirs won't be there during the Olympics.
"If you're there during the Olympics, no one would care because everyone would be interested in Olympics," he said.