If you like to think Island kids lead a sheltered life, that the real world for them is an ocean away, get ready to have that myth shattered by the Class of 2001, a group of some 140 teenagers who have both taken charge and taken some hard knocks.

You could find some of them at committee meetings, sparring with adult board members over drug and alcohol policies. On weekend nights, others got behind a wheel and drove all night long to give teenagers in trouble a safe ride home. And when their world got turned upside down by the death of a classmate, they reached out to one another.

"When the going gets tough, we're all there for each other," said senior Kate Lolley, editor of the school newspaper. "We united as a class."

Unity is a word that comes up often when asking people - students and adults alike - to talk about this class and to help define them. And to be sure, adversity has played a role in forging that amalgam.

In many respects, it was a way for these young people to lift a positive thread from the tragedy they have endured and the grief they still feel at the death of Eric MacLean, killed in a car crash in late March of this year. It wasn't their first experience of loss. In 1999, a single-car accident in West Tisbury claimed the life of Robert Luce Jr. And for students from Oak Bluffs, it was a boating accident in 1993 that took the life of their classmate Joey Beaulieu and left another classmate, Alex Loud, to mourn both a brother and a father.

"Our class went through a lot with the deaths," said senior Chris Armstrong of Oak Bluffs. "But it definitely brought a lot of people together."

That experience, said senior Alicia Agnoli, could have helped to lessen the intensity of the cliques so common in high school. "In any group of people, there's going to be cliques," she said. "but I'd say everyone can get along. There's a lot of overlapping."

This class learned to accept one another despite the differences. "You can smile at just about everyone in the hallways," said senior Will Evans.

The bond within this class stretched across towns and socioeconomic levels, according to principal Peg Regan. "Their class spirit has been phenomenal. They've had a lot of tragedies over the years," she said. "But they have pulled together."

Dean of students Michael Halt, a class advisor for this group for their four years, said this class knew how to get things done. Their leadership skills, he said, were phenomenal.

"They sponsored several dances through the year. They hired the deejay, rented the facilities and made the phone calls," he said. "I just sat back and co-signed the checks. They made it all happen."

And as both Mr. Halt and Mrs. Regan instituted changes at the high school to involve students in leadership roles, this class took full advantage, joining school subcommittees and stepping up to new jobs in student government.

"I think we are a pretty self-assured bunch," said Miss Agnoli, who is headed to Princeton in the fall. "When we feel we've been wronged. we're not shy to say something about it. And there are plenty of venues where we can speak up. It's important, those opportunities for us to be heard. A lot of people in my class would agree and are willing to step forward and speak."

In public meetings over the year on athletic policies, seniors were vocal on both sides of the debate about consequences for students caught using drugs or alcohol. And when a delegation traveled to the statehouse to lobby for support for SafeRides, seniors Will Evans and Mike Sawyer were among those to testify in front of lawmakers.

"There's a good sense of altruism and looking out for one another," said Mrs. Regan. "SafeRides is a good example. They wanted to make sure people got home and nobody got hurt."

To Shauna Nute, head of the guidance department, this was the all-American class, kids who excelled in sports and in the arts, kids who "experienced tremendous loss and a tremendous amount of success."

And besides that sense of class unity, Ms. Nute observed these students possessed a boldness others before them may have lacked. They looked to colleges further away from home, in the South and Midwest, and they sought out not just traditional four-year colleges but also technical schools where they could hone a special skill.

"These kids are well traveled now, more than in the past," she said "It's not as scary for them to go further away from Mom and Dad." And they have taught their parents to let them venture into the wider world, she added. Possibly they are a little stronger than most as they step into that world.

But they will also leave something behind, a legacy that could be viewed as an antidote to the tough times they have weathered. It came about through student congress whose existence this class helped to usher in this year. They worked hard, the principal said, to get feedback from their constituents.

"They wanted to hear from the kids. What did they want?" said Mrs. Regan. "Kids wanted ice cream in the cafeteria. They listened, and they worked it through. That was the kind of leadership you have in this class."