Tim Ham, the senior class president at Mount Rogers High School, had planned to enlist in the Air Force after last week's graduation from Virginia's second smallest school, "but Dad bought a backhoe," so now he is going to remain here in the mountainous southwestern toe of the state to do custom building work with his father.
"I'll go along with Dad," said Ham. "These mountains are good enough for me."
It is graduation time in Appalachia, and like many other aspects of life here, the discussions of ambitions and rituals of senior proms take on a different pace and style than those in urban and suburban areas.
Social life in the community revolves around the school, where almost as many parents as students show up for the prom. And last weekend's graduation drew folks from all over the high valley that is tucked between the two highest peaks in Virginia overlooking North Carolina and Tennessee.
All 151 students in the Mount Rogers school district, from kindergarten through grade 12, attend classes in a single building, part of which is built of rock gathered from nearby trout streams during the Great Depression. The school is the second smallest in the state -- the smallest is on Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
Most of the 12 members of the 1986 graduating class attended the senior prom. But unlike their city counterparts, none of the couples went out to dinner, before or after the dance. No one arrived in a rented limousine, though some were chauffeured to the dance in pickup trucks or drove their own four-wheel-drive vehicles that are a necessity in this rural region.
Afterward, instead of a soiree at a hotel or a long trip to the beach, post-prom partying was limited to circling a few pickups and Jeeps in a meadow up on Helton Creek. The students popped the tabs on a few beer and soft drink cans and attempted to make conversation over the blare of music from dashboard radios.
A couple of sheriff's deputies, who in past years have put on business suits and taken their wives to the dance, stationed themselves a respectable distance away to make sure the partying did not get out of hand.
None of this year's graduates is going directly to a four-year college, and most members of the class of 1986 want nothing more than to find a job nearby and spend the rest of their lives in their beloved mountains.
Allen Weaver, 20, hopes to get hired as a shipping clerk at one of the textile or electronic plants over the mountain in North Carolina.
Karen Poe, 19, will commute to the hospital in Abingdon to become a nurse's aide.
Four or five members of the Class of '86 will continue their education, probably all at junior colleges.
The teen-agers who choose to remain will inherit a life that has changed little in recent decades.
"We're very isolated," said Principal Wilma R. Testerman, a native who was one of four Mount Rogers graduates in 1944. "There aren't too many places to live, and not too much to do for entertainment. Living here is difficult."
There is nothing remotely resembling a town in the Mount Rogers' school district. Whitetop is merely a post office designation.
There are no casual trips to town for groceries or services. A visit to a doctor, dentist or lawyer means a 45-minute trip to Ashe County, N.C., or to the nearest Virginia town of Independence (its weekly newspaper is called The Declaration), where Campbell's funeral home offers a 24-hour hot line with the latest news of deaths.
Most of the jobs are even farther away. Residents drive up to 50 miles to textile and electrical plants, most of them in North Carolina. The few nearby jobs are at Grayson Highlands State Park, Mount Rogers National Forest and at the school.
Most jobs offer minimum wage -- teachers and mail carriers pull up the average income. And by national standards it is a very poor area. More than 95 percent of the students at Mount Rogers get free lunches.
But it is a region where, as one resident said, "You can get by on $300 a month until the heater goes out."
Matt Dalia thought his family had "moved to the sticks" when they left Raleigh for West Jefferson, N.C., seven years ago. Now, however, that town of 2,500 is where the action is, so he and his friends make the 20-mile drive to cruise Main Street on weekends.
"This really is the sticks," Dalia said without ridicule of his new home area.
Dalia and many of his friends are undaunted by the remoteness of the region.
Anita Blevins, who compiled a 3.4 grade-point average but was disappointed with her scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, wants to get a degree in elementary education "and come back here to teach." She plans to attend Wytheville Community College in the fall, and then transfer to Emory and Henry College, a four-year, private, liberal arts college. Each college is about an hour's drive from her home.
She is satisfied with the education she received, although the parent of another college-bound senior said Mount Rogers graduates opt for community colleges because they are not prepared for the academic rigors of four-year institutions.
While Mount Rogers is fully accredited, getting and retaining teachers is a problem. Turnover among the 12 teachers is reduced by nepotism (there are two couples among the dozen instructors) and natives, such as principal Testerman, who return to teach.
Testerman has managed to raise the goals of the students while winning parental support by continuing a tradition of "three generations of paddling," said Rev. Bob Stampel, a Presbyterian minister who came to the area 18 years ago to raise money for a dental clinic. Stampel said that when he arrived he found "no home support for college," the school having produced no more than 30 college graduates in half a century.
"We offer all the courses required for accreditation," said Testerman, who has been principal for six years. The 70 high school students can choose from among 43 academic subjects offered by seven teachers, with only two subjects, business and art, taught by teachers without training in the fields.
Parents are anxious to volunteer for school activities, said Doyle Hensley, president of the Parent Teacher Organization and postmaster at Whitetop, "but we don't have the skills" needed to augment the professionl staff. Because "no one knows about computers," he said, eight terminals and keyboards are stored in a small room used only when teachers and students have a few spare minutes to experiment.
Teachers and students say there are advantages to their small, "quaint" school, however.
Second-year English teacher Joe Barden, who was the prom sponsor, said that "a big advantage is that you get to know the kids personally, and their parents."
"What is so remarkable is the resourcefulness of the students," he said. "They take a little and do so much."
For example, many of the 50 members of the school's Albert Hash Memorial Band (named for a nationally known local fiddlemaker) play instruments they made themselves.
The young musicians pluck dulcimers, fiddles and other string instruments, carrying on a tradition of mountain music that fills the hills and hollows.
Consolidation with another school is not an option because of the location. The nearest school is at Independence, a long zig-zaggy drive under the best of conditions. In the spring and fall, it is a scenic drive paralleling or crossing rocky streams, the Appalachian Trail and forests of rhododendron. But during the long winter, when sudden snowstorms strike, it often is impassable.
Some students spend an hour a day riding in each direction on one of the school's three yellow buses.
The Mount Rogers Rockets sports teams compete in the Mountain Empire District, with rivals Auburn and Rocky Gap 90 to 100 miles away, and Shawsville, 120 miles.
"The others schools don't understand when we call and say we can't come because of snow," said Teena Morefield, who coaches girls' basketball and volleyball, teaches physical education and driving, coordinates the gifted-and-talented program and is part-time librarian. "They say, 'It's fine, here.' Well, they're not on the mountain."
Mount Rogers students miss an average of three weeks of classes each year because of snow.
The most popular school holiday is the opening day of deer hunting season in November.
"If you live here, you gotta love hunting, hiking, fishing, the outdoors," said Allen Weaver, adding that "everyone has a four-wheeler, and nearly everyone has a horse."
When Matt Dalia's parents, Vicky and Joday Dalia, moved here almost five years ago, the school was one of the big attractions. "We liked it from the moment they opened the PTO meeting with a prayer," said Vicky Dalia, whose family is Mormon.
The Dalias now say they are not completely satisfied with the school or the community.
Vicky Dalia complains about the absence of a playground, an inadequate library, a vocational shop in which the equipment often is broken, and "a couple teachers who don't know their subjects."
But the mountains exert a powerful, almost mystical, pull on the residents, and the Dalias, who operate a mail-order decorating business from their home, feel deep roots here, "even if we aren't related to anyone."
Postmaster Hensley said his son, John Jr., who is a sophomore accounting major at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrigate, Tenn., feels that same tug for the mountain land. Despite his college studies, "He'd rather be here than anyplace in the world," his father said.