"Are you buckled up?" Death of a classmate changes life behind the wheel in River Falls
Inside an eerily quiet River Falls High School auditorium this fall, a guest speaker addresses the student assembly about her daughter’s death in a car accident.
She asks how many students in the crowd fail to wear their seatbelts when they enter a vehicle.
No one raises a hand.
To most people, May 18th may seem like any other day on the calendar. To the student body in River Falls, it’s a day that marks the death of a classmate and friend. A freshman girl with the whole world ahead of her.
Sara was a shortstop for our school’s softball team, an easy-going blonde from Michigan who was never without her phone, loved to wear yoga pants and had a super sarcastic sense of humor.
She was always known for being a klutz.
Last year, Sara and I had a pottery class together. One day, I was working on a piece of clay when Sara tried to dramatically slide onto her stool. Instead, she fell off and landed in some clay on the floor.
Of course, for the rest of the day she had clay dust all over her pants.
Sara and I were also altos in choir. We spent the Friday of her car accident practicing, and to be honest, making fun of our ridiculously cheesy “High School Musical” songs for an annual concert. The last words I said to her were, “See you at the concert tonight.”
She never made it.
Sara was one of three classmates in a truck that rolled over in the River Falls countryside only a few miles from my house.
Traveling on the aptly nicknamed Rollercoaster Road, the truck hit gravel on the shoulder, and swerved to avoid an oncoming car. The driver, Tanner, then swerved into the ditch, where the vehicle overturned. No one had seatbelts on.
Whispering. That’s what I’ll remember most about the night we found out.
We were warming up in the choir room, unenthusiastically going through the songs and choreography. That’s when classmates began whispering to each other about a car accident and how they heard girls in our grade were possibly involved.
No one knew what happened for sure, or if anyone was even hurt. But Sara’s absence, coupled with the whispers, were enough to cause panic. Some students assembled in a circle to pray. Others simply sat, attached to their phones waiting for any information.
While seated in a back row of the auditorium waiting for our turn onstage, I looked in amazement at everyone next to me, phones pulled out and texting for updates. I desperately tried to read facial reactions.
As students started to learn more, my friend Michelle texted Tanner about his whereabouts. He was fine. So was the other passenger.
Then she texted him, “What about Sara?”
Ten minutes passed without a reply.
At that moment, I knew what happened. I just denied its plausibility.
I can remember every detail about that night.
I remember watching at one end of the room as a group of my friends confronted a senior girl who had been told what happened. I remember hearing more whispers, then like a flash, one by one students started to pour out of the room crying. I remember confronting that same senior girl, pleading to know the truth.
Her cold reply: “People are running out of the room crying. You obviously know what happened.”
It wasn’t until my friend Brittany came running in that I officially knew. I didn’t even have to ask before she choked out, “It’s Sara. It’s Sara.”
More than a summer removed from the accident, it’s still difficult to think about, let alone put emotions on paper. Knowing that someone I saw every day, who I talked to in the halls, would never be around is impossible for a 15-year-old to understand. I think back to being surrounded by classmates and friends, all crying and praying in the band room after we were told Sara had died. It’s indescribable.
Teenagers are supposed to stress out over basketball practice and test scores, pass the time chatting about favorite TV shows, potential crushes and summer vacation schedules. While emptying out Sara’s locker, we glanced at her day planner. The pages were filled with notes about the last day of school, the start of summer, a concert with her best friend, all with Sara’s exclamation points.
She figured tomorrow was guaranteed. We thought so, too.
Everything changed in River Falls that day.
Now, most students in my school don’t think twice about wearing seatbelts.
“Are you buckled up?” “Are you buckled up?” Whenever I step into a car with my friends, it’s the first thing I hear. We repeat it to everyone in our school.
Even a friend of mine who didn’t know Sara keeps pink and yellow fabric — Sara’s favorite colors — hung from her front mirror as a reminder to stay safe while in the car.
But it’s not a silver lining. Sara shouldn’t have had to die to teach us to take the few extra seconds to click a buckle.
Being teenagers, we think we’re invincible. That when we’re driving around with friends, it’s more about packing the car with bodies and having a good time.
Before the accident, I often neglected to wear a seatbelt. But Sara’s death taught me a valuable lesson.
She wasn’t invincible. Neither am I.