By Sarah Naron
LATEXO – The students of Latexo High School laughed and chatted as they filed into the auditorium for a special assembly – certainly a welcome break from typical afternoon activities.
Within minutes, however, the atmosphere in the room quickly faded from one of lighthearted happiness to silent horror as the students received a startling, tragic revelation.
Local newscaster Reese Fowler informed the students that two of their classmates had lost their lives in a drunk-driving accident.
“After a night of heavy drinking, a group of five teenagers – all seniors from Latexo High School – experienced a moment that would change their lives forever,” Fowler reported.
Fowler explained that the students left a spot nicknamed “The Party Barn” in Crockett, en route to Latexo. Upon investigating the location, law enforcement officials discovered various alcoholic beverage containers left behind by the partygoers.
“The students left the party and were headed toward Latexo using FM 2663,” Fowler continued. “The driver, Corbin Cox, was speeding at speeds more than 85 MPH when he lost control of the vehicle.”
In addition to driving at an unsafe speed, Cox was also under the influence of alcohol.
“This caused one of his classmates, Kelsey Patterson, to have life-endangering injuries,” Fowler said. “Whenever first responders got there, she was brain dead, and the life-flight helicopter had to take her to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.”
It was a destination that Patterson would never reach.
“She died just minutes after the helicopter took off,” Fowler informed.
Another passenger in the car, Eastman Townsend, was ejected upon impact.
Fowler described Townsend as an individual with “a bright future ahead of him,” who had received acceptance into Rice University and planned to study engineering.
“He was pronounced dead at the scene,” Fowler said.
Cox suffered only minor injuries and was arrested on the scene and booked into the Houston County Jail.
As Fowler explained, Julissa Chavez and Jordan Davenport were also passengers in the vehicle. Both were reported to be in stable condition with broken ribs and a broken arm, respectively.
“The question that we have to ask is, why did he have to get behind the wheel?” Fowler said. “Why didn’t somebody else drive? Couldn’t it have waited?
“This was a situation that could have easily been prevented,” Fowler pointed out.
The aforementioned report, actually given by LHS senior Fowler, fortunately, was purely fictional. All students are alive and well, and the accident was staged for a program called Shattered Dreams, an outreach orchestrated by Teens In the Driver Seat.
A video of the “accident” – as well as the party leading up to it and the tragic events following immediately afterward – was shown to the students.
Following the presentation, the students who partook in the making of the video addressed those in attendance regarding what they took away from the experience.
“When we were filming this, we had a day that we all put on the make-up with the bruises and cuts and gashes,” Davenport said. “Even though it was all fake – the blood and everything – we still looked at each other and were all very terrified, because it just looked like it had actually happened. It was scary how real everything looked.”
The video showed the students screaming, crying and panicking in the car in the immediate aftermath of the accident – reactions which Davenport says could be attributed to more than just polished acting skills.
“Most of us actually freaked out,” she revealed. “When we were deciding to do the Shattered Dreams program, I thought that the acting part was going to be hard, because I didn’t know how to make the reactions seem real. But most of our reactions at different points of the video wasn’t acting. We were freaked out.”
Davenport described the fear she felt as she looked at Chavez, Cox and Patterson in the vehicle, as well as Townsend “out there, just laying there” nearby.
“You see this happen to people, and you don’t know what to think,” Davenport said. “You say, ‘Oh, that’ll never happen to me – until it does. Until it happens to you or someone that you’re close to.”
Davenport expressed her belief that she and the other students involved in the making of the video, as well as those who participate in the Teens In the Driver Seat program, have been changed as a result of the project.
“I think it changed all of our perspectives about things,” she said. “And I really hope it changed yours, too.”
According to Chavez, “fear, loss and relief” were just a few of the many emotions coursing through her as she partook in the project.
“I felt fear because all I could think of was, ‘What if this was real? What if I never get to see my friends and family again? What if that accident had been real, and I would have never seen my classmates walk across the graduation stage?’”
The feeling of loss, Chavez said, was something she experienced as she watched Davenport and Patterson being removed from the vehicle by first responders.
“That made me feel utterly alone,” Chavez said.
As the project drew to its conclusion, Chavez experienced a feeling she described as “a huge weight lifted off my chest.
“I was relieved and grateful that it was not real; everyone was okay,” she said. “I was grateful that we had been given the opportunity to show people the effects of distracted driving.”
In the midst of filming, Chavez said, she found herself breaking down and crying.
“It hadn’t been planned, but seeing everything happen in real time – the emotions just came rising to the surface, and there was no stopping them,” she explained.
Chavez asked her peers to picture what would have happened if any of them had been involved in an accident like the one portrayed in the video.
“A family member, a friend – who would have been affected?” she asked. “Every decision we make has an effect. What will your decision be?”
During his turn with the microphone, Cox revealed that he had originally not planned to make a speech during the assembly.
“I didn’t plan on talking until I heard some students in the hallway today near our ceremony, asking things like, ‘Why are we doing this? What’s the point of this?’” Cox said.
The content of the assembly, however, is one Cox feels was very worthwhile.
“The truth is, this might not apply to all of you. This might not ever happen to you,” he said. “But I assure you, if you look around, a few of your friends will be in this situation.”
Cox spoke of his own past experiences with friends driving under the influence.
“I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been drinking and I’ve been with friends,” he said. “I’ve watched friends drink and leave. I’ve had an opportunity to take their keys and stop them. I’ve had the opportunity to call somebody else. I’ve had the opportunity to drive for them, being completely sober, and I didn’t.”
The experience of pretending to lose the group Cox called his “best friends” was one he described as “nothing flattering.
“It was fake,” he reiterated. “It was not fun. There’s nothing fun about being a parent who writes an obituary for their child passing away. There’s nothing fun about pretending to lose a loved one.”
As Cox pointed out, true accidents caused by drunk driving occur on a daily basis.
“We’re trying to make sure y’all are aware and y’all are ready, because it will happen to some of you,” he said. “And it will happen in your life.”
Participating in Teens in the Driver Seat and the Shattered Dreams program, Patterson said, is an opportunity she is “very grateful” for – as well as an experience she expected would come easily.
“I knew it would be sad, of course, but I also knew that it wasn’t real,” she said. “However, after I finished filming, I was very nauseated and very worked up. I never once had to act – instead, I was reacting to everything that was going on around me.”
Patterson explained that throughout filming, she reassured herself continuously that none of what she was experiencing was real.
“But afterward, I realized that this is real,” she said. “Maybe not to us at the moment, but it is very, very real, and it happens every day.”
Filming and sharing the Shattered Dreams video, Patterson said, “was not about condemnation or judgment.
“This was to promote the value of life,” she explained. “We, as young people, tend to think of ourselves as invincible. We sometimes forget how fragile life truly is; how easily we can take for granted that one poor decision that could affect not just our lives, but the lives of everyone around us.”
As Fowler pointed out, the truth often possesses a tendency to be inconvenient and sad.
“I hope that we touched at least one person with this program,” he said. “Because if we touched at least one person, that made a difference to me.”
As the students left the auditorium, they were asked to make their way across the stage, where a casket stood holding a broken mirror – providing a sobering reminder that drunk driving is a beast with the potential to affect the lives of anyone at any time.
Sarah Naron may be reached via email at email@example.com.