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Some teens leave small towns, others never want to

Small-town life is a mixed bag for young head-bangers looking to get famous.

On the upside, a full-throttle rock band called Eleven After can practice loud enough to rattle the floors at the country home of Skylar Schooler’s parents, a short drive west of Overbrook.

Without neighbors around to gripe, save for his grandparents up the gravel road, Schooler can pound his bass and yelp banshee-like all he wants.

But on the downside, towns in Osage County don’t offer many gigs to metal heads.

“We’re out here fighting to get noticed,” said Schooler, 21.

It’s a common sentiment among youth in a place such as Overbrook.

Nothing much to do. Nowhere to prosper.

The same familiar faces everywhere you turn.

For those seeking weekend entertainment, carpooling to Topeka or Lawrence fills the bill. Those larger places, plus an occasional Kansas City venue, keep Eleven After rocking enough after 11 for the band to develop a following.

Other young people are content to hang closer to home to pass the hours.

Mixing with youth church clubs. Hitting Friday night bonfires. Tending to 4-H projects that might get them a write-up in the Osage County Herald-Chronicle.

If growing up here may seem dreadful to a city kid, to Jodi Anderson, 28, there’s no better place than her native town to raise her own young children with husband LeRoy.

A few years ago, they fixed up and moved into the house where Anderson’s grandmother had lived.

“We’re here to stay,” said Anderson. “I know most of the people. And it’s close enough to the city to enjoy a movie or to go shopping.

“But it’s far enough away to spread out and relax, to feel safe. For my kids to ride bikes.”

For her sister, Jamie Coffman, these priorities just didn’t fit. She joined the nearly half of youths in Osage County who live elsewhere after high school.

When she chose to study film and theater at the University of Kansas, some wondered why she’d pick a place where students can get lost in the crowd.

“The anonymity I found at KU? I was totally cool with it,” said Coffman. After finishing at the top of her film class last spring, she can picture herself someday on the West Coast.

If it’s anonymity a kid seeks, a town of 1,000 people is the wrong place.

The adults pride themselves on keeping eyes open to what the youth are doing, whether it’s hanging out late before a next-morning volleyball tournament or misbehaving at City Lake Park.

“When our son Colin was little,” said Hope Koger, manning a fundraising booth at the high school homecoming, “we got a call from someone who saw him doing something bad at the lake.

“We knew before he even got home.”

Koger couldn’t recall exactly what Colin did wrong — maybe fishing with his hands. But she told the youngster: “Never, never try that again.”

That is, never think you can get away with anything wrong or sneaky, not in this town. (And not when your dad is city clerk.)

Many teens come to appreciate this looking out for one another.

Others voice regrets about everyone knowing each other’s business, as noted by a girl having a chat at homecoming with Santa Fe Trail Middle School Principal Michael Flax.

“Yes, but does everyone know the truth?” Flax said to her. “That’s the problem with everyone knowing everyone. False stories spread fast. It’s about knowing the people who know the facts.”

In some ways, an Overbrook childhood is markedly different from growing up in Kansas City, just 70 miles away:

• People here love to hunt. So, as early as kindergarten, pupils in the Trail district are schooled in firearm safety.

Taught by resource officer Sam Ralston, using materials provided by the National Rifle Association, he shows the kids weapons and recites the mantra of the NRA’s Eddie Eagle:

“STOP! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult.”

Classrooms in the Kansas City Public Schools do not look toward the NRA to get such lessons.

• Dating gets trickier when you’re surrounded by the same kids all your life.

The spring prom drew dozens of youths from outside school districts, a reflection of teens who prefer dating outsiders to ward off the spread of intimate secrets.

“There’s some of that,” said 2013 graduate Maria Penrod. “There are also kids (within the district) who become close friends early on and get married soon as they graduate.”

• After graduation, military service is a given for youths such as Dominic Capra, class of ’14.

“Going into the Marine Corps, sir, just as my brother did,” Capra said. “In the city, recruiters come to the kids. Here, kids come to the recruiters.”

Drilled all his life to respect men and women in uniform, Capra also likes wearing the uniform of Thundertaker, the school mascot for the Chargers.

The foam lightning-bolt head of Thundertaker, designed by his brother, conceals Capra’s identity. And school custom dictates that Thundertaker not speak.

“But in the stands they all know, ‘Oh, it’s a Capra in there,’” he said.

In many other ways, however, young people here are indistinguishable from those raised anywhere else.

There are rockers, jocks, goth girls, nerdy boys, kids with blue hair and home-schooled teens so fresh-faced they could qualify for a toothpaste commercial.

And Brandon Statler, the Overbrook front man for Eleven After, who sports stretched-out piercings in his ears that you can slip a pinky through.

Vance Fannin, a 2010 graduate, bolted from nearby Carbondale for Hollywood after being accepted at a prestigious acting academy. But now back in the Topeka area, between roles in bad horror movies, he told The Star he was surprised how much he missed his family and the Kansas life.

He was appreciative when, in his senior year, the Trail school board approved a club for gay and lesbian students, now more broadly known as Teens for Tolerance.

“I don’t consider my sexuality a big part of my identity,” said Fannin. “But being from a small town is.”

And now, with the Web everywhere, being from a small town doesn’t mean growing up in cultural isolation.

A nearly all-white throng of kids at the Trail prom this spring danced to music shifting from country to hip-hop to rap and back to country. “We live out in the country,” senior Tyler Shaffer shouted over the din, “but we like to think we’re in the hood.”

Preferring its alternative style of music, Eleven After continues its quest to break out.

The bandmates’ parents are 100 percent behind them, making long drives back and forth to Kansas City to root them on in late-night shows.

Given those gigs and the blaring Friday practices that tip over pictures on the shelves of their home, some weekends find Chad and Trisha Schooler living the bleary-eyed title of Eleven After’s CD: “Awake and Dreaming.”

But their son, the bassist, considers it a healthy give-and-take.

“It’s a good life here,” said Skylar Schooler. “I like spending nights looking up at the stars.”

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