Professional Writing and Editing

Non-Fiction

Ghostwriting a book about teenage drinking and risky behavior:

You could have heard a pin drop. What would normally be a happy celebration was somber. There was a sense of uncertainty and apprehension in the air as the gym filled to capacity on that June afternoon.  It was graduation day for the seniors at Herscher High School. Over 120 students were lining up for the procession, and the only occasional sound was a whisper.

             It was evident that this was going to be an unusual ceremony.  The seats were lined up on the stage, but there was a separate row in the very front which was set apart from the rest.  The audience knew what those chairs were for and what they represented, but no one knew how those chairs would be recognized. The principal didn’t even know. 

             The band began playing Pomp and Circumstance, and the students filed into the gym in pairs, taking their assigned seats.  When they were done, the ten chairs in the front row were empty.  The students knew this day might come because the principal told them the statistics on the first day of their freshman year. “Look around. At least one of you will be gone on graduation day.”

             He didn’t mean absent.  He wasn’t referring to drop outs.  He was referring to gone, as in no longer with us, not living, dead. Herscher, a medium-sized school in a very small community very much like Mayberry RFD from the Andy Griffith Show, was a tight-knit school.  It was located on Main Street, a typical small town street which housed turn of the century two story homes and a handful of small businesses. Everybody knew everybody. Many of the students had known each other for 12 years.  They came together from three grade schools, one larger than the other two smaller rural schools, which had much smaller class sizes. 

             But what made Herscher and this particular graduating class so very close was the fact that they had been through a lot in four years. Sure, they had football, homecoming dances and proms, but they also had something that gained national attention on the nightly news. They had a very high number of student deaths.  The ten empty chairs on that sunny June day represented the ten students who started high school with the class of 2003, but who ended up being a statistic.  None of them died from natural causes. They were gone.  But, they weren’t forgotten.

            This particular class knew more about death than many of their parents did. Newspaper reporters had roamed their halls, flashing pictures of students clinging to each other in grief around a locker covered with cards, notes, and flowers. They’d experienced the heartache and emptiness it brought into their lives and school.  Their school wasn’t small in size, but the halls were too small for the pain they held.  

             They knew the drill. When a classmate died, they went to their lockers in total silence, put their books away, and went straight to the gym—the same gym they filed into on graduation day. It was the same gym where they memorized the 12 steps of grief and could recite them by their junior year just as well as they could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They were expert mourners, trained by grief counselors how to handle the grief and emotions which became increasingly more familiar every year. Their gym became a church in a time of grief, regardless of any regulation which disallowed God’s message in schools. Rather than pushing it away, it was God who they embraced and clung to as they came to terms with their losses.

             A snowmobile accident killed one young boy.  Some were victims of automobile accidents. Two very popular girls were killed riding home from school when they were ejected from the vehicle when it lost control on loose gravel.  Two other students in that car were injured—one with relatively minor injuries, and another with a broken neck.  One boy committed suicide. In all, the school had lost well over a dozen students in six years, and it’s a pattern that has continued to claim the lives of approximately one student every year from their school.

             After the initial greetings and before the valedictorian spoke or the diplomas were presented, the principal made the announcement everyone was waiting for. He talked about how the students in this particular class had asked permission to hold a different type of graduating ceremony. They knew that some of their classmates were gone, but they wanted to include them on graduation day.  He didn’t know what was planned, but he gave them permission to include their former classmates however they wanted. The audience held their breath in anticipation. What had these kids come up with?  How were they going to honor their fallen peers?  

             As the graduating students removed their caps, a girl came forward and stood in front of the empty chairs.  The music began, and her beautiful voice strongly sang her class’ tribute to the audience, which included the parents of those who were gone.  She sang of a whisper in the wind, lightly brushing her sleeve, a song delivered to share her feeling and that of every classmate—she said there’s an angel watching over me.

             There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  The people in the bleachers felt the tingle, and the room was emotionally charged. When the song finished, the seniors rose in unison and gave a rousing standing ovation, not just for the song, but more for the deceased classmates. They knew this day was about them and their graduation, but to them, it was very much about the past, not just the future. These students would always be a part of them, on graduation day and throughout their lives.  The loss of one friend can change the lives of a hundred.  The loss of several friends changed the lives of an entire school body.

             To this day, the students and family members of that class remember that day.  They remember the days they got the news that they’d lost another child.  They remember the tribute, and it still brings tears to their eyes, just like it did back then. 

             A memorial garden now exists on school grounds to honor the students who never got to go to their prom, attend graduation, go to college, get married, or get a job.  They no longer walk the halls or walk through their front doors.  They exist only in the memories and hearts of those who knew and loved them. How much different and better would their graduation have been if those students had not been lost, and had been there to fill those ten empty seats and go on to a full life with their classmates and their families?

             It makes me wonder what can be done to prevent the loss of these very young lives. It makes me want to do something to save you from the immense heartache that these students must have endured. Students attending wakes and funerals for their classmates should be a rarity, not a routine. But for these students at Herscher, it certainly happened much more often than it should have.  One time is too many.

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