Freshman Tanner Johnson seemed composed as he stepped in front of the massive new high school compound on Cunningham Avenue in southwest Medford but, inside, he was bubbling with excitement and nervousness.

Freshman Tanner Johnson seemed composed as he stepped in front of the massive new high school compound on Cunningham Avenue in southwest Medford but, inside, he was bubbling with excitement and nervousness.

Wednesday at South Medford High School not only marked Tanner's passage from middle school to high school — it also was the first time classes convened in the new high school, built during the past two years to replace the nearly 80-year-old school on South Oakdale Avenue.

"I was really nervous because I didn't know if I could get around the school, but I learned the classrooms in the 100s are on the bottom floor and the 200s are above," he said.

About 1,845 students converged on the new campus Wednesday, filling the still-new-smelling building with bustling activity and crowded hallways.

Tanner's mom, Sara Johnson, dropped him off at school.

"My mom was being really cautious this morning," he said. "She asked me if I had my lunch three times."

"I went to the cafeteria and sat down with my friends (from McLoughlin Middle School)," he said. "We talked about the new school and what classes we had."

A line of students needing a schedule, asking questions about their schedules or seeking a locker assignment wound through the front lobby.

Tanner found the schedule confusing. There's "A" day, "B" day and "C" day, and each falls on a different day of the week each week. Finding his classes proved to be easy enough, but it wasn't clear to him which set of classes he was to attend on which day.

His first high school class was freshmen world studies. He sat in the front row, more impressed by his enthusiastic teacher Dave Lefkowitz than by the subject, he admitted later.

Lefkowitz quizzed the students on what they thought good classroom behavior might be and ways they could preserve the new building.

"They took a vote on whether to spend some money to build a new school, but they're out of school," Lefkowitz said of the Medford School District's voters. "Why do you think they did that? Because they care, so this (building) is a gift from your mom, your dad, your community."

About $80 million of $189 million approved by voters in 2006 for Medford school upgrades and construction went toward the new high school.

After the first class of the day, the school held its first schoolwide assembly. Tanner walked to the gym, unsure of where to sit until senior Kayla Doney directed him to a section reserved for freshmen.

Kayla, who is student body vice president, lavished praise on the building.

"It's amazing," she gushed. "We are excited. Even though we're bummed we (the senior class) are only going to be here for one year, we are stoked we get to experience it. It really makes kids want to come to school."

Kayla's class will be the first to graduate from the new school.

"I like it because it's so bright," Kayla said. "There are so many windows. It really feels like a nice environment."

Kayla's friend, Kaileigh Delaney, greeted her with a hug as they met inside the gym, which was thumping with the drums of the school's band.

"It's really clean and new and kind of like a hospital or prison," Kaileigh commented.

English teacher Adam Drew led the assembly in clapping to the tempo of the band.

"I want us to be so loud that the old South hears us," he called on a muffled public address system.

Tanner said he was excited by the pulse of school spirit resonating through the gym.

"It was fun," he said.

The problem was "I couldn't hear anything," he said. The public address system wasn't working properly, and school official said they are working on fixing the problem.

After the assembly, Tanner headed to an introduction to drafting class. He parked himself behind one of the classroom's new computers and listened to teacher Miriam Munoz give a synopsis of the class, a pre-engineering/architecture course focusing on dimension and two- and three-dimensional drawing.

To assess students' skills, she asked them to draw three overlapping rectangles using a free-hand line.

"I'm not good at drawing," Tanner said. "I thought it would be interesting. My dad is a computer guy so I wanted to try it."

At noon, he navigate his way through a bottleneck of students entering the commons and escaped the sea of bodies by climbing up the staircase to join his friends for lunch at a table on the balcony overlooking the commons and cafeteria.

"I didn't expect the school to be this big or this crowded," Tanner said.

As he started on a turkey sandwich, his friends, all graduates of McLoughlin Middle School, reflected on the beginning of the day and admired some of the girls sitting below.

"I still don't know where my classes are," said Tanner's friend, freshman Jeff Turner, with an unconcerned grin.

Tanner said he likes his teachers, but his favorite part of high school is football.

The first day of school was made all the sweeter because he began the school year with a freshman football victory already under his belt. His team prevailed over South Salem Sept. 2 in Salem.

"We scored on the first play, the first kick-off," he said. "It was really fun."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail