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Picher girl still a Gorilla

By John Sutter Published: August 20, 2006
PICHER - Driving her father's mid-90s Ford Thunderbird to the first day of her senior year, Tracy Carder, 17, anxiously flipped between radio stations and wondered whether she could find any normalcy in what may be the last year of her school and her hometown.

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Which of my friends will be back?

Will any of them be back?

An athletic, strawberry blonde who enjoys hip-hop, "General Hospital," and "Oprah," Tracy previously brushed off those questions with jokes and a smile full of braces.

The day before, she sarcastically told a teacher she had little choice but to become Picher-Cardin High School's last valedictorian, salutatorian, class president, class secretary -- and class clown.

How much competition could there be?

In far northeast Oklahoma, just two miles from the Kansas border, Picher-Cardin schools opened for business Wednesday. But about two-thirds of the students transferred in advance of a federal buyout that will pay residents to leave the dangerous mining area.

Tracy chose to stay in the only school system she's ever known. The fifth daughter of a disabled truck driver and a factory worker, she will not be a 3-point specialist on the basketball team this season, because Picher-Cardin will have no athletics, band or art classes. But she and 11 other seniors will graduate as Gorillas.

She wants to leave her mark on the town -- be a piece of its legacy.

"I am definitely sure about staying. I don't know, I just like the feeling that I'm going to graduate as a Picher Gorilla, and, you know, be in the last class," she said.

'Barely together'
Tracy pulled into the almost-empty parking lot about 7:20 a.m., though the first bell was not until 8:30. This from a student who often hustles into class in pajama pants just in time to avoid a tardy slip.

Her nerves had awakened her 30 minutes before the alarm clock.

So even after stopping for gas, she was early. And alone.

She spotted a close friend, Jessica Elkins, also 17. The two discussed how Tracy looked "super cute" in an outfit she'd bought in Joplin, Mo., and how, no, it wasn't all that noticeable that Jessica's tank top had a glob of makeup on it. Then Jessica left on a bus for classes at a vo-tech center.

About 20 minutes later, three girls assembled around Tracy -- a fourth of the senior class waiting for an uncertain day to begin.

"Who's that over there?" asked a girl dressed in all pink, down to her spiral notebook and flip-flops.

"I don't even know. The entire freshman class?" suggested another. Normally quick-witted herself, Tracy stood and listened, watched.

As the parking lot began to half-fill, it became apparent they would need to go inside.

"I'm afraid to go in there. I'm going to cry if I go in there," one girl said.

Tracy left the pack and headed for the front door. On her way, a teacher stopped her to compliment the brown belt Tracy had loosely wrapped around a long white shirt.

When the teacher touched it, the belt unsnapped and half-fell.

"Never touch a senior girl," the teacher said, "cause she's barely together."

"Front row's all to you," said English teacher Shirley Sharbutt, 59, noticing that out of 140 chairs set up in the main room, Tracy had selected the first chair in the first row, alone.

Most students headed for the back. The girls who had been talking to Tracy outside filed into her row.

In front of a sign that read, "IT'S GREAT TO BE A GORILLA," Superintendent Bob Walker addressed 40 students and 13 teachers.

"I know some of us are sitting here right now and it's like someone put their fist right in our guts and they knocked the wind right out of us. But it's OK, we're going to get our breath back," he said. "You don't have to wear a football helmet or play in the Picher-Cardin band ... to be a Picher Gorilla."

Tracy rushed to his room, as if he'd be there.

She had joked her way through two classes and a meeting, thrown her day planner into her locker and was headed to her favorite classroom, the one where he'd given her inspiration and a future.

David Meador, a science teacher who moved on to another school, had been Tracy's favorite teacher -- one of her favorite people -- for the past three years.

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