In the last few months, two local high school girls have walked away from parties and died, one in a marsh, the other in a hospital, a few hours after being found in a stream.
The first girl's death was sad and shocking, but far away. She was a cheerleader in a town I don't know, an exurbanish kind of town, maybe even rural, where teens party on golf courses after football games and wander away into marshes (stifle the memory of partying on golf courses).
But the second girl went to a private school like the one I went to. It's the school where my sister-in-law went, and C's sister, where my friend R and her husband taught for years, a school I drive by, not often, but often enough. She was at a party in a town I don't go to, but a town I know. A party with no parents. A party where she wandered outside at 5 in the morning, wearing shorts and a jacket, in February. A party I went to, some 30 years ago, in a different town, sure, but with the same kids, the same absent parents, the same girl wandering outside at some point when she shouldn't have, only she came back.
It's luck, really, that helps most teenagers survive. Luckily, there's lots of luck, a lot more luck than not luck, keeping those wasted, partying, wandering teenagers alive. It kept me alive, for sure.
The media is being circumspect, because that's what the media has to do, in these cases. Glowing quotes about what a wonderful girl she was. Police talking to the other kids who were there. Nobody knows whether drugs or alcohol were involved.
Come on. We all know what happened, at least any of us who went to those parties, those of us who were lucky. She was tripping, and she wanted to see the full moon up close. She had a fight with her boyfriend and had to get out of the house. Some boy tried to rape her, and she really had to get out of the house. She drank half the bottle of vodka, and someone dared her. So out she went, in her shorts and jacket, and she realized she didn't know where she was, and she kept walking, and she tripped, and there was the stream, and she couldn't get up.
The question is: how do we keep our teenagers on the right side of lucky?
The answer is: I have no idea.
You can say we tell them not to drink and not to do drugs, to Just Say No and practice all kinds of abstinence. And, if you want, you can do that, but I can't, because I don't believe in it, and I don't think it will work.
You can tell them to call if they need you, whatever the reason, and you won't ask questions, you'll just come and get them. You can try to make sure there are parents around (though at our parties parents were never around). You can call them and text them and keep your phone right next to your bed. Sometimes you tell them the stories of girls who wandered away and died, and you hope they listen, though you wouldn't have listened, because you knew you were lucky.
Mostly, though, you send out the most powerful force fields of hope and luck that you can, and you hope they land on your children, and all the other children out there, to protect them as they stumble.