At approximately 4 p.m. on March 3, a pair of buses will pull out of the parking lot at Eastern High School, cross the Anacostia River, turn south onto Rte. I-295 and head for Orlando, Fla.

Or maybe they won't.

The difference between all-systems-go and nothing-doing is about $14,000. That's what remains to be raised of the $17,500 it will cost to send the 85 members of Eastern's three bands to the five-day Central Florida Fair Festival.

Fourteen grand is a lot of money to be short, but the band members have been doing their best. Since September, they've been selling cookies and candy to friends, families, strangers at the bus stop, anyone. As Bob Sands, Eastern's band director, puts it, "I have never seen so many M & M's in my life."

But it has become apparent that time is running too short for M & M's to do the job. And because of the kind of school Eastern is, the job may not get done at all if you and I don't do it.

At most schools, the first call for help that officials would make would be to the alumni association chairman. But at Eastern, the alumni have already given money this year for tutoring and for athletic equipment. That well is dry.

So are the pocketbooks of most parents.

Eastern, located at 17th and East Capitol streets, draws students from a part of Washington that is neither rich nor poor. The percentage of students whose families are on welfare is far lower than what you'd find at Woodson High School, or Ballou, or Dunbar -- all less than five miles away.

But having avoided public assistance doesn't mean that Eastern families have money to burn.

"We've got families where both parents work, and they're still just barely getting by," explains Dennis Jackson, the principal. "You can't ask them for money for something like this. We're talking about $206 per student, not including most meals. They simply don't have it."

For those of us who do, the question is:

Why help these 85 kids?

The answer is that we would bring hope and experience to a sector of the community that badly lacks both. None of Eastern's 85 musicians has ever done something like this before. They may never do it if we don't help.

"I've got kids who have never been outside Washington, D.C., in their lives," says Sands. "I've got dozens of kids who have never ordered a meal in a restaurant.

"I'm not operating under any illusions. We're not the only school that's ever gone to one of these fairs. We're not the only ones that'll ever want to go. But we're trying to offer these kids an experience that will stay with them the rest of their lives."

A handout for ghetto kids? Bob Sands prefers that you consider it a gift of experience.

"In my opinion, there's no difference in skills between a deprived child and an advantaged child," he said. "The difference is one of exposure. If a child has never been exposed to travel or competition, he doesn't know what it's all about. He doesn't have the vision to say, 'Hey, it can be done.' "

And it can, with your help.

If you'd like to send Eastern's stage band, marching band and concert band to Orlando, you can send your donations to me, in care of The Post. Your dollars will buy a week of experience for 85 kids who would never be as bitter or as cynical as they might become if they don't go.