Tragedy strikes home

Posted: Jun 19, 2007 6:58 PM

It was not the kind of high school graduation story that parents want to read about.

On the front page of Saturday's Washington Post was the story of four bright, beautiful young girls who died in a horrific accident hours after two of them had graduated from West Potomac High School in Fairfax, County, Virginia. Driving on the Capital Beltway, their car veered into the path of a tractor-trailer rig. Their white Volkswagen Cabriolet convertible was demolished. Alcohol was found in the car, but police have not yet revealed whether it had anything to do with the crash. The driver of the tractor-trailer, whom police say was not at fault, is devastated, as are the families of those four bright, beautiful girls, their classmates, and their friends.

This tragic story sent a chill down my spine because my own 18-year-old-son, Travis, just graduated from a high school not far from the one the dead girls attended--and he, too, was in a car wreck shortly after graduation. Driving in pouring rain to a graduation party, he rounded a curve, lost control of the car, almost hit another car head on, careened off the road, narrowly missed hitting a telephone pole, bounced through a thicket of bushes and ended up at the bottom of a ravine. The driver he almost hit, seeing him swerve off the road and disappear, called 911. The responding fire truck, police cars and EMT vehicles shot past our house, but we naturally had no idea they had anything to do with our son.

Miraculously, Travis was not injured (other than biting down hard on his tongue), and the driver he almost hit told police that Travis had not been speeding. Nor had he been drinking anything stronger than cranberry juice. It was a combination of wet roads and not-great tires and a bad curve. In fact, the police saw so many other drivers almost do exactly what Travis did that they posted a police car at the beginning of the curve to slow people down.

The accident did almost $6,000 damage to our car. But unlike the four girls in the white convertible, our son survived graduation weekend. We, his parents, are suffering merely the inconvenience of having to drive a rental car for a few weeks.

But I can’t get those four beautiful young girls out of my mind. Were they drinking? Or did the accident happen because they hadn't had enough experience driving on the Beltway? Perhaps the driver was not paying enough attention to what she was doing. Or was it a combination of these factors?

The Post seems to favor the alcohol argument. "Students at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County have heard, repeatedly, about the dangers of alcohol," the reporters began their story.

All of the girls were underage, which means they should not have been drinking at all. So why did they have alcohol in the car? Did their parents knew they had it, or planned to be consuming it sometime during the evening? Did "friends" buy the booze for them?

Some parents have given up on the whole abstaining-from-alcohol thing and serve it to their kids in their own home, reasoning that if they're going to get drunk, better for them to do it at home than drink elsewhere, and then get behind a wheel.

While I disagree with this reasoning, I can certainly understand the impulse. I understand the desperate fear parents have for their kids when it comes to graduation parties and proms and post-football parties that will almost certainly feature alcohol.

Thinking about these issues a year ago, when Travis attended his junior year prom, I wrote that my husband and I understood early on that a war would be waged for the hearts and minds and values of our two precious sons—and that we would have to kick the increasingly corrupt culture in the backside every single day. With that in mind, we helped create for them a community of shared values, led by parents and teachers, intended for the good of our children. In our case, it meant sending our kids to a private Christian school. Attending this school meant that we could let the boys go off to proms and graduation parties and they would not feel like freaks for not drinking--because none of their friends were drinking, either. In their community, it simply wasn't cool to get drunk. To a teenager, what one’s friends and peers think about drinking counts for more than anything else—more than what parents teach, more than what well-meaning teachers preach.

Our son's graduation weekend accident reminds us that we cannot protect our kids from every danger out there. So we continue to pray for their safety—and for their wisdom when facing difficult choices. We think--we hope--we have lessoned some of those dangers by the cultural community we put them in when they were small, and kept them in until they graduated.

We also pray that God will meet the needs of the families of those four bright, beautiful girls who died on graduation night. Their lives will never be the same.