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School is no carnival for kids on the road

Jessica and Amy sat on the floor, on either side of their teacher, and struggled through the words of a poem they had to read aloud. "Early every morning, I jump right out of bed," one of the girls said in a musical squeak, with a nervous pause between each word. "I can wash myself completely, from my toes up to my head."

The boys - Joey, Jake, Scott and Tyler - kept to their seats, meanwhile, scribbling in their workbooks, somehow undistracted by the girls or the thumping regularity of the noise outside.

It could have been a rock band practicing in perpetuity in a junior high gone beserk. Bells shrieked. So did voices.

These were the mixed-up sounds of crowds and calliopes at the Florida State Fair, beating down their rhythms on the tinny trailer that is the Deggeller Midway Academy, its six pupils and their teacher, Linda Brewer. Only sounds competed, though, not sights. The trailer had not a single window.

"I thought of putting up windows up there," Brewer said, pointing to the fluorescent light panels in the ceiling. Scott, one of the 6-year-olds, instantly imagined a skylight: "Then we could see the giant wheel!"

He is a carny kid. So are the others. They traipse after their parents, who came from Key West to Tampa, who will go next to Stuart, and eventually out of state. Deggeller Attractions, which runs many of the rides at the fair, also runs the school for its workers' children.

Wherever Deggeller goes, the kids and their teacher follow.

Because carnivals have an almost cliched mystique, these kids were supposed to be different - if not gypsies, then maybe small-scaled but fast-talking hipsters, quick as the coin-toss. But if that was the yardstick, these kids fell short.

They wore oversized T-shirts, Reeboks and baggie jeans and lugged book bags and lunch boxes. They giggled and pointed and smirked at each other in the short-hand of childhood, from which all adults are excluded.

It is true, though, that other children would not call the midway games by their carny nickname, "joints," as one of the kids did, or the stuffed animals hardly anybody wins "stock," as another did. As proof of their traveling life, one of the youngest ones climbed up on a small chair, looked up at a map of the world and picked out Florida without hesitation.

I am only sorry I missed recess, outside the door of the trailer, behind the midway games, within a small fenced-in lot that included a knee-high basketball hoop and a small, multicolored maze of plastic blocks suitable for climbing. "One of these days, we're going to get her to take us on the midway," said 12-year-old Jake as though that could be a treat to a carny kid.

If the kids would have preferred a regular, immobile school, with principals and gym class and a bigger set of friends, they didn't reveal it. "It's better than staying home, or not seeing my parents, or my father, for most of the year," said Jessica, the 7-year-old whose parents own the midway and started the school two years ago.

The kids called the teacher Miss Linda. Her bookshelves, at one end of the trailer, included a calculus text and reprints of the celebrated 19th-century McGuffey's Readers, as if to signify the range of material she had to be prepared to teach. The curriculum, intentionally, has a Christian theme. So, as the day ended, when Miss Linda asked the kids to sing, she chose a hymn.

"I am the Resurrection and the Life," the kids trilled, clapping mostly in unison. "He who believes in me shall never die."

Outside the racket of the midway thumped on, to the rhythm of that other, separate world.