Yet many of these students, like thousands in Philadelphia, wear attitudes of toughness to belie the truths of poverty, broken homes, drugs, rape, teenage pregnancy, murder and emotional disorder.
On Sept. 26, police searched the school for a gun. A survey of 137 McDowell County high school students earlier this year found that 22 had attempted suicide at least once and 15 others thought about it often.
In the mountains, where 90 percent of the population is white, violence and the fear of violence hover over Mount View students as they do 500 miles away in University City.
Says Mount View teacher Fredda Chappell:
"They come from homes where violence is a creed. You answer violence with violence. They come from dysfunctional places. I have kids who have seen one of their parents murdered at home. I have kids now in counseling for rape, substance abuse. Some are on probation for car theft, burglary with a weapon, assault. . . . To me, the violence is frightening. You just don't think it could happen here. I noticed a startling increase in violence four years ago. . . . I don't think there's a safe haven anywhere in America anymore. The city is coming to the mountains."
Poverty, violence and drugs have increased greatly over the last decade in the depressed coal region of Appalachia and in inner-city communities of Philadelphia. Felony assaults in West Virginia jumped 83 percent between 1988 and 1993, bucking a national trend in which violent crime overall actually decreased. The story is similar across the border in Kentucky: In 1992, the growing violence in the coal region helped give the state the highest per- capita arrest rate in the nation for felony assault.
"There have been fairly alarming increases in violent crimes over the last five years," said Sgt. Gayle Midkiff of the West Virginia State Police.
During the same period, violent crime has increased sharply in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, while most of middle America has had a decrease in major crimes, according to FBI data.
Inner-city Philadelphia and Appalachia do not share skin color or culture, but they are linked in poverty. Many coal counties in West Virginia and
Kentucky - like many of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia - have a per capita income about half the national average of $15,574.
The poverty presents similar portraits in the city and in Appalachia: single mothers like Kasha Hart of Philadelphia and Donna Burnoskey of West Virginia, who are struggling to keep their children out of the reach of guns and crack; people like Demetrius Melvin of West Philadelphia, who shot a man in a battle over drug turf, and Eddie Hurdle of eastern Kentucky, who tried raising marijuana in the mountains but gave it up when the law cracked down after a few drug-related slayings in his county of 5,000 people.
"It's almost completely a function of poverty," said Karen Main, deputy director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health in Hazard, Ky. "They are people out of work, frustrated, and they feel trapped and out of control. They see no future to speak of. . . . There's weekly stories about murders. Much of the violence and murder is between family and neighbors, showing the level of frustration. There is the joke in Appalachia that they kill family before they kill strangers."
Similar words are spoken 500 miles away at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, Pa., where Tyrone Werts is president of Lifers Inc.:
"These people, they can only see the instant gratification in that moment," said Werts. "They don't see the consequences. The death penalty, they don't think about that. They expect to live a short life anyhow. They're just out there with no direction, with cheap guns and no jobs."
Angela Musick is a white teenager, the daughter of a coal truck driver; she is unwed and pregnant with her first child in the mountains of McDowell County, W.Va.
Vaneera Long is a black teenage mother from West Philadelphia; she doesn't know her father, and her mother is in a drug rehabilitation program.
Angela and Vaneera, both 17, have a lot in common: their swollen bellies and infants, and their fear of being shot in school.
"I hate to go to school," said Angela, a senior at Mount View, who lives with her mother since her father moved away years ago. "I could be in class and get accidentally shot. There was a boy in my class last year who carried a gun into school."
Angela spoke of her fear of violence while waiting in the basement of the McDowell County Courthouse Annex to meet her juvenile probation officer. Her offense: beating up another girl. "She was going to get on my sister," Angela said. "But I got on her first. My sister took her boyfriend . . . and she was mad about it."
Angela brought other problems into the halls of Mount View High School, where the student population is 70 percent white and 30 percent black, and where violence among blacks also is rising. "I got hooked on marijuana and pills," said Angela. "I started when I was 14. There was just nothing else to do, and at the time it eased my mind. I started smoking marijuana in the bathroom at school. I've done crack a couple of times. It just made me feel happy. For a half a gram, it was $25. But I quit when I found out I was pregnant. I didn't want to hurt my baby."
Angela's sister, Anita, a ninth grader, said that she had smoked crack and that there were drugs and weapons in the middle school, too. "They mostly bring marijuana to school," said Anita. "Heck, they've got kids in fifth and sixth grade selling drugs. I've seen a knife in a classroom. It was brought in
because they thought a big fight was going to break out. It frightens me."
The same worries clung to 10th grader Vaneera Long as she hustled to class at University City High School in West Philadelphia.
Last October, a loud pop resounded in the school. "My friends all ran,
because they have kids and they don't want to be in danger," Vaneera said, though the noise turned out to be a cherry bomb.
It seems to her every week there's a scare at University City, where 85 percent of the students eat subsidized meals. "They found a gun on one of the boys, and they've been locking the doors," said Vaneera.
In addition to weapons carried by students, school officials said they recently confiscated 30 pagers of the sort used in drug dealing. University City did away with lunch period after fighting and other problems last month. Students now must eat during certain classes or wait until the end of school.
Many students at University City have babies. "I don't know no girls who aren't pregnant" or who don't already have children, said Vaneera, rocking her 10-month-old, Takeera. "I got to look after her," she said. "It scares me. I be wanting to go out, sometimes I stay in the house. I don't want anything happening to me or my baby."
Vaneera doesn't know where her father is. "I never dealt with him," she said. When Vaneera was 11, her mother became drug-addicted, she said, and left her three children with their grandmother, Ina Long.
Betsy Wice, a reading teacher in North Philadelphia, said many children like Vaneera are drained by the meanness and poverty around them. "The hard- working families here see so many shootings, so much drug use and prostitution," she said. "There are so many destructive forces that being good doesn't make you immune. . . . A lot of the kids aren't going to graduate
from high school. That's why elementary school graduations are such big deals, the girls in white dresses, the boys in dark suits. The families are so proud. Sometimes they even rent limos to go to McDonald's afterwards."
A few weeks ago, Vaneera dropped out of school, and she doesn't know what lies ahead, except that she must be with her baby. "I feel happier," she said. "Now I got something of my own. It's something that can't go away unless God takes it away. It's something of my own."
Five hundreds miles away, on top of a strip-mined mountain, Fredda Chappell teaches dropouts and students at risk at Mount View High School.
Chappell said one of her students was receiving threatening phone calls
because her boyfriend was not paying his drug bills. "There have been two suicide attempts already this year," she said. "I took a gun away from a kid in this room last year. It was a 9mm. He said he was going to kill himself
because his girlfriend was going to break up with him. The friend who gave him the gun brought it to school to shoot someone."
Some Mount View students sit in a crowded waiting room to get help at Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center. The center - one of several private and public mental health programs - treats 1,500 people in a county whose population is 34,111 and where 50 percent of children live in poverty. The center's staff has increased from 12 to 30 in two years.
"The disturbing thing to me is the severe depression among children," said Judy Haynes, the center's director. "We're hospitalizing kids 5 and 6 years old with depression. It's amazing to me that kids sleep with knives under their pillows and that kids think about killing themselves. . . . I was here when the coal mines were working. People had hope back then. But today a lot of people's goal in life is to get their kids on SSI at an early age. And when you have no jobs, there's no motivation to get off it. So you plan your whole life living on $400 a month."
Angela Musick, who because of her pregnancy is now being tutored at home, wants more than a monthly government check. When she graduates from Mount View, she plans to marry her boyfriend, who is getting his welding degree at the vo-tech school.
"There's nothing around here no more." she said. "I want to go to Virginia and work in a post office. You just have to take a test, and if you score 70 percent or more they put your name on a list."
Kasha Hart walks through the front door with iron bars, where the housing police sit in their sealed gatepost. She rides the elevator to her floor, and double-locks her door behind her. She cradles her month-old daughter in her arms and talks to her 6-year-old daughter about first grade.
But even behind all the gates and deadbolts, Hart and her children don't escape the fear of West Philadelphia.
Fear of drug dealers and prostitutes on the corner of 46th and Market. Fear of drive-by shootings like the one in which her 16-year-old cousin was killed. Fear of children raised in desolation and without rules in her public housing complex.
"Before, if you stayed out of certain situations, you would be OK," says Hart, 25, who lives in the high-rise Westpark Apartments in West Philadelphia. ''Now, it doesn't make a difference. It's not really a case where you have to be involved in danger to be hurt. The violence is random and scarier."
Hart can trace the decline of the neighborhood within her own family. She grew up at 32d and Mount Vernon in West Philadelphia, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. Her parents thought enough about education to put her through Northeast Prep High School.
But then her father was killed in an accident. Her uncle was shot and killed. Her cousin, Tereen Hart, was gunned down while he was baby-sitting at 57th and Springfield. Police believe the killers were looking for someone else. Kasha Hart said her cousin, who took three bullets to the head and one to the wrist, was earning money for college.
"He wasn't a street kid at all," she recalls.
Hart says she notices how black men are vanishing. "The men are dead or gone," she says. "In one way or another, they're absent. It's hard on the women, because we have to raise the children and then protect the home, too. It's doubly hard, because you have other men who come along; they try to take advantage of you because they don't see men around you."
Hart speaks hesitantly about the father of her children, who has suffered
from drug addiction. "Right now, he says he's straight, but you never know," she says. During much of their 12-year relationship, he supported her in her efforts to get schooling. But his addiction changed him, and they stopped living together in 1989. "I tried supporting him through this," she says. ''But it was draining me, and he wasn't changing."
Though he still visits, she worries about the effect his absence will have on her daughters. "If you have a father, you get a different view of what life is like," she says. "Just because I had a father made me different from the children who didn't have one. They have more respect for you. Kids will tease you. When I was in elementary school, a couple of kids got teased
because their parents weren't married. Very rarely do you see any married couples, not in this area."
Drugs are a main reason, she believes. Even while police crack down on dealers and monitor those entering her building, drug traffic seems to flourish around her. "You hear a lot of things on the elevator," she said. ''They talk about where they're going to get drugs. Sometimes they'll pull out the money to count it. I get upset about it because they do it in front of the children. That's why the children look up to them. They think, 'This is how I have to feed myself,' and 'This is something I want to do when I'm older.'
"You feel kind of helpless about it," she says. "It's everywhere. You can't move into another neighborhood. It'll be there, too. Some people learn to accept it around here because it may be worse elsewhere."
The 15-year-old boy with downcast eyes slogged over the sidewalk to Donna Burnoskey and bunched his hands in his pockets and asked her if she wanted to score some crack.
The boy's gesture was brazen. He just stood there and waited for an answer. Just stood there as if he had been selling for centuries. Burnoskey tugged her two children close. She looked down the sidewalk, past the Family Dollar Store and to the big, creasing mountains.
"Here I am on the main street of Welch, tucked in these hills, and this boy is asking me do I want to buy crack," says Burnoskey. "And my kids are with me. My children standing right there. I said to that boy, 'Get out of my face and respect my kids.' I was always scared to move to the big city because of my kids, but now this place is getting as bad as the city."
Burnoskey, a single mother, led her son, Ryan, 7, and daughter, Kiara, 4, back to her home in a once thriving West Virginia coal town that is now creaky and worn and home to a dwindling population of 3,028. Amid blackened buildings and the muddy Tug River, in a county where the unemployment rate is 40 percent and where 58 percent of all people over 25 have no high school diploma, troubled news often finds its way into Burnoskey's life.
"I've never lost anybody real close to me," says Burnoskey, 24. "But in the last five years, I've lost three friends. Two committed suicide. One was 16. One was 17. A girl I knew was murdered. My brother got involved in drugs. He stole a man's gun. He's in North Carolina now, and he's doing OK. But there's nothing for young people to do around here, so they figure drugs is the answer. They get high, they rob somebody."
"The welfare," as Burnoskey calls her government assistance, put her to work in the kitchen of Welch Hospital in order for her to collect the $400 monthly check. She first got pregnant at 15. The family found out when her mother - whom Burnoskey cared for after she was injured in a drunken driving accident - felt the baby kick in Burnoskey's stomach as Burnoskey lifted her into the bathtub.
Burnoskey dropped out of 10th grade.
The man she loved was 22.
"His name was Michael, and I thought he was really cool. I thought he was rough and tough, but now he's in jail for robbing a convenience store. He has a big drug problem. When Ryan was 3, I left Michael. He hit me and pushed me around to get custody of Ryan. But one night I really beat him up. I busted his lip and scratched his face. The police laughed."
"I had to grow up so fast," says Burnoskey. "When my mother and stepdad split up, my mom became an alcoholic, and I had to raise my brothers and sisters. Then I got pregnant, and I had to quit school and take care of my baby and my mom. But I said I wasn't going to be like my mom, who had seven kids with three different fathers. It was strange, but when I went to get on birth control, that's when they told me I was pregnant. I kinda knew. But I never thought about abortion. The pregnancy was taking away what little freedom I had, but I was going to take care of it. It was mine, and I was going to love it, and it was going to love me."
In 1988, Burnoskey met a construction worker named Quentin. Kiara - Burnoskey chose the name from a CD label - was born in 1990. Burnoskey earned her GED in 1993 and now works proudly with Ryan, who has become an ace on computers. When she drives out of town and into the mountains, she sees crumbling houses and worried faces, she sees all the things that suddenly seemed to turn bad.
"They tore that big coal tipple down in Gary the other day," says Burnoskey. "A lot of them old miners hoped for years that they'd go back in the mines. But now they know it's gone. My uncle, who is 42, is laid off. My friend Johnny just kept holding out hope of going back. But he never will. He's a drunk."
She pauses, sips a Pepsi, and draws her face tight.
"Welch was a beautiful place once," she says. "I can remember Mama walking down the street with a whole lot of money. But now it's pitiful, and all you see are kids in the street, smoking, drinking and fighting. I just want to raise my kids right and make sure they don't get on drugs. I'll worry about them until they're grown."
It was just a piece of corner in West Philadelphia, but Demetrius Melvin, a marijuana dealer with a .38-caliber in his pants, said he would have killed to keep it.
That's when a big man nicknamed Fats started making noise about taking Melvin's corner from him. Melvin said Fats wanted it real bad. Melvin, who owned that corner like a ruthless real estate speculator, wasn't budging. He had already beaten up Fats once. Chased him away.
But Fats - all 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds of him - came back. Melvin said Fats pulled a gun on him, but didn't pull a trigger. What a chump, Melvin thought, knowing that in the drug trade, if you pull a gun, you use it. A few days later Fats showed up again.
"What did I tell you?" Melvin said, as Fats reached for his pistol. But Melvin was the swifter hand. He shot Fats four times, but didn't kill him.
It's been six years since Melvin shot the big man. Four of those years were spent mostly in Graterford, where he said he briefly shared the same cellblock with Fats, who passed through on an unrelated drug charge. Melvin said that for all their run-ins, he still doesn't know Fats' real name.
"I don't regret shooting him," Melvin said. "He left me no choice. I just regret what I lost. . . . In Graterford, I started to get close to this old head (inmate). He said, 'You shot some boy over a corner. You're in jail now. Who's out there on the corner?' He meant it wasn't worth it."
"It don't even pay to fight anybody," Melvin said. "Even if you beat him up, he's going to come looking for you with a gun. So I try to avoid all arguments. I don't even like to be put in situations where they can happen."
Melvin, 29, has lived the inner-city drug game since he was a teenager. If only he could sell drugs without fear of his life, it would be a great job, he said, like selling for IBM in the 1960s.
But it was never that easy, he said between drags on a Newport cigarette in his comfortable rowhouse. "The Junior Black Mafia (screwed) up the drug game with all the shooting and killing," he said.
As Melvin tells it, he was an angry little man-child on the streets of West Philadelphia. He had to count his siblings' names on his fingers to remind
himself that he was the sixth of nine children, raised on welfare by a single mother. "I don't think there was a week that went by when I didn't take a beating," he said of his mother, who's now dead. "I was the most rebellious."
His father, also deceased, worked for the city's Streets Department, he said. "He was around sporadically, and I say that with a capital S," Melvin said. "I would see him once in a blue moon. I didn't care, because I was basically doing everything on my own. I didn't need anybody to discipline me. I didn't live by no rules."
That outlook led him to clash with teachers. Although a bright boy, Melvin said he got booted from three schools. Even when he managed to gain entrance to West Catholic High, it didn't last, he said. "I got kicked out because I broke a white guy's nose for calling me a nigger," he said.
By the time he reached West Philadelphia High, Melvin said, he had begun to sell marijuana, and that got him thrown out in the 11th grade.
He had an uncle he loved who set him up in the drug trade, he said. His uncle owned many cars and houses. He let Melvin use one of his pads until he could branch out on his own, he said.
Melvin learned a lot from his uncle. But he said his mentor was shot dead in a drug deal three years ago. "I still wake up crying about it sometimes," Melvin said.
For years, Melvin said, he sold marijuana, which drew less heat from the police and attracted a more stable clientele than cocaine. But even that changed, he said. All drugs draw violence.
"A lot of people are jealous of you," he said. "If I can make $1,500 a day selling drugs and this guy over here can see that I'm making $1,500 a day, he's going to come after what I got. It's not hard to get what I got. Anybody can sell drugs."
Court records show Melvin is currently on a year's probation after an undercover officer nabbed him with a nickel bag.
Melvin said it was a misunderstanding.
"Everybody that sells drugs generally knows how they're going to die," he added. "It's frightening when you think about it. You get used to seeing it happen, drug dealer after drug dealer getting killed. I kind of knew that's how I was going to die, but I couldn't do nothing but keep my insurance paid up."
With every bucket of chicken dung he lugged up the mountain, Eddie Hurdle worked tirelessly to raise marijuana plants that were as big around as stove pipes and as tall as Hickory King corn.
"You'd have to put the patches up high in the hills to hide 'em from the lawmen and the rogues," says Hurdle. "I'd carry those five-gallon buckets of manure and chicken s- up those mountains to fertilize it. Chicken s- is the best fertilizer ever for marijuana. Some people just started raising chickens to get the s- for their dope plants."
He laughs, his thin body in a rocking chair, an Old Milwaukee beer in his grasp.
"Anyway, sweat would be dripping off me. Two months out of the summer you'd have to hoe it, fertilize it, just like tomatoes. I believe the rogues just sat in the woods and watched you while you did all that work. Then when you'd leave, hell, buddy, they'd light into that patch and you'd lose it all. . . . And a rogue might be your brother or uncle. Why, your kin would steal
from you. Hell, honey, kin around here is no more reliable than a puff of smoke."
Depending on the day you catch him, and how clear his recollections come through the Kentucky dusk, Hurdle had anywhere from seven to 14 marijuana patches growing in the hillsides of Owsley County.
"One time," says Hurdle, crossing his legs and lighting a Monarch cigarette on his porch, "I planned to plant $1 million worth, but I only ended up with $700. I used to go up in my patches and get drunk and lay back and look up at those big ol' female plants, hoping to get rich. But I never did."
The police cracked down. Helicopters searched for hidden patches. Hurdle gave up the business. The number of marijuana plants in Kentucky cut down by police jumped dramatically over the last decade: In 1985 the state confiscated 289,809 plants, and by 1993 that figure had soared to 645,232.
The thumping of helicopter blades wasn't the only thing that shooed Hurdle away from the marijuana trade.
In Owsley, a county of 5,000 where 60 percent of children are poor and the per-capita income of $8,551 is roughly half the national average of $15,574, things turned violent. Hurdle picked up the newspaper and found: A husband and a wife were shot execution-style over their drug business as their two children hid under the bed, seeing only the black boots of the killers. A few months after that, two more drug dealers were murdered. In the neighboring county, a local moonshiner was executed for $5,000.
"If someone knew you had five pounds of marijuana in the house," says Hurdle, "they'd come here and kill you for it. Hell, they'd kill you for less." With daggers tattooed on his forearms, a head of close-cropped hair covered by a ball cap turned backwards, Hurdle ruminates over the riches that have eluded him.
"Honey," he says, "the future is out there, and it's looking pretty grim. I hope there's another life after this one because this life has got the better side of me." He turns, and points to two raised scars on his wispy arm:
"I cut it down to the bone, just to see what it would feel like."
Hurdle - who has two children - mostly gets by on government assistance and the few hundred dollars a month his wife, Pam, brings in from her cleaning business. He started in the business with her a few years ago, but quit. "We get $140 in food stamps, $446 in SSI. We got a $300-a-month mortgage, and last month got a $67 water bill. I likely fell over. By the middle of the month, honey, I'll tell you, we're on skid row. First week of each month, you eat real well; after that, it's all downhill."
Owsley was a strong coal community decades ago. But now its economy is held together by tobacco farming and welfare. Last summer, Hurdle worked tobacco for two days, then quit. "I cut 464 sticks of tobacco. Now a stick has six or seven tobacco stalks on it and weighs about 50 pounds. They pay you eight cents a stick. That comes to about $40 a day. It's slave work, that's what it is. If you can get by with 3 or 4 pounds of good marijuana, that's $2,000 a pound."
Hurdle points toward Fish Trap Hill, beyond the county seat of Booneville where the roads lift past smatterings of tobacco fields with drooping leaves that blow like green sheets in the wind, where weathered curing sheds are stuffed with the plants that hang upside down and are the color of manila envelopes.
"There was 11 brothers and sisters in our family," says Hurdle. "We lived in a little three-room shack, and we were crammed in like sardines. Dad died early on, and Mom raised us on assistance. My God, if not for food stamps and welfare, people would starve. My mom's garden gave us taters, corn and beans."
Hurdle bumped into trouble and liquor early. He started drinking at 11, dropped out of the seventh grade and began bootlegging beer and whiskey. He started drinking what he should have bootlegged. He's been plunked in jail many times: for public drunkenness when he was 16, and after that for car theft, receiving $10,000 in stolen property, and other crimes.
"Hell, I lived in that jail much of my life," he says. "I painted that jail three times, and I've seen the seasons change from its windows . . . I was in jail with one guy, and he said, 'Kill me, shoot me, hang me.' He just couldn't handle it anymore. So I broke a bottle of shaving cologne and I fed him the glass, and, my God, it didn't kill him."
When 6 p.m. reaches Hurdle's porch, he rises from his rocker and grabs a beer. He laces it with salt, sits down, and stares at the public housing project. Home to 40 families, the project is surrounded by green hills and tangled in sounds of crowing roosters and children breaking bottles. "You know, I've drunk enough to float a battleship. I'll sit here and watch TV and drink until I pass out."
"Did you ever play chicken with cigarettes?" he asks. "Well it goes like this: Two guys take cigarettes and hold them as close to the skin on their arms as they can. Whoever moves the cigarette away first loses. My brother has burns the size of quarters all over his arm."
He lights another Monarch. The evening grows cool and, with the moon joining the sun in the sky, Hurdle rocks.
"The men around here are laying on the women to keep 'em up. The women are the ones working. The men are too sorry. Hell, if you mention work to some of them, they'd fight you. They got used to the welfare. But you pull a six-pack out, and they'll follow you for miles. What ain't dopeheads is drunks, and it's getting worse."