As kids, the world is a colorful book that we are impatient to read. We explore this new reality without knowing its dangers and risks. Our innocent eyes don’t see the dark side of life, and we scream grumpy at our parents when they tell us to not do something. We complain and resist them, but at the end, we either listen to them or we hurt ourselves, learning the hard way.
Within the years, our knowledge becomes bigger and we at times trust our judgement more than the one of other adults. We think we know enough and that our life experience could give us any answer we need. The overconfidence creates conflicts, arguments, rebellion, and many other “adolescence symptoms.” We are allowed to do many new things, and the excitement takes over, with some stupid mistakes, fatal mistakes. That’s what the program “Every 15 Minutes” is trying to teach the youth: life is unfair sometime and an accident could determine its end.
Every 15 Minutes consists in a two-day program focusing on high school juniors and seniors, which challenges them to think about drinking, driving, the responsibility of making mature decisions and the impact their decisions have on family, friends, their community, and many others.
The title comes from the unfortunate fact that during the early 1980s every 15 minutes someone in the United States was killed in an alcohol-related traffic collision. Even if the rate improved thanks to new laws and grassroots programs to one death every 30 minutes, the result is still unacceptable.
Mount Shasta High School senior Taylor Thomas brought back the activity in the high school after more than 10 years (last time in 2006) as her senior project. The project took place on May 2 and 3.
I was in my math class when somebody knocked on the door: a police officer and a “Grim Reaper,” the student Myles DeLeon, came in to take one of the students, Bailey Tobin, and described the cause of her “death.” They walked away, and so it has been done for all the students involved in the project, “Every 15 Minutes.” Nothing happened until the third period, when all the students were called out in front of the school, where a horrible scenario was waiting for us.
A car crash, some of the victims still in the car, crying and screaming, others unconscious in the vehicle, on the ground, or simply too scared to move. The simulation was so realistic that if I wouldn’t have been informed, I could have thought it was real.
Stephanie Schoonmaker was the drunk driver, panicking and trying to wake up Ian Budesa, sitting next to her with his face covered by blood. In the other car, Quincie Cross, unconscious, and outside Kaimana Ferguson, laying dead on the ground, while his friend, Kyle Ellorin, was trying to wake him up, dropping tears on his body.
Behind, in the background, the rest of the “dead students,” standing there, with white faces and empty looks: Abby Andrus, Caleb Santi, Wayde Burns, Kenzie Lowry, Anna Taylor, Baylie Tobin, and Myles DeLeon, as the Grim Reaper.
Firefighters, Paramedics and Police Officers coming from all over the place, the atmosphere was tense and chaotic. Everybody was quiet, staring at the tragic show, putting himherself in those people’s shoes.
We see it in the movies and it seems real, but when you actually see familiar faces in those situations, hurt, crying and screaming, it doesn’t seem so fake anymore. You know it’s not real, but your mind doesn’t want to process those images, and just the idea of that scenario is painful enough.
The bodies were taken in the ambulances, while the police officers were investigating and arresting the drunk driver. At the same time, mock death notifications have been made to the parents of these children.
The student participants have been taken to the morgue, the hospital emergency room, and the jail to be booked for “drunk driving.”
The students stayed overnight at Timber Hills Lodge in Mount Shasta, with no external interaction, to simulate the separation from their loved ones.
The day after, an assembly took place, and that has been probably one of the most emotional moments of the whole project. A coffin was the main character of the show, at the center of the gym, and on the sides the student participants and their parents, all reunited. The children wrote letters to their families about what they didn’t have time to tell them before, and the parents did the same. The audience was in tears when the letters were read out loud. Ian’s mom and sister had to identify his body, touching his cold hand among the many in the morgue.
My thought went to my mom, the woman that gave me birth and loved me more than herself; to my dad, that man who has and always will be there for me; and my brothers, my best friends and my rocks. I wouldn’t destroy just my life, but four other lives, four pieces of an amazing puzzle which is my family.
Stephanie, “the drunk driver,” expressed with a broken voice how much that guilt was torturing her. “Abby, you are my best friend and I’m so sorry for taking yours away,” she said to one of the victim’s sisters, touching many hearts in that gym.
In the video shown, with pictures and videos of the tragedy, parents’ faces covered in despair were alternating to dead bodies lying cold and lifeless next to them.
“I planned to transfer to UC Santa Barbara for four years where I would study genetics,” said Ian Budesa in the video shown during the assembly. The students’ voices were accompanied by dramatic art pictures and videos taken the day before, in contrast with the future plans described in the background.
“I would travel the world, go to Europe and raise a family” are the plans of Quincie Cross, now become just impossible and destroyed dreams. It was an intense morning, which made me think a lot about the meaning that life has for me.
This experience reminded me that we always have a choice, and that life, especially in this phase, is our choice. Life is a network of people that we love and who love us, and we have the responsibility to not ruin it. Life is not just our property, it’s a gift that we have to protect and care about.
• Giulia Ciarlantini is an exchange student at Mount Shasta High School from a little town called Porto Recanati on the coast, in the center of Italy. She wrote the piece above as part of her senior project.