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New Highland Elementary School third teacher Mary Grace Jimenez, 22, leads her students on the first day of school in Ridgeland. Jimenez attended Highland and graduated from Madison Central High school in Madison. / Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger

It was a day full of firsts for first-year teacher Mary Grace Jimenez and her 20 third-grade students at Highland Elementary in Ridgeland.

The students, decked out in their new, splashy school clothes, were wide-eyed as they took in their surroundings. For these students, Highland Elementary, which has 620 third- through fifth-graders, is a whole different ballgame.

Orange cones blocked off a drawing on the concrete in front of the school's entrance. The drawing, done by a Highland parent, was of a fist holding a lightning bolt.

"It will say 'You have the power to explore and excel,' reflecting the school's theme this year," explained Principal Paula Tharp, who also started her first year at Highland on Thursday.

But for 22-year-old Jimenez, there was some old in a day of new. She attended Highland as a young girl and Madison County schools through middle and high school before heading to the University of Mississippi, from which she graduated this year.

Jimenez, hugging a security guard in the hallway on the way to lunch, seemed right at home.

But she was still nervous.

"Because I come from the county, everyone's always known I've wanted to be a teacher," Jimenez said between bites of sandwich in the school's cafeteria. "So everyone's said all these years, 'You're going to be the best!' If I had any fear, it would be that I won't live up to their expectations as a product of the system."

But she was off to a good start.

By noon, the kids had memorized and could recite a list of five classroom rules, complete with hand motions to accompany each one.

"Follow directions the first time! Always, always try your best! Respect yourself, others and your teacher!" the students, standing by their desks, chanted in sing-song voices.

And she had even taught them a trick for remembering how to pronounce her name, which proved a little difficult.

"What's another word that starts with 'j' that sounds like my name?" she asked the class.

"Jalapeno!" came the chorus of responses.

Jimenez always knew she wanted to teach third grade. "They're at the age where they can open their own milk cartons, but they still look up to me and adore me," Jimenez said with a smile.

Over 12,700 students in Madison County had their first day of school Thursday. The Hinds County, Rankin County and Pearl districts started the same day.

Although the 2014-15 year will involve more new challenges, metro-area parents, students and teachers might do well to remember one of Ms. Jimenez's simple rules: "Always, always do your best."

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