MAY 1, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH — In 88 minutes, you could watch a week’s worth of “American Idol” episodes.

You could fly from Norfolk to Detroit.

Students could have recess. Six times.

In 88 minutes, Miro Malebranche rides home from school.

By the time his school bus, No. 314, pulls to a stop near his house on Knotts Island Road, the sinking sun’s yellow rays are squeezing through the trees.

Miro’s two-state bus journey is among the longest in South Hampton Roads, school officials say; a few students in Suffolk come close. The trip takes the fourth-grader through 40 miles of suburban neighborhoods, commercial strips and rural farmland. It even bisects a marsh in North Carolina.

He could attend Creeds Elementary, a short 22-minute ride from home. Instead, Miro goes to Old Donation Center, Virginia Beach’s public elementary school for the gifted.

“I do have a choice, but I really like my school,” says Miro, 10. “It’s worth it.”

Each day in Judith Hurwitz’s class at Old Donation Center, Miro prepares to go home under a banner that reads: “Granted, life is a journey, not a destination.”

One afternoon, Miro exudes calm amid the excited hum of fourth-graders as the school day ends at 2:50. He won’t be home for a while yet. Classmates buzz about, chatting excitedly, showing off Valentine’s Day art projects and stuffing their backpacks. Miro calmly wipes smudges of clay off the wood-grain desks with a wet, brown paper towel.

About 15 minutes later Miro joins a group of classmates at the door. Like ants following a trail of honey, they wend through the hallways and out the door single-file.

Bus 314 waits straight ahead.

Driver Marcy Baart pulls the lever, opening the door. Miro clambers aboard.

“I usually sit in the same place, right in the middle,” Miro says . He’s often first on the bus and the last off, so he gets his pick. “It’s in the center of the card games,” he says .

On that day, it was five-card draw. “We’re not gambling,” he says in a phone call from the bus. (School officials wouldn’t allow a reporter or photographer to ride along.)

Miro also carries a portable CD player and has been listening to The Beatles. He recently added a new group to his repertoire.

“There’s this band my mom told me about, the Talking Heads. Have you heard of them?”

Old Donation Center is a squat, brick building tucked into a quiet patch near the bustle of Haygood Road and Independence Boulevard.

Miro’s home, where he lives with his parents, sister and two dogs, is on a sliver of Knotts Island that belongs to Virginia Beach. The peninsula is surrounded by marshes, water and North Carolina.

His mother, Genez, says Miro was 4 when the family moved there from near Glenwood Elementary.

“We could afford to have privacy and waterfront, and still have the Virginia Beach schools, which we love. The idea of him going to Old Donation Center hadn’t crossed our minds.”

Leaving Old Donation at 3:13 p.m., Miro’s bus rumbles past a condo development, out onto Witchduck Road and around the corner to Kemps Landing Magnet School, the division’s school for gifted middle-schoolers. The front of the bus releases some students; 10 others get on.

The bus heads south on Independence Boulevard, past clanking construction equipment near Town Center.

Many days, Miro brings his Game Boy Advance. His favorite game is “Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories,” which features Disney characters including Peter Pan, Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh. Although he plays it only on the bus, he’s beaten the game.

Occasionally, he does homework. “If I read for an hour nonstop, I get sick.”

A few students are dropped off in their neighborhoods; then the bus comes to Princess Anne Middle School. There they pick up Miro’s 12-yearold sister, Chantal, who is waiting on a grassy patch by the roadside.

Together, they make up half of the four Virginia Beach public schoolers who live on Knotts Island.

Chantal says she sometimes gets tired during the 50 minutes she spends on the bus.

“The ride doesn’t make me tired – school does.”

Their mother says her main concern is making sure the children have enough to eat. Chantal says she finds it hard to hold on to her extra snack all day.

“I eat it at lunch anyway.”

South of the school, commercial development falls away. The kids pass fruit stands and places like Blue Pete’s Seafood Restaurant. Signs advertise “Firewood for sale. $75/cord” and “Fresh Eggs.”

From a front yard, a dog howls like its alone in the world. The bus has the road nearly to itself.

With all the other students dropped off, they cross into North Carolina at 4:31 p.m. Trailer parks are on both sides of the road. A North Carolina school bus passes, headed the other way.

Soon, they reach Miro’s favorite part of the ride, the Marsh Causeway. It’s the one time he looks out the bus windows. Sometimes he slides up front to talk to Baart.

“Big white snow geese, turtles, gray herons, white egrets – he knows everything,” Baart says. “He knows more than I do.” Once they watched the flames of a marsh burn-off right next to the road.

At 4:39 p.m., the three cross back into Virginia. The white fence of the horse farm where Genez Malebranche works is on the right. Their long ride has come to an end.

The siblings hop out of the bus, greeted by their mother and Midnight, their golden retriever/black lab mix.

Miro, Chantal and Genez get into the family minivan for the one-third-mile trip down their driveway. Midnight runs alongside.

With such a long afternoon, there’s little time for afterschool activities. “Their time on the bus is their free time,” their mother says .

But Miro likes his house where it is.

“I don’t like living in a neighborhood.”

The children climb the stairs, headed for the fridge.

Miro shuts the door behind him.

It’s 5 p.m.

Lauren Roth, (757) 222-5133,