The only kid I knew in high school who died was named Ned. He died of leukemia. And this was actually at the end of 8th grade, before the girls came in 9th grade to join our all-boys class, and before we knew much about leukemia or really much about cancer itself. We were upper east side privileged kids going to an upper west side privileged school and, besides, we didn’t like Ned. He had fair skin, curly brown hair, and didn’t do sports. He wore glasses. He had transferred into Trinity in 7th grade. Died two years later. By 10th grade, he’d been forgotten.
Not until college did I meet anyone who knew someone who died in high school from a car crash. It was my roommate’s girlfriend. Her boyfriend in high school died. She seemed older because of that experience. They were all from Greensboro, North Carolina. Only my high school classmate Bill owned a car, though word was that my other classmate Ben also had his license before the rest of us. That was it. Two people who drove regularly. The rest of us took drivers’ ed in 10th grade so we could get our license at 17, a year earlier than the NY State law of 18. My student driving partner was a girl named Lisbet. Our teacher was a man who described his profession of drivers’ ed as “a vocation, an avocation, a passion,…” and about three more appositives that told us in no uncertain terms that he was oddly and somewhat disturbingly committed to teaching kids to drive.
Yet, he taught us things that have stayed with me. “Brake, mirror,” I still hear silently in my mind as I touch the brakes and look in the rearview mirror to make sure the driver behind me doesn’t smash into my tail. Using my signals is “communication.” And I can’t swing a cat without hitting a tight-lipped driver here in Kerrville. I still remember his formula to perform the perfect parallel parking job, better than any use of a modern review-view cam. (Though, I must admit that those cameras are great when backing up at night or anytime in H-E-B’s parking lot.)
That was foreign to me. Not just driving deaths. Any deaths. My friend Danny died when I was 18, in the Central Park reservoir. And then my grandfather died after a suicide attempt when I was 20. Outside of those two meaningful people, I didn’t encounter death much. I remember reading my great-great-grandfather’s diaries from 1855. He wrote, “We buried little sister today.” “Little sister” was apparently either an infant who’d died before being named, or was older but he chose to refer to her in this way, which could have been either endearing or distancing. Either way, death was always present in those days. He later fought in the Civil War. He drew sketches of encampments.
I’ve seen these road-side crosses, often with flowers, along Main Street near Whataburger, Bandera Highway (shown in this photo here), Thompson Drive, and around town too frequent to count. My guess is that a number of the accidents they commemorate involved teens.
“We buried little sister today.”