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A VIRTUAL JOURNEY

Linda Cooper's first grade class is walking to Jackson Hole, Wyo. _ sort of.

Actually, they are walking the 2,127 miles to the distant state figuratively, but they are walking 2,127 miles.

They use the playground in the back of the school as their track, and each day the children walk or run around it, usually four times each. One lap is about a quarter mile. Four laps is a mile. Twenty children walking four laps is 20 miles. Add to that the children who run and make it five or six laps, and the teacher's laps, and the class averages about 30 miles a day.

The children began walking on the first day of school in August. Cooper, 57, thought it was a good way to get them to exercise. Their first trip was to Disney World. They didn't, of course, actually go to Disney World, but they did have a celebration after they returned from the pseudo-trip.

Next they went to Tallahassee. And in October, took off from Tallahassee for Wyoming. They saw no point in returning to Lecanto just to start again, since Tallahassee was on the way. They have walked more than 1,600 miles (the total changes every day), but have a long way to go.

In fact, the remaining distance is so far (and they still have to come back), they decided to ask the kindergarten class next door to help. Now Mary McCurdy's kindergarten children are huffing and puffing along with the older students.

So, why Jackson Hole? That just so happens to be the home of Lecanto Elementary School principal Robert Snider's son, Jason Snider. He has visited Cooper's class, showed them things he'd brought and talked to them about his home. And the students have learned a few things about the city and its surrounding countryside. Six-year-old Joel Pelton said he learned that there even is a place called Jackson Hole.

And Taylor Weaver, 7, found out more than that. "Jackson Hole has wolves," she said, "and the little water holes that are so hot that they can go up into the air."

The class is following a route Cooper requested from Mapquest. It has them walking to Pensacola, to Knoxville, to Jefferson City, to Kansas City, to Des Moines and on to the final destination. On the return trip they want to pass through Sioux City, Iowa, to visit their former high school helper, Allison Hughes. Allison recently graduated from Lecanto High and is now attending college in the West. Why not add her to the route?

Cooper and her students have written letters to schools along the way but, so far, have received few responses. Still, they are not discouraged and keep on walking.

Each day when they come in from their laps, they figure out how far they have gone. They count laps. They are first-graders dabbling in fractions.

Cooper groups the laps in fours and waits for and prompts the children to compute the mileage. At the end of one mileage summary she was left with two three-fourths miles. A light bulb blinked somewhere in the group, and a student piped up, "We can make another whole!"

That day yielded 30 1/2 miles.

When they started the walking in August, Cooper said some of the children had a hard time making it around the track just once. "Now they just go," she said. It's a good chance for her to walk, too. And all was well until one day Cooper was out and a younger substitute teacher filled in. She ran.

When Cooper returned her students wanted her to run. Now she does, at least part of the lap.

The children seem to enjoy the daily outing. Dawn Webb, 7, does. "It's fun, and I really like walking to different places and running and walking are my favorite things to do and I really like it a lot."

Joel Ingram sees a couple of benefits of the laps. It "makes us know how it feels to walk all that way and it gives me exercise. It makes you strong. It makes you lose weight."

The daily walks to a specific goal have benefited the children more than as individuals. Cooper said they are closer as a class. "It's really brought the class together. Plus they're doing something impressive. Walking 2,000 miles is an enormous undertaking for anyone.

"They're really proud of themselves," she said.

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