SMITH ISLAND - At 10 minutes after 6 in the morning, the only sound other than the squawking of seagulls and geese in the marsh is the hum of the ferryboat, the Chelsea Lane Tyler, warming up at the Ewell village dock. Ten high school students and three middle-schoolers have exactly 10 minutes to come catch this boat to the mainland or miss school.
Many of the kids who will appear in the moonlight any minute have grown up on this archipelago of three small islands in the Chesapeake Bay and can walk to the dock. Most graduated from the tiny elementary school a block or so away when they reached the seventh grade. The 25 children in the primary school today are some of their little brothers and sisters. These teen-agers know the two teachers at the school the way they know all of the island's 350 other residents.
When a truck appears on the one-lane road, its headlights spill out over the last patch of ice floating in the harbor. There was so much ice here that by this time last week, these students had missed eight consecutive days of school. They missed the end of one semester and the beginning of another; they missed final exams and opening chapters; so far this school year they've missed 12 days because of ice. The most recent stretch was the longest in at least 10 years, and it may be the most days missed since 1976, when the bay froze over for two weeks and helicopters had to deliver food, fuel - and homework - to the island.
The first student rounds the corner of the wharf where the Bayside Inn restaurant is closed up for winter awaiting the summer tourists. The girl throws her cigarette into the still water between crab boats and steps aboard the Chelsea Lane Tyler. Soon she is joined by others. The first five claim the seats up near the helm where they share precious little light and finish their homework. More spread out on rows of seats behind them and go to sleep. One kid opens a biology book, another an English notebook. Two skim a U.S. history chapter they would have read last night if it had not been Monday, one of two nights during the work week when the elementary school on the island opens its gym for a pickup game of volleyball.
Beth Pruitt, a senior who has a history book open on her lap, is showing the others her right elbow where she banged into another player last night. Her hair is still wet and she holds a Sprite bottle between her sneakers so it won't spill on the lifejackets under her seat. Beside her is her friend Lauren Tyler, and across the aisle are three other friends bent over their textbooks. One is Chelsea Tyler, whose grandfather captains the ferryboat and named it for her.
The boat's first stop after it leaves the dock at Ewell is the dock at the neighboring island village of Tylerton. The one-room elementary school there closed in 1996, and two high school students, Dustin Smith and Casey Corbin, come aboard the Chelsea Lane this morning. There are few jobs on the island other than watermen, and the population has been dropping since the 1970s when the seafood industry began to decline. There will be no other stop this morning until the ferry reaches Crisfield.
None of the kids pay much attention to the sun as it begins to color the sky and spread over the bay. A few oyster boats pass and a string of small birds breaks the glassy surface of the water, but the kids don't notice. There was a time when they were younger and looked forward to this island rite of passage: being old enough to take the boat to Carter G. Woodson Middle School or Crisfield High. Then the ride lost some of its luster day after day after day.
They don't like getting up around 5 a.m. to catch the boat at 6:20 when school doesn't start until 7:45. They don't like the time it takes, the extra two hours it adds to their day. They wish they could participate in after-school sports and more extra-curricular activities. To go to the prom they have to spend the night with friends or family on the mainland. They rarely have the chance to see their school's basketball team play.
In good weather the ferry gets so warm they open the windows to let the breeze cool them. In stormy weather the boat rocks, and in winter they sometimes wear their coats inside even when the heat in the ferry is on. On this winter day, the waters are calm compared with the day before, when waves slapped the hull and sprayed the windows.
Years ago, the old mail boat, The Island Star, used to carry their mothers and fathers the 12 miles across Tangier Sound to the mainland high school. In those days, island kids came over on Mondays and didn't go back until Fridays, after spending the week with relatives or boarders. It was not until the new, aluminum-hulled Betty Jo Tyler made its maiden voyage on Oct. 21, 1974, that the kids started going back and forth every day to school.
"It kind of grows on you," says senior Jenny Evans.
She sits in a quiet corner of the ferry going over her physics homework. She missed the discussion last week of vectors and is lost at the moment. When the kids missed class because of ice, their teachers e-mailed or faxed homework to the little island school, sent textbooks and tests over on the Jason I and the Jason II, and asked the principal, who doubles as one of the two teachers at the primary school, to administer final exams. Crisfield High Principal Debra Josenhans said the island kids missed so much of the new semester that her teachers are offering after-school tutoring to help them catch up.
Jenny Evans won't mind staying after school. Like many of the kids, she loved growing up on Smith Island but doesn't want to live there once she finishes school. She knows her education is what will help her go somewhere else. Jenny got off the boat one day this week and found a letter waiting for her at home with a nomination to the U.S. Air Force Academy. She has a nomination to the Naval Academy and really wants to go there.
Once she puts away the physics worksheet, she stands for the rest of the ride to shore. The other kids begin to stir as the first houses on the mainland come into sight. Jenny said it is an instinct they all have: Even if she falls asleep on the ride over, she always wakes up as the ferry approaches Crisfield.
In a few minutes some of the girls will crowd the bathrooms and touch up their makeup and brush their hair. The boys will drag their book bags to the back door and be the first out so they can share a cigarette on the wharf. The marina parking lot will be nearly empty when they get on a bus and ride two miles to school where they will blend in with the other students.
The boat ride is one of the things that sets them apart, and even though it is a drag there is something about it they like.
Even a kid like Jenny Evans, who gets off the boat bound for a scholarship interview this morning, will say there is something about the ride, something about how it ties them to an ancient way of life, that she will look back on one day - and miss.