By Jeremiah O’Hagan
Some of your students will die. This is something teacher-ed classes don’t prepare you for. Your students might die tangled in the trees of a ravine, car parts strewn like confetti, or they might commit suicides, the whole world in front of them. But no one pulls you aside and tells you that. You have to learn the hard way.
He was my student in 10th grade. A wiry boy with solid kindness beating in his heart. I remember him for all the mornings he walked to and from class with Chelsea, because she was new and had few friends, and also because she was pretty, and I remember him for the way he greeted me, not only on those same mornings, but also when we passed in the halls or if I saw him loitering before wrestling practice: the smile, the wave, “Hey, Mr. O’Hagan.” I remember him for his pale skin, impetuous freckles and Dentyne smile. For his fire-red hair.
He graduated the year before I lost my job. I sat cloaked in a black robe with the faculty as the sun set on the football field and the breeze washed about our ankles, and I remember his long, confident, skinny stride to the platform to collect his diploma, the sun glowing in the tufts of red beneath his cap. The smile as he accepted the rolled-up parchment, the turn back down the aisle, still smiling. Always smiling. Then he enlisted in the military and I scrambled for my new identity as a journalist. His death tore through me harder than the others because I had to write about it.
Officially, I knew there had been a wreck. A totaled car and some smashed up kids. I had called the police and fire departments, which confirmed the details, and I typed up a short story against deadline. One car, one driver, four passengers. Going fast on a road known for being straight and long. Lost control, car rolled. Two passengers ejected from the car, one crawled out, one cut out by medics. They all go to the hospital. The driver goes to the morgue. No names are being released.
I was sitting at my desk, about to turn the article into the editor sans names, when my phone rang.
Here’s a fact — kids spread news faster than press releases, the cops or the school district.
“Hello?” It was one of my friends.
“I’m subbing at the high school,” she said. “Did you year about the wreck?”
I told her I had.
“The kids are saying he was driving.”
At university, I majored in English and chose a minor in journalism. The beginning journalism classes were cramped and choked by wait lists. Somehow, I lucked out. I spoke to someone high in the department during my orientation and she made sure I got the classes I needed each semester to march through the 60 credits. I made it through 15.
I wanted to write about the whole succulent, vivacious world, and envisioned myself reporting from far-flung curves of the planet. Instead, my professors told me, I could expect to be put on the courtroom or police beat for a good long while. Eventually, maybe I’d get to cover breaking news disasters and accidents, which I’d write about in the shape of an inverted pyramid. Up top would be the five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why. Further down, details would emerge.
And, I remember one professor asking our class, “Are you prepared to put your tape recorder in front of a woman’s face and ask her how she feels about her son’s death? Because you’re going to have to.”
I was not prepared, and I dropped the minor.
Nevertheless. At my desk, I knew what I had to do. Soon, tomorrow, authorities would release more details. Five local kids in a wreck is news, and I’d have to write a follow-up. But I was chicken, so I didn’t call his mom, yet. I started finding people at the high school who knew him.
They were easy to find.
“He always had something positive to offer. He was always helping people out with their problems,” his academic counselor told me. At a candlelight vigil, held at the high school the night after he died, she stood in flickering shadow and eavesdropped. “I listened to how much impact he’s had on the kids. The girls said he was the most kind and respectful guy.”
But you can’t wrap a news article around one person’s shadowed observations, so I tracked down my own former students, who had been his friends, and I interrogated them through their tears. I would have felt merciless, except for one thing: I knew there wasn’t a doubt in their mind that I cared deeply, not only about their dead friend, but also about their own grief. I’m not saying that to sound like a great guy; I felt like a jerk. I’m saying it because it’s true. “He was my student,” I said, like I’d had to say too often already, and the only thing that kept tears from my own eyes was my scribbling pen, trying to catch their stories.
“He cared about me, made sure I was OK all the time,” one girl told me. In the sniffling silence between her sentences, I pictured her mascara pooling in black tears. “He always showed he cared, even if you weren’t super close.”
But it is Andrew’s story that still haunts me.
On the day of the wreck, only shortly after it happened, Andrew was driving home after working out at the gym with his friends. An ambulance screamed and flashed toward him, headed east, and he pulled over to let it pass. Then he drove home.
Andrew didn’t know his friend lay dead on the side of the road, that his black Acura had come to a broken rest after rocketing down the straightaway, catching air on a dip and twisting like a skateboard trick into a tree.
Later, Andrew pieced the day together.
“I pulled over for the ambulance,” he said. “But you never really think about where it’s going and who’s on the other end.”
“Now, I think I know.”
There was a long while, after hanging up the phone with Andrew, when I stared at the wall. I had moved from my desk to a small conference room, craving privacy from the callous rattle of the newsroom. All the lights were off, my pad of paper lit only by the gray day outside the windows. I looked at the telephone, then at the seven unlisted digits scrawled next to his mom’s name. A student gave them to me; it felt like cheating, like betrayal. I remembered my professor. “Are you prepared?”
I still wasn’t, but I dialed the number.
“He was my student,” I said, again, after introducing myself, except this time it didn’t sound like a common bond. It sounded hollow. What is one shared period a day, for one year, in the canyon of a mother’s grief? I’ll tell you — it’s not even an echo.
“I still don’t believe it’s true,” she said, “but people keep telling me it is, so it must be. I’m not quite sure how to go forward, though.”
Through her tears, she scrounged for peace. Finally, she settled on this: “The good turnout at his memorial service helps me know he was a good person with a good heart and soul,” she said.
Everyone, I think, needed that reassurance as the investigation wore on and details emerged. Or at least, I did.
It was cold the day he wrecked the car, and the 35-mph road was shaded on both sides. Even by early afternoon, it hadn’t seen enough sun to melt the skin of frost. He was taking his friend to work, and the other kids were along for the ride. He had smoked some weed and was racing, feeling, no doubt, the invincibility of a young, soon-to-be soldier, the imminent freedom of leaving a small town for far lands: 85 mph was his estimated speed. And then the whole dream crumpled up.
I wrote the story. I followed the injured kids and wrote more articles about them. Two were released quickly and healed quickly. Two did not. One girl suffered crushed vertebrae and had to learn to walk again. Her breakthrough day was when she stood long enough to make an apple pie. Another boy, the one who had to be cut from the car, lay comatose, a vegetable. Fluids pooled on his brain and doctors cut off the top of his skull to relieve the pressure. Then they cut it off again. They drained his spinal cord and fused the 6th and 7th vertebrae. After three months in hospitals, he moved to a full-care home. Then, after eight months, he said “Hi” to his mom.
He uses a wheel chair now, and graduated high school two years to the day after the wreck.
But in the weeks following my former student’s death, nothing looked so optimistic, if we can call it that. It rained for days, weather to match the mood, and when it stopped my phone rang again. It was one of the girls I’d interviewed.
“I just thought you might want to know we’re painting the barn tonight,” she said.
The barn is vacant and sits along one of the main roads into town. You might have already guessed, but you have to be a teenager and you have to die to get your name on the barn.
Then, usually within 24 hours, friends gather paint cans and brushes, rollers and ladders and each other, and they start painting. First, solid white or black or orange. Then, the name. They paint at sunset or dawn. They paint in the cold, the paint like sludge and taking forever to dry. They paint when the barn is still wet from rain, and the paint runs. They paint it again if they have to.
Sometimes, the letters are tall as the dead and sometimes they’re smaller, to make room for anecdotes and inside jokes. Favorite phrases: “Ridin’ Dirty.” Sometimes, the names stay up for a year; some years they’re painted over more quickly than seems fair. But the students have their own kind of fair — each name stays until another replaces it. It’s been a tradition as long as I’ve been around town.
I imagined each brushstroke a student’s silent scream, a question, an ache all at once in the bottom of a stomach, the depth of a chest, the hollow of a throat. I imagined it was the only tangible way the painters knew to express intangible sorrow and shock at his death.
It’s always a shock when something beautiful and vital is extinguished. And teenagers are beautiful. I watched him grow from a stringy boy to a young man; I watched his shoulders broaden and his chest thicken, his arms define themselves and his smile, if possible, widen with the confidence of beginning to find his place in the world. Then, gone.
If something as fragile as frost can snuff our ideal of youth in an air-borne instant, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope for academic counselors, former teachers and newspaper reporters, and what hope, even, for other gorgeous adolescents? Or are we all matchsticks, snapping flares and pungent tendrils of smoke?
Those of us who’ve grown older look fondly on the four years of high school, recalling a horizon that was ours and a future that bowed to our whim, and we tell our students that they can be anything they want, go anywhere they will, find themselves wherever there is adventure and uncertainty. We tell them they’re unstoppable. All they have to do is lust enough. But when someone dies taking his friend to work, this lie is exposed. The universe owes you nothing. Is there a more sobering realization?
Maybe this thought crashed in his friends’ brains as they brushed the barn with his name. It crashed through mine as I typed the story, and it crashes still.