TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- It's three weeks to graduation and the Tangier Combined School Class of 1999 -- eight girls and one boy -- has little time for sentimentality. What with fittings for caps and gowns, senior portraits, the senior trip to New York and the prom, their final days are a blur.
After 13 years together, they know full well the choices they're making now will set most of them on course for lives far from the safety of this close-knit, deeply religious community of 600-plus inhabitants who think of themselves as one big extended family.
They can reminisce about growing up free to roam the marsh and beaches of the remote island where bicycles, motor bikes and golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation. They cackle at the memory of carefree "mudlarking" in the island's marsh ditches at low tide.
But as three-quarters of the class gathers at the spacious school that opened last year to serve 120 students from kindergarten through high school, the mood is downright matter-of-fact: Declining crab harvests and tighter regulation have changed the traditional lives of watermen and their families. And on Tangier, if you don't work the water, what do you do?
The rest of the world is out there past the 12-mile stretch of open water that has sheltered Crocketts, Parkses, Pruitts, Dizes and Ethridges for 300 years -- and the Class of 1999 has its arms spread wide.
"I would love to be able to live here, but it's just not possible," says Carolee Pruitt, 18, who will take criminology and psychology courses next year at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. "It's a little scary going out in the real world, but that's the only way to have a career."
There's five pounds of chicken salad to be slathered on the last two loaves of white bread available on Tangier until the day's mail boat arrives from Crisfield with supplies for the island's two small grocery stores.
After years of watching their mothers and grandmothers team up at church suppers and picnics, six girls form a food-prep assembly line to make lunches they'll take on the charter bus for the class trip to New York.
They've raised money since eighth grade for this junket to see the big city, climb the Empire State Building and take in a Broadway show, and there's no sense blowing a lot on fast food along the way.
To all those "on the mainland" who tease them for an archaic accent that traces back to their 17th-century forebears, to all those who think them witless hicks, the seniors retort that they're plenty savvy. Most families keep cars in Crisfield to use for shopping trips. There's cable, there's satellite television, there's the Internet.
The Tangier school has one of the most advanced computer labs in the state, complete with a networked 20-unit PC system with full Internet access. Online for a year is an elaborate school Web page with an impossibly long online address, http: //eclipse.tcs.ac- comack.k12.va.us/public/.
Anna Pruitt is happy to be in the first graduating class at the new school. Her grandfather was among the first group of seniors at the island's first school, built in 1932. She figures she's a fifth or sixth cousin to all her classmates because only a handful of family names remain since the island was settled by Cornishman John Crockett in 1686.
This summer, 17-year-old Jordan Crockett will be out on the water, tending about 100 crab pots in the bay waters that surround his isolated hometown.
But don't get the wrong idea about the only boy in the nine-member class; he knows his days filling bushel baskets with scrambling hard-shelled crustaceans are numbered.
Soon the tall, athletic youth -- described by his principal as the best basketball player the island has produced -- will abandon the life that has sustained his family for generations.
He's not sure what major he'll settle on at Eastern Shore Community College or later at a four-year school but, like most of his classmates, he sees little future in what locals call "the water business."
"I've worked with my father and grandfather, helping them every summer," Jordan says. "But I just don't see doing it the rest of my life. I've got to save for a car. I'll need that for college."
Proud that the island annually turns out college-bound students in percentages (if not in numbers) that would be the envy of larger school districts, parents, educators and island old-timers still worry how the community will endure.
'Working on the water'
In a town where 90 percent of working adults are employed in crab, clam or conch harvesting, one in three households reported income of less than $20,000 a year in the 1990 census. Townspeople have seen oysters all but disappear in recent years and many are not optimistic that crabs will avoid a similar fate.
"Every year, there seem to be fewer who start working on the water," says Nina Pruitt, an island native who married a waterman and who has served as a school librarian on the island for 16 years. "It's sad to think that the economics of it may keep out kids who want to make it their way of life."
In the past month, islanders were startled by a package of stringent new regulations proposed by the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission.
Plans to impose a moratorium on the sale of new licenses for crabbers are worrisome, islanders say, but a proposal to halt the transfer of commercial licenses "would be the death knell for Tangier" that would prevent fathers from handing down their businesses to the next generation, says school Principal Denny Crockett.
'Strong faith here'
As more and more young people turn away from a dwindling commercial fishing industry that has sustained generations, another concern for Crockett and others is how the deeply religious Tangiermen (as men and women call themselves) will preserve their faith.
Last year, islanders were split when the Town Council voted not to allow the filming of a movie that was to feature actors Paul Newman and Kevin Costner. Despite the promise of a hefty payoff for town coffers and local businesses, evangelicals objected to bad language, drinking and a relatively chaste love scene.
Religious signs and slogans adorn many of the crab shanties and work boats that line Mailboat Harbor, and every Wednesday night a group of burly churchmen that includes the island's only policeman leads two dozen or more teen-agers in a casual service of prayer, Scripture readings and contemporary Christian music.
Jordan Crockett and his girlfriend, Kara Ethridge, 15, sit near the front in the Sunday school room. Kara, who will be part of a religious mission to Eastern Europe this summer and who wants to be a missionary, reads a passage of Scripture to the teens.
"There's strong faith here and a strong pull for anyone who has grown up here," says computer teacher Bruce Gordy. "I almost have 600 family members. I know them, their families, their ancestors, their scandals, their achievements. And they know all the same about me and mine. It's that continuity."