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Every 15 Minutes; Reality check
RUMFORD- A lone casket in the middle of the lighted stage, the dark auditorium filled with classmates, family, friends, emergency response personnel and many local dignitaries. They were all there in support of the students, who, over the last 24 hours, had been witness to a pretty severe reality check.
During the prior day, one of their own “died” in a tragic mock car crash, one became seriously injured, another slightly injured, with an 18-year-old driver being arrested for operating under the influence.
The dramatization was staged in the student parking lot in the rain, with most of the students, as well as staff and parents, seated in bleachers under the blue tarps.
Law enforcement officers from Rumford, Mexico, Maine State Police and the Oxford County Sheriff's Office, along with the hearse from a local funeral home, two Med-Care ambulances and firetrucks from Rumford and Mexico converged on the accident scene.
Several students, throughout the day, found themselves being tapped by the grim reaper as one of the “living dead,” taken from their classrooms and sequestered overnight away from their family and friends to really drive home the reality of the exercise.
Counselors were on hand to talk with students who had a difficult time with either the accident or the “living dead” students who were taken from class. Several members of the clergy took turns escorting Mexico or Rumford police officers to the homes of students who were “killed.”
“It is every parent’s worst nightmare to be told that your child has been killed in a car accident,” noted Debbie Gauvin, mom of Kyle, who was tapped as one of the “walking dead.”
Even though Debbie knew it was a possibility that Kyle would be one of those chosen, she was not prepared for the raw emotion that came forth when she was notified.
“My heart broke and I started crying,” shared Debbie. “I honestly thought I was prepared for the news and how things would play out, but I wasn’t. Hearing that your child is dead is the worst feeling in the world. So many thoughts go through your mind.”
Debbie was at work when she received the dreaded visit by a police officer and a pastor.
“When the police officer and pastor showed up they were very professional and serious. It made me realize that this really can happen to us, to our family. Maybe it was my maternal instincts that took over, or maybe it was because I knew my friend Michele had been through this and how terrible it has been for her and her family, but my emotion came through. I cried at the thought of what was happening.”
Debbie, like all the other parents on that day, had to face the fact of not seeing their child until the next morning after being given the tragic news by professionals. “I couldn’t stop the thoughts,” shared Debbie. “I will never see his wonderful smile or hear his laugh again. I will never get to hug him or tell him I love him. Did he know that I loved him and how proud of the young man he had become? How will I live without him?”
Debbie struggled with her thoughts throughout the day. She didn’t eat much. She tried to keep her mind occupied so she wouldn’t think about the possibility of really losing one of her children.
“Anytime I did let my thoughts go there, I would start crying again. I felt a lot of pain for Michele, Bobby, Stephanie and their families. My nightmare would be over the next morning, but they have to live with theirs for the rest of their lives.”
Back at the school during that day, students looked on as every 15 minutes the grim reaper and a police officer entered their classrooms and took one of their own.
Cassandra Dyke, a senior, shared through tears, “We didn’t know anything about what was happening. It was a huge shock to have the grim reaper coming in and taking your friend and hearing Sgt. Higley reading their obituary. Then he told us we were invited to our friend's “funeral” the next day. We knew nothing about where they were being taken, when we would see them again, nothing. I can tell you, I’ve never been so excited to see my friends in all my life.”
After the students were taken from their classrooms and had their faces painted up to look lifeless, they were asked to set their gravestone and at the end of the day they traveled to Wilton for the learning retreat. While there, they were asked to write a letter to their family.
Kyle Gauvin read his letter on Wednesday morning through tears, “In the end of this selfish act and error in my judgment (of drinking and texting while driving), I took my life away from friends, family and most importantly, you two. I never quite fully grasped the concept of ‘love’ until now.”
During the Wednesday morning assembly, Michele Cushman and Earl Lowe were guest speakers. Cushman fought back tears as she relived the last conversation with her daughter Rebecca and the hours before she was killed in a tragic car crash involving alcohol. Lowe shared what it’s like to be the parent of the driver of the vehicle in which two teens were killed this past winter in West Paris.
There wasn’t a heart string that wasn’t tugged on that morning. There was not a dry eye in the auditorium.
Debbie noted of her friend, Michele Cushman, “I admire Michele for her courage and bravery to get up and talk about her ordeal. I don’t know if I could do that. She and Mr. Lowe are inspirational people.”
A lesson learned throughout the two-day exercise by more than one parent, by more than one student, is that this is not just a message for teenage drivers.
Debbie noted, “There are plenty of adults who drink and text all while driving. If we don’t want our kids doing these things, then we, as adults need to set the example by practicing what we preach. I hope the kids realize the seriousness of the program and the message it was sending. Every child is valued and loved and it would be a tragedy to the entire community if we were to lose another one.”
Mountain Valley High School math teacher, Lisa Russell and Sgt. Tracy Higley of the Rumford Police Department were co-coordinators of the event.