SNOWSHOE ? Tommy Evans stood atop the 4,848-foot mountain at6:20 a.m., waiting for the bus to arrive, wearing a special badge so nobodywould lose him on the way to school.
He clutched his father?s hand. Wind sailed through the pineboughs. Their dog, Jake, sniffed a trash can. Tommy is learning the hard truth about rural education at anearly age. He?s 4 years old. He attended preschool at the elementary school inMarlinton. He starts kindergarten Monday.
He travels 1 hour and 20 minutes each way to and from school.He rides two buses, transferring at Slatyfork. He leaves at 6:30, returns homeat 4:40 in the afternoon. ?It?s hard on him, hard on any kid,? said Tommy?s father, Tom
Evans, who works in the Snowshoe bike shop. Tommy?s mother, Joan, joined them at the top of the mountain.She put her arm around Tommy?s shoulder, made sure he had gone to the bathroom. Tommy hadn?t eaten breakfast. It was too early. He wasn?thungry yet. ?When we came here we didn?t have Tommy,? Tom Evans aid.
?Wedidn?t realize what was involved. If and when we move from this mountain, itwill be because of the long bus rides.? A strobe light pierced the fog. A yellow bus rumbled up themountain. Tommy climbed on, slumped into his seat, waved out the window.His father and mother waved back, blew him kisses, as the bus coasted down themountain, Tommy already fast asleep. ?The Snowshoe kids are so tired? Parents in northern Pocahontas County want a new school. Theywant a community school where their kids could ride their bikes and studyforests, streams and wildlife. Intrawest, the company that owns Snowshoe Mountain Resort,offered to donate land for the new school. Snowshoe officials said theycouldn?t recruit employees with children because of long bus rides. Volunteers got in line. They invited nearby Randolph Countychildren to come to the school. Construction money would come from the stateSchool Building Authority. The proposed 90-student school didn?t meet the SBA?s ?economiesof scale? guidelines, which require new schools to house at least 300 students.But SBA officials said they would consider the school because it would promoteeconomic development and serve children from two counties. ?I can?t think of a better way to serve kids than to keep themclose to home,? said SBA Executive Director Clacy Williams last year. But the school plans fizzled. Randolph County didn?t want toend its kids. School systems receive state money based on enrollment. Fewer
kids means fewer dollars. So, for now, and perhaps for a lifetime, Pocahontas Countychildren must endure long school bus rides. That?s all they?ll know. ?When they leave it?s dark. When they get home, it?s dark,?aid Regina Erlwine, whose 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter ride the bus
to Marlinton. Regina must put her children to bed early, about 7 p.m. Shepicks out their clothes the night before. She dresses them each morning whilethey?re still sleeping. She sometimes slips them a snack to eat on the bus. ?It?s such a long day,? said Erlwine, who works in sales atSnowshoe. ?They don?t want to get up. They?re tired all the time.? Becki Furbee?s 6-year-old son, Max, will enter the first gradeat Marlinton Elementary Monday. Last year, she sometimes received notes fromMax?s teacher. Max seems sleepy, the notes aid.
?The teachers always tell us the Snowshoe kids are so tired. Nowonder,? Furbee aid.
?The little ones say, ?I don?t want to go to schooltomorrow.? When I was young I loved school.? Counting bolts
Tommy Evans dashed through the spring rain and hopped into hisbus for the ride home. He sat in the front seat behind the driver. The little children always sit near the front, the middlechool students in the middle, and high school students, if they don?t drive tochool, in the back.
Some children open books and try to read or tackle homework,but it?s difficult on the bumpy, twisting ride. So boys play hand-held videogames, girls practice putting on lipstick. ?If you ride this two times a day, five days a week, man, itgets old real fast,? said Seth Morgan, 8, a second-grader at MarlintonElementary. ?As soon as I get home, I eat, drink, do my homework, go to bed. Idon?t have time for anything else.? Sometimes children urinate in their pants on the bus. Sometimesthey vomit. ?If they start to get sick, we know to get the trash can,? Sethaid.
Around him, children used their fingers to scribble messages onfogged windows. They typed ?7734? into a calculator, then flipped it upsidedown to spell ?hell.? The older children played ?truth or dare,? the youngerones, ?bubble gum, bubble gum, in a dish.? There were games of ?mercy?and ?scissors, paper, rock.? ?The first person to bleed is out,? said Hanna Giddings, 12, aixth-grader at Marlinton Middle.
They also counted bolts. They counted the bolts along a seam that seals two sections ofthe bus roof. ?Everyone on the bus can tell you there are 46 bolts,? saidAlexa Furbee, 13, Becki Furbee?s daughter, who has been on the same gruelingbus run since kindergarten. The bus splashed through Slatyfork, pulled up at a mobile homepark. A mother drove up on a lawn tractor to pick up her daughter, rain soakingher clothes. The bus barreled up Snowshoe Mountain, past the chairlifts andki slopes and mountain lodge. Tommy?s mother was waiting for him. He looked
out the window and smiled. ?Hey, hey, I?m almost home,? he aid.
He was asked how long he rides the bus each day. ?It takes about eight hours,? he aid. To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e- mail or call 357-4323.