The temperature is barely 20 degrees, the sidewalk in front of the Portland Museum of Art is a sheet of ice, and Ray Intwari has forgotten his gloves.

But the 18-year-old senior is beaming anyway when he steps off the school bus in downtown Portland, where he congregates with his classmates from Casco Bay High School. They’ve all been waiting for this moment for 3½ years. Today is the annual College March, when the senior class marches together down Congress Street in Portland to mail college applications and letters at the post office. When they step off, they will join a national movement of 2,300 students marching at 25 high schools across the country.

“Senior year always has a lot of hoopla at the end around graduation, and there’s a lot of hoopla around getting in,” Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce said. “It can be a long anxious spell between applying and finding out for many kids. When I heard about this ritual, I was like, ‘That’s fantastic.’ ”

Casco Bay requires every student to submit at least one college application. Ninety-three students graduated in the class of 2017. Eighty-two went to college this fall. Seven planned to take a gap year after their high school graduation and then go to college. One entered the U.S. Marine Corps, and three entered the workforce.

“We want every kid to know they are college material, whether they choose to take a gap year or enter the military or the workforce,” Pierce said. “We want everybody to graduate knowing they can go to college if they so choose.”

While some mail applications to nearby schools like Southern Maine Community College, Pierce said most kids already have submitted their applications online by mid-December. So Intwari, like most of his classmates, will mail thank-you letters to teachers who wrote his recommendation letters. Others are mailing updated transcripts or test scores, waivers for application fees or notes for their families.

‘FRIENDS WITH ALL FRIEND GROUPS’

Intwari, 18, stashes his three envelopes in his backpack. One is for Scott Shibles, the director of student life and the leader of Intwari’s homeroom crew.

“Ray is extremely gregarious, outgoing and hardworking,” Shibles said. “He’s one of those kids who is friends with all friend groups.”

Intwari wasn’t always that way.

When his family moved to the United States from Burundi in 2011, Intwari said he was shy. He grew up speaking Kirundi and French, and he only knew basic English phrases. He was too young to fully understand the reasons why his family left their home, but he knew America promised a safer life – and a better education.

“America, my parents told me, it was the best education,” Intwari said.

So at King Middle School in Portland, he joined sports clubs to make friends and practice his English. He swam and played basketball. He volunteered and participated in a summer rock-climbing camp in New Hampshire.

When he advanced to ninth grade at Casco Bay, Intwari found a perfect fit. He said he’ll never forget spending a week in Detroit during his junior year, making a documentary and meeting new people and getting to know his classmates better.

“We all encourage each other,” Intwari said.

MARCHING DOWN CONGRESS STREET

Outside the art museum, the seniors are buzzing. Intwari shoves his hands in the pockets of his blue vest to keep them warm. He stands in the back of a group photo, but he still stands out with his bright smile and colorful L.L. Bean beanie. He flashes a peace sign at the camera, then stuffs his hands in his pockets again.

With a cheer, the senior class starts marching down Congress Street toward the post office and Portland City Hall. Intwari jogs to catch up with a friend. The group chants periodically – “We are Casco Bay! We are Casco Bay!”

Police officers and teachers in yellow traffic vests have cleared them a path in the right lane. In the left lane, a line of cars is stopped at a red light. The drivers roll down their windows as Intwari trots down the center line with a hand outstretched for a high-five. Bystanders in Monument Square wave at the students, and Intwari pulls his hand out of his pocket to wave back. On the roof of the Portland Public Library, employees are on the roof, waving congratulatory signs and shaking red pom-poms.

The post office is just two blocks away now. Intwari received mail of his own this week – an acceptance letter from Curry College south of Boston, his first. He sent applications to a host of schools in New England, most in Massachusetts, such as Bunker Hill Community College, Greenfield Community College and Babson College. He will likely start at a community college to get an associate degree and then transfer to a four-year school, he said. He’s thinking about a major in liberal arts, and he’s not quite sure what he wants to do for a career yet.

Still, opening his first acceptance letter with his parents was unforgettable.

“I opened it, and it was one of those memories you will hold onto forever,” he said.

THE ENVELOPE TOSS

In front of the post office, students swarm a large mail bin, tossing their envelopes into a pile in the bottom. A friend drops Intwari’s three letters into the bin for him. The rush of seniors crosses Congress Street toward City Hall, slapping the hands of their principal and teachers as they go. The entire student body is waiting for them, screaming cheers with clouds of frozen breath, waving posters in the air like a pep rally. The messages are written in bright markers: “Wow” and “Yay Seniors!” One says, “Congrats on not dropping out.”

“It sends a really important message to the ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders,” Pierce said. “They see the kids they look up to have made it to this point. That can give them inspiration.”

Intwari finds a spot halfway up the steps and sandwiches in the rows of his classmates. His hands are ice cold and still shoved in his pockets, but he is beaming. On the steps of City Hall, a girl in the front row leads a chorus of “C-B-H-S! C-B-H-S!” He joins the chant.

“That was really surreal,” he said later. “To be graduating with these incredible people is amazing.”

Pierce grabs a microphone and congratulates the students. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and Superintendent Xavier Botana follow suit. A couple members of the senior class have the chance to share their thoughts.

“When others are walking in life, you should march,” Emmanuel Kab said. “When others are marching in life, you should run. When others are running in life, you should fly.”

The students hoot and applaud and cheer for each speaker. When Pierce dismisses them, they scramble across the plaza, running to their friends or a coffee shop or a seat on the next bus. Some students seek warmth inside City Hall. There, a younger classmate breaks away from his group to approach Intwari.

“Congratulations, bro,” the boy says, reaching out for a handshake.

Intwari extends his hand as well and flashes that wide smile.

“You’re up next,” he says.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle