IT WAS TO BE a week of fun and learning in Wyoming for 55 Montgomery County pupils. It turned into a 1,765-mile bus trip through the American heartland.
The youngsters, seventh- and eighth-graders at William H. Farquhar Middle School in Olney, were part of an exchange program with the lone middle school in Douglas, a southeast Wyoming cattle town rich in Western lore. The Farquhar kids and their six chaperones flew west Sept. 9 and settled in with host families.
They were to tour Yellowstone National Park and other attractions, but there was learning involved. The pupils were to calculate mileage and keep journals. In the 14-year-old exchange program, Douglas pupils are to return the visit next spring.
Then, of course, everything changed for everyone.
In a tense meeting at the Olney school last week, all but a half-dozen parents voted to return their children by air as soon as possible. An offer by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to ask U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige to assign a federal marshal to the flights became moot when American Airlines canceled both legs of the homebound journey, stranding the Farquhar kids in rural Wyoming.
So the parents and Montgomery school officials turned to Plan B. Two rented buses left the banks of the North Platte River on Sunday and began a nonstop, three-day journey home - 1,495 miles as the crow flies - with driver changes in Omaha and Indianapolis.
It was a kind of pony express, except they were not changing the horses - and the cargo was more precious.
Homecoming was set for late last night, and Claudette Hamerski, the school secretary, predicted a tearful reunion "after all the worry."
One good thing, said Hamerski, is that "these kids are seeing parts of the nation they've never seen before."
Ratings are relative
Only one Maryland college telephoned this year to protest our leaving it out of the list of "America's Best Colleges and Universities" as judged annually by U.S. News & World Report.
That was a good sign. So was the restraint with which the media reported the rankings, published Sept. 10. Judged by the clippings I saw, and by discussion in reporters' computer chat rooms, there is now considerable doubt about the accuracy and integrity of U.S. News' ratings, which boost the magazine's newsstand sales by about 40 percent during the week they're published.
Reporters feel torn about reporting the magazine's guide in the same way they feel torn about reporting Miss America contests. On the one hand, people are interested in the winners. On the other, it's just as dishonest to judge America's "best" college as it is to choose America's most talented and beautiful young woman.
There's a college that's best for everyone, and Maryland is blessed with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, traditions and SAT scores. To decide on the basis of a magazine's collected data, 25 percent of which is based on a poll of college presidents, is irresponsible.
Education reporters are flooded with statistics. Here are a few thought-provoking stats that have come across my desk recently:
In a poll conducted by Ernst and Young, the financial services company, 65 percent of college students say they plan to become millionaires, and many of them - 30 percent - hope to do it by age 40.
Phoenix House, a drug abuse treatment organization, surveyed college students on their drinking and spending habits. The average student, the survey found, spends $450 a year on books and $900 on alcohol.
In an overnight online poll by Seventeen magazine, 36 percent of teen-agers reported homework as the main cause of stress, beating out social worries (15 percent), and even getting good grades (21 percent).
After studying 150 college yearbook pictures of women, and then comparing the findings with data on the women's post-college lives, a University of California at Berkeley professor found that the bigger the yearbook smile, the happier the women were in marriages and with their "personal well-being" up to 30 years later.
Lou Bloomfield, a University of Virginia physics professor, assigns students to write about the physics of an ordinary object. Bloomfield ran 1,850 such papers written over the past five semesters through a computer program designed to spot plagiarism.
The computer flagged 122 students. One paper appeared four times.