ABOARD A CHARTER BUS BOUND FOR LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As we roll by the rugged and picturesque West Virginia countryside, students are beginning to stir, squirming in their seats and pulling study materials from their backpacks.
It's been a couple of hours since the bus departed the Westminster parking lot at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center before dawn Monday, headed for the National Vocational and Industrial Clubs of America Skill Olympics in Louisville, some 12hours away.
Chasity Whitt, a Francis Scott Key High School junior, is trying to remember the words to John Denver's "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy." She sings softly, "I've got me a farm . . . cakes on the griddle," but then stops, failing to recall the rest of the chorus.
The 16-year-old daughter of Sylvia Beall of New Windsor is among the 20 Carroll students who will compete today and tomorrow in the national contest at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center.
They will compete against some 3,000 students from across the United States and its territories in trade, industrial, technical and health occupations programs.
Chasity, a cosmetology student who won two statewide run-offs in manicure preparation to advance to the nationals, reveals her uneasiness about the contest to her instructor, Jane Dotson.
"Listen, honey child," Dotson says. "You're good or you wouldn't have gone this far."
Like the other students, Chasity is a state gold medal winner. Many of the students have been practicing regularly since the state event in March to hone their skills in automotive service technology, custodial services and residential plumbing, among others.
Even though competition is a few days away, the students are nervous. Many have never been to the national contest, which is judged by representatives from the nation's business and industry.
Michael Myers,an FSK junior and son of Michael and Cindy Myers of Frizzelburg, is a "little uptight" about demonstrating his skills in diesel equipmenttechnology.
"This is my first year and I don't know what it's like," the 17-year-old says during a lunch stop at a Roy Rogers. "Lots of people have told me what it's like, but I'm not really going to know until I get there."
Dorothy Waltz of Finksburg, a vo-tech substitute teacher who came along to cheer the students on, advised them "to put your best foot forward; that's all you can do."
Mike and theothers learned more about their respective contests at a breakfast yesterday with the entire Maryland vo-tech delegation. Carroll has thelargest contingent of Maryland students, advisers and instructors inLouisville.
There will be meetings to discuss individual contests, too. Students will be reminded to wear VICA attire (red blazer, white shirt and black tie) to formal functions and uniforms during contests.
Today will be free time. It also is a day students "begin to tighten up," getting nervous about tomorrow's day-long competition, says David Brumit, plumbing instructor.
A dance is scheduled for tonight, but Dotson already has ruled that venture out: "You all need your rest."
The first Carroll student to compete will be Staci Ridgely, a Westminster High junior who will give an extemporaneous speechthis morning about some aspect.
"I'm extremely frightened," says Staci, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert and Arlene Ridgely of Westminster. "I just lost a dear friend Saturday, so I'm upset about that andnervous thinking about the contest."
The 16-year-old, student president of the state VICA, eases her nervousness by chatting, quizzinginstructors about VICA and singing songs from "A Chorus Line"and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Dotson asks her if she knows the words to "My Old Kentucky Home." Staci shakes her head as Dotson pulls out her harmonica and hums the first couple stanzas.
"The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home," offers VICA adviser Charles Colson.
Looking out a window at the passing greenery, one of the groggy students notes the sun finally has burned away the fog that has blanketed snoozing towns and serene valleys along the route.
Dreams of victoryhave not been burned away, though. It's time to get to serious business.
Chasity pulls out her VICA test materials and begins studying. Her seatmate, Dotson, offers to help, asking four or five questionsbefore she leaves Chasity to her own studying.
Dotson notes she can't read and ride for too long without getting sick: "That will be enough."
Learning the VICA materials is important. Besides competing in skill contests, students will be tested on their knowledge of VICA etiquette, parliamentary procedure and skills needed to function in the business world. Test scores are used to break ties in some competitions.
"These kids are competing against the very best from allthe states," says Bill Weller, a collision repair technology instructor. "The VICA test is very important. It can mean the difference in getting one of the top three places or getting in the Top 10."
Some of the students quiz their instructors about VICA materials.
"Mr. Colson?" Staci beckons from the rear of the bus. "Are you a certified VICA instructor?"
Yes, the VICA adviser replies.
"It's a good thing or you couldn't be my adviser," Staci says.