Adults in ski boots would approach Terrie Carver as she sat eating lunch in the lodge at a Lake Tahoe ski area. Wide-eyed, they'd point to the tiny five-year-old boy sitting next to her and say, "Is that your son?!"
Terrie would sigh and think, Oh, God, what did he do now? The phone calls had started earlier that year—from teachers, from parents, from other wide-eyed adults: "Roger can't sit still!" "Roger can't keep his hands to himself!" "Roger is in trouble, again!" So she'd look at the inquiring people and answer them, "Maybe."
"Well, he is really, really good!" they'd gush. "We just had to stop and watch him!" Terrie heard this with a mix of delight and dread. On the one hand, snowboarding might be just the positive activity she and her husband, Dave, had been trying to find for Roger. On the other, she was a warm-weather person; every time she was in the snow she longed for the beach. It only took a few comments from Roger's new admirers to convince her that she was going to be consigned to the white stuff for a long time to come.
Roger Carver is 13 now and at that awkward stage in a young phenom's life when he has both an agent and a bedtime. Though he is only 5'3" and 110 pounds, he is the best snowboarder his age in the country. He is good at all disciplines, including boardercross and the freestyle events of halfpipe and slopestyle. But he excels in the less glamorous Alpine events, the slalom and the giant slalom. Until he blew out a binding and placed fourth in the giant slalom at the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) nationals in Maine last March, he had not been beaten in an age-group race since he was seven. At the South Tahoe Snowboard Series Alpine races, which will start up again on Jan. 3, he often beats everybody, including men twice his age. Altogether he has won 22 national snowboarding championships.
On top of that, Roger is what the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen would have called a namephreak: His name is his occupation. Thanks to his natural balance and years of coaching and practice, Roger can perfectly carve a turn, the tail of his board following the exact path of the tip, leaving a trail as thin as a wheat stalk. "Roger's talent is a special feel for the snow," says Trevor Brown, one of Roger's coaches at the Heavenly Ski and Snowboard Foundation at Tahoe. "He has an understanding of the terrain that some people spend a lifetime trying to find. He is an artist. He was born with the gift of knowing how to use that paintbrush under his feet."
Roger was also born with a lot of methamphetamine in his system, thanks to the addiction of his biological mother, and he has to deal with the ramifications of that every day. Studies on meth exposure in utero are just starting, but research on adults suggests that drugs like meth and cocaine do two things in the brain: They act on neurotransmitters, affecting things like self-control and impulsivity, and they stimulate the brain's pleasure centers, which can lead to a greater need for more pleasure, and more risk-taking. If Roger forgets to take one of the Adderall pills he takes every morning and every noon, his behavior spins out of control. If he doesn't take his clonidine pills, at bedtime, he can't sleep.
Terrie, a 44-year-old who works summers in the office of a photography company, and Dave, a 49-year-old concrete contractor, are Roger's adoptive parents. The Carvers have one biological son, Dustin, who was born in 1980, but they weren't able to have any others. When Dustin started longing for siblings at age five, Terrie and Dave became foster parents to a string of infants, kids and teenagers—as many as nine at a time—in their three-bedroom house outside Placerville in California's Sierra foothills. Roger joined the parade in early 1990 just 10 days after his birth, which happened to fall in an experimental two-week window during which El Dorado County, a hotbed of meth use, tested every newborn for drugs. Roger's positive toxicology report gave Child Protective Services the right to monitor his mother; when she didn't cooperate, the CPS authorities took her baby away. After Roger had been with the Carvers for six months, his mother was ready to take him back. Three months later he was skinny and undernourished, and CPS sent him back to the Carvers, who eventually adopted him.
As a baby Roger was small, blond, cute and endlessly energetic. He'd lie awake at night, and he never napped. As a kid he was caught snoozing so rarely that both occasions are part of family lore. "One time we were driving back from Telluride, and he fell asleep in the backseat," says Dave. "We have that one on videotape." The other time Roger put his head down on a table during a family reunion and dozed off as his parents and a circle of relatives looked on, agape.
Roger's pediatrician had told the Carvers that the meth exposure had probably changed Roger's brain chemistry and that he was likely to suffer from hyperactivity and other behavioral problems when he hit school age and had to sit still for long periods of time. Sure enough, as soon as Roger started school, he wanted to quit because all he did was get in trouble. Terrie resisted medicating him and tried herbal remedies. They didn't work. Neither did Ritalin, which only made him bounce off the walls twice as fast. When the Carvers settled on a pharmacological routine that gave Roger some focus and everyone else some peace, he did well in language and writing—he now reads at the high school level—but struggled in math and in that category they used to call "citizenship." "For Dustin, school was always a positive; for Roger, we knew it wouldn't be," says Terrie, who homeschools Roger during the snowboarding season and sends him to public school the rest of the year. "We knew something else would be the positive. We just didn't know what it would be."
When Roger was five, a parent at his Montessori school offered a package ski deal to students: $10 for a day of rentals and lessons up at Sierra-Tahoe, a 45-minute drive away. The other kids took ski lessons; Roger wanted to snowboard because that was what Dustin did. That first day Terrie saw Roger getting air on the bunny slope, his face split by his Alfred E. Newman grin. "That was the first sign I was in trouble," she says, laughing.