It was a warm Saturday evening when the bus pulled up in front of the school to drop off the track team. I sat on the curb waiting for my mother and waved good-bye to my teammates as they walked to their cars. In my town, people can get permits at 15 but I wondered if I would ever get mine. My father is a sheriff and every night, he tells Mom the day’s crazy stories. Dad has saved lots of lives, but he’s also seen kids die in car accidents, so I’m pretty sure he won’t let me get my permit any time soon.
When my mom pulled up, I hopped in and she asked the usual post-meet questions: “Did you win any events? Did you have enough water?” I answered and then asked a question of my own.
“Mom? Can I get my driver’s permit for my next birthday?”
Mom sighed and said, “Not until you’re 18, honey.”
“But all the kids in my class have theirs!” I whined.
“Molly,” she started, “you will get one, and you will get a car, but not now. We don’t want you dead at 16.”
A few days later, I was at school chatting with my girls.
“I think we’re having an assembly today,” Roxy announced.
“We are. But I’m not going,” said Rachel in an insecure voice.
“Why not?” I asked. “What’s it about?”
“I think they’re going to talk about alcohol. It’s a program called Every 15 Minutes. It’s supposed to be really scary and they do some weird stuff about death,” Rachel explained. “And that’s why I’m not going. It’s too scary.”
Rachel is very smart and only wants to have happy thoughts. Roxy and I are like that too, but we also like to learn about the bad things that happen in the world.
I was in math when an announcement instructed teachers to send students to the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds? Why? I found Roxy and as we tried to locate other friends, we passed a fake graveyard. Maybe Rachel was right.
Once we got to the stands, we spotted our friends. I noticed a Grim Reaper walking around and saw others with their faces painted white. What was really noticeable, though, was a tarp covering something large in the arena. After everyone was settled, a man spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please.” Half followed his instructions.
“Welcome to Every 15 Minutes, a program to teach you what really happens when you drink and drive. Pull off the tarp, please.” A woman pulled it off to reveal two smashed cars with actors inside. In the red car was the “drunkdriver,” a guy from my track team. And in the gray car were two “dead” people.
“You might think that after an accident you simply move on, but life is not like that. In that gray car, you lost a fellow student and a teacher,” said the narrator. Half of us gasped and began to ask, “Is this real?” Honestly, I thought it was. There was blood all over and they acted so ... dead.
A second later, we heard sirens and then cops, a fire truck, an ambulance, sheriffs, and even a helicopter appeared. The last vehicle was a white van. What was that for?
This was crazy. It felt like it was actually happening. The cops pulled the “drunk driver” out and started to do tests to see if he were drunk. The sheriffs, firemen, EMTs, and more cops started to take apart the gray car to extract the people, then wrapped them in white cloths.
“When a white cloth is draped over a person, that means they didn’t make it,” announced the narrator.
This was more than just crazy. This was scary. But what was really disappointing was the audience - many were on cell phones, and others were chatting with friends. It seemed like they hadn’t even noticed that two people had been “killed.” I wanted to stand up and scream, “Be quiet!”
The narrator clarified the meaning of the white van: it would bring the bodies to the morgue. I had seen vans like it but never knew their significance. How scary is that?
Another sheriff car pulled up and I hoped it was my dad coming to save the day, but it wasn’t.
As the cops arrested the “drunk driver” and the EMTs put the “victims” in body bags, the narrator asked, “While all of you are talking to each other, ask your friends: ‘Do you know anyone who was killed in an alcohol-related incident?’” Everyone started to act like they were so cool and mocked the narrator’s question. How embarrassing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have lost two members of our school today,” announced our principal. Everybody was finally quiet.
The principal read biographies of the two and we finally started to take this seriously. After the presentation, everyone (well, most) silently walked back to school.
The next day there was a funeral. To tell you the truth, I’d never been to one. Once again, everyone left class but this time we went to the gym. I sat with friends and all I could do was stare at that pretty baby-blue coffin standing alone under loads of flowers. All I could think was that one day, somebody will get killed in an alcohol-related accident and their body will be put in that pretty baby-blue casket and buried six feet under.
The assembly started and the principal said how embarrassed he was by our behavior the previous day. It had even been mentioned in the newspaper, for Pete’s sake!
Then the narrator again read the victims’ biographies. During the presentation the Living Dead, students who had performed in this program years ago and even those who “died” yesterday, started to lay white roses on the coffin. The narrator introduced the Living Dead’s parents, and the horrifying Grim Reaper.
A video showed a closer look at what had happened yesterday and the aftermath. The fake accident seemed more real, more up close and personal, on film. The student who “died” was laying on the front of the car!
They took “the dead” to the hospital, where their parents were shown sobbing and hugging them, and saying good-bye. I looked around and nobody was on their phones anymore. Everyone was staring at the screen with shocked expressions. The “drunk driver” went to court and was sentenced to 20 years.
When the video ended, everyone applauded. Then a nurse presented a slide show about real accidents caused by drunk driving. She told many stories, including one about a teen’s mom who bought a new car for her son. He and his friends went to a party, drank and on their way home, he hit another car ... and in that car was his mother, who died.
What really freaked everyone out was a picture of a guy who was in an accident and had all the skin on his forehead ripped off.
After that, there was one more presentation: parents reading letters to their “dead” kids and the “dead” kids reading letters to their parents. It brought everyone to tears; I guess the students finally realized this assembly wasn’t a joke.
I went home and asked lots of questions about what else happens when someone dies and was surprised my dad could answer all my questions. He’s seen a lot of accidents.
Death is ugly, fake or not. This assembly stuck with people at my school - well, with me, anyway. This could happen here, or anywhere, and have just as great an impact on the community, school and family. So now I feel really good about not getting a driver’s permit until I’m older. I thank my parents for their wisdom now that I understand it.
Just think, every 15 minutes someone is going to die or be seriously injured in a drunk-driving accident. Think about it. Could it be someone close to you?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.