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How Writing a Book Helped Me Stand Up to My Bullies

I have always loved to write. As a child, I always seemed to use my computer time typing up stories, each one growing longer and more elaborate than the next.

By the time I was 13, I’d written five actual books. I still have copies of each one. My fifth was a novel called It All Started With Five Horses, which I finished when I was 12. It’s a story about five horses that escape a cruel master and find a wild horse herd, the leader of which is searching for his long-lost daughter. The recurring theme of the book is never giving up. The main character, after all, is a paint mare named Faith.

On my 13th birthday, my mom and then-stepdad presented to me three large boxes, all wrapped together as one. When I unwrapped the paper and opened the box on top, I discovered a hundred paperback copies of my book.

And eleven years ago today, our local newspaper released an article about my book and me. In honor of its anniversary, I wanted to take the time to tell the story of my book’s creation.

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It All Started With Five Horses will forever have a special place in my heart. Not necessarily because it was my first one to be printed, not even necessarily because of the story itself, but because of the circumstances I was in when I was writing it.

To give some necessary backstory to this post, when I was 12, my family and I moved from Cave Creek, Arizona (where I’d lived most of my life up until then) to Discovery Bay, California. After a year, we moved an hour away to Danville, and just under a year after that we moved a short drive away to San Ramon. Then, a few months before I turned 15, we moved to Bradenton, Florida, which began the absolute worst part of my life.

Someday I will have the courage to revisit those years. They are still surprisingly painful to think about. And nevertheless, those stories are for other times.

Within those three years or so, however, there were gems: Wonderful experiences lived, amazing friends found, and many a battle overcame. The story behind my book It All Started With Five Horses is one of those gems that I will always treasure.

My then-stepdad, my mom, my baby sister who entered our lives halfway through our time there, my little brother and I lived in Discovery Bay, California for a year, from February 2004 to February 2005. In our home, we referred to it as Disgusting Bay.

To us, it was truly an awful town. We were fortunate enough to live in a gated community in a nice area, we would venture outside of it to Byron which contained rundown buildings, graffiti, gross homes with, well, interesting people living in them, and lots of vast cropland. Each day always seemed to bring an ugly gray sky.

And my new school that I joined more than halfway through the year was absolutely horrible.

In Arizona, many of the elementary schools are K-6th grade. In California, they only run through 5th grade. Because we moved hallway through my year in 6th grade, in February 2004, I became a middle schooler literally over the weekend.

On that cold day in February 2004, I walked into that middle school knowing no one. I was a foot taller than everyone in my classes, including the boys, skinny and scrawny as a beanpole, wearing my tomboy elementary school clothes and topped off with thick glasses, acne, bushy eyebrows, and my adult teeth still struggling to grow in (to this day I still have too-small incisors).

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Rocking that look at 13.

For the pretty middle school girls, products of their environments with their cute clothes, makeup, perfect hair, and high interest in boys, I was a walking target.

Many faces, names, and details have been lost to me over the years. For the sake of telling this story, they’re not important. All that needs to be explained is that the majority of those girls in that school were clever and sought not to necessarily make fun of me right from the start, but to befriend me first as to make the bullying – when it eventually came – much more painful and bewildering.

I truly believe that some of those girls had good intentions. They seemed nice enough. I’m sure they caved into peer pressure along the way, as is so easy to do in middle school. They wanted to give me a chance, give me a place at their lunch tables, and please their teachers who asked them nicely to show the new girl around.

But most of the girls didn’t. And the meanest of them – a tight-knit group of five girls – somehow became my closest friends.

For several weeks we hung out at school and at each other’s houses. They met my mom and adored her. The six of us swapped stories and secrets and exchanged numbers and went to birthday and slumber parties together as a big group. Even though I missed my friends in Arizona, I was happy. I had middle school friends, and the one with whom I seemed especially close was the group’s leader. I won’t repeat her name here but I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I’ll call her Regina, after Regina George from Mean Girls.

Then one night at a sleepover party in April (I think), somehow everything changed. Four of the five girls (one pretended to sleep so she wouldn’t have to participate) spent the entire night twisting my words, screaming and shouting at me, and accusing me of things I’d never did or said. My confusion only mounted throughout the night as I tried to defend myself, tried to figure out what I’d done or why they were so angry. Regina fueled everything, cutting across my stutters of apology and explanation with harsh accusations. Her sheep friends followed suit for hours.

Finally at 2am I called my mom and begged her to rescue me. Turns out – with her instinct – she’d been up and waiting for that phone call. She came and got me without question. I cried in her arms the rest of the night.

The next Monday, Regina and her friends spread rumors about me throughout the entire school. They were popular, so their words were final. And when everyone ran out of rumors, the bullying started.

I can’t even remember a lot of what was all said and done. Stupid middle school things. “I heard Alexis called so-and-so a fruitcake.” [The go-to insult in that school was ‘fruitcake’ for some reason.] “The ugly new girl said the dumbest thing in class today.” “Should someone get her a jacket? The weather has to be colder up there where she is.”

I’d hear the comments in the hallways, at my locker, in class behind the teachers’ backs, and – eventually – to my face. Sometimes it was just one girl – usually someone close to Regina or Regina herself – coming up to me for a showdown. Other times one of the older 7th or 8th grade girls sitting with a large group of people would call out to me and sweetly ask me to join them. Good old public humiliation was guaranteed if I got one of those calls. It usually resulted in me either running to the bathroom to cry, gulping back tears as I rushed to my next class, or trying to find a spot to eat my lunch on campus where no one could find me.

What hurt the most was that I’d been friends with Regina’s group – and on relatively good terms with the rest of my classmates – for some time. And because I’d been friends with them, each of them knew that it was my dearest ambition to become an author. I’d told them about my story that I was writing. It was about horses, I’d told them excitedly. It’s really long now. Maybe someday I can mail it to New York and get it published.

To give you, reader, some understanding, in that school, among the crowd of girls I had fallen into, it was almost a requirement for the girls to want to be models or actresses or something equally glamorous and flashy. For me to want to be an author was unheard of, at least to that group of girls. And once they’d turned on me, that become one other thing for them to laugh about, Regina in particular.

Oh, the comments that came. “It’s a good thing she wants to be an author, because she’s too ugly to be a model.” “Of course she wants to write, she’s nerdy enough for it!” “Like she’ll get published. Yeah right!”

Honestly, the exact words that were said over and over have left me. But I know what each of those girls in that middle school meant to do. My mom would explain it to me every morning in the car on the way to school. “Those girls,” she would say, “don’t have any kindness to give away. They feel badly about themselves. And they make fun of you and pick on you because you let them take away your power.”

I tried to figure out what she meant when she told me to not let them take away my power. Every time I saw Regina, my stomach turned over and all my happiness left my body. For weeks – months – that was something I couldn’t control.

Lest you all think Poor Alexis! it has to be mentioned that I had one friend through all of this who was oblivious to the rumors and bullying and a bit of a bullied outcast herself: Alysha. She and I are friends to this day. Towards the end of the year, we began a tentative friendship that blossomed during that summer of 2004. Alysha, if you’re reading this, you cannot possibly know what your friendship meant to me during that time.

That summer saved me. I didn’t have to go to school where I was bullied. Alysha and I hung out all the time. That summer, my sister Riley was born. We traveled to Arizona for the birth (insurance issues) and I got to see my dad, my older two siblings, and my friends. And sometime towards the beginning of that summer, I finished my book, It All Started With Five Horses.

I nearly gave up on it. During the school year, after my homework was done for the day and I’d sit down at the computer, it was too painful to open. Sometimes when I looked at it I would remember all the nasty bullying that day and want to delete it all.

Somehow, I kept writing.

I think a combination of things kept me going: My friends and family in Arizona, my new friend Alysha… even the characters in my story were encouraging to me, especially the main character Faith. When I was writing, I could escape. I could be as strong and as fearless as my characters, who didn’t get tongue-tied when trying to confront their bullies.

But I truly think my mom was the one who inspired me to keep writing. Every day she had words for advice for me. Every day she lifted me up after each of those girls had ripped me apart and torn me down. Without her I would have never finished my book. On the day I finished the book entirely, she asked me to email her the final copy so she could read it. I did so happily.

I thought all she would ever do was read it.

When school started up again towards the end of August, I wasn’t as much of a target. I was still there for the bullying, but the girls – wise old 7th graders now, with fresh 6th graders to play with – mostly looked elsewhere for entertainment. I settled into a routine, found some new friends with Alysha, and the terrified fist that would grasp my stomach whenever I’d see Regina or any of her group started to lessen day by day.

I turned 13 at the end of September. And on my birthday, a Friday, I came home from school to find a huge box wrapped up in front of the fireplace. And there in those boxes were 100 copies of my book. I cried when I saw them. Not only was it my dream brought to life, it seemed to be a validation of everything I’d gone through over the past months. Somehow, my struggle to keep on writing had all been worth it.

The following Monday, I brought one of the copies of my book to school with me. The first class of the day was homeroom, and as it happened, Regina sat right next to me.

We sat at a table, so across from us were two guys who fell into the popular crowd, thus Regina was close with them. As we all sat at our table waiting for the bell to ring to begin the day, the three of them sat chatting, or rather Regina sat complaining about something or other while the two guys playfully poked fun at her.

I was so oblivious to them. I was oblivious to everything. I was staring at my book on my desk. I kept flipping through the pages then closing them to see my name on the cover. I loved the picture my mom had chosen for the cover, of the five horse silhouettes at sunset. I loved that my book looked like a real book. At that moment, I loved everything.

“…because life is complete shit.” Regina’s words cut through my daydreaming.

Without thinking, I interjected quietly and happily. “Life is perfect.”

All three of my peers looked at me like I’d just grown another head. “Why?” spat Regina. “What makes you say something like that?”

“This,” I said sweetly, and I pushed my book towards her.

The two guys looked at the book and started chortling. Regina herself snorted as she grabbed it and pulled it across the table so she could see. “Wow….oh-KAY,” she said, faking a sarcastic, awe-struck expression as she looked at it. “A book. What’s so great about that?”

I smiled, a true, honest-to-God happy smile. I don’t think I’d smiled in her presence since before that night she and her friends ganged up on me. Out of habit, nervous butterflies still danced inside me, but I remember realizing in that moment that it was all over. “Regina,” I said quietly. “Look at the author.”

She did.

It’s been eleven years and I can still remember the look of horrified astonishment on her face.

One of the two guys at our table grabbed the book and looked at it. “You wrote this?” he yelled, loud enough for half the class to hear. He and our other classmate started exclaiming. They pulled my teacher over to our table and thrust it in her hands.

My teacher stared at my book for a solid minute, during which the bell rang and everyone settled down in their seats. After everyone started to looked questioningly at her to see why she wasn’t speaking yet, my teacher looked down at me and said in wonder, “Alexis. Explain this to me.”

I did. All my classmates – several of whom had spent the months before bullying me to tears – listened with rapt attention. Meanwhile, Regina sat in stony, angry silence. After I’d finished saying that the books were a present for my birthday after I’d worked on writing the book for nine months, my teacher opened it and said, “May I read some of this aloud to the class?”

Stunned, I squeaked out a happy, “Sure!” She read not a paragraph, but the first few pages. Everyone listened in silence. I couldn’t look at anyone. I looked down at my desk, hot all over, too happy to say a word.

The rest of the day, there were new rumors floating around the school. And at lunchtime, two of Regina’s group came up to me, Alysha, and a few other girls I had surrounded myself with since the beginning of the school year.

I don’t remember the entire conversation, but I do remember the beginning and the end of it. The two girls demanded to see my book. I gave it to them. As they looked at the cover, the rest of Regina’s group – along with every other girl in our grade who had told me I was stupid for wanting to be an author months before – looked over at them, waiting for a sign of confirmation.

“So,” one of the girls finally told me after giving me my book back, “why aren’t you sitting with us?”

It took all my courage to answer them. Swallowing with nerves, I told them, “Because we’re not friends anymore.”

The girls put on their best hurt expressions. “That’s a really rude thing to say,” one of them told me. “I thought we were friends.”

We hadn’t been for some time, but that wasn’t the point. They’d seen my name on the cover of my book. They needed to come at me with something.

“Well, we’re not,” I said, or something similar, and I stood up. I had always towered over all of Regina’s group and that time I was glad I did. I looked at them, waiting for some comeback. When none came, I turned to my new friends and said, “Come on, you guys.”

And my new friends followed me from the table so we could all eat lunch somewhere else.

The two members of Regina’s little gang went back to their table to the rest of the popular girls. When I looked over my shoulder briefly as we all walked away, I saw them all chatting viciously.

For the first time since I came to that middle school, not only was what everyone said behind my back the truth, it was something of which I was immensely, unspeakably proud.

And from that day on until the day in February 2005 when my family and I moved away from Discovery Bay and I started yet another new school, not one of those girls ever bullied me again.

~

“It All Started” with talent and generosity, by Juli Mijares, published in the Discovery Bay Press on November 19, 2004

Some kids have had their picture in the paper, others have had an essay or even a story printed. But one local girl has had a book printed and is selling copies to raise funds for an international charitable organization.

Alexis Roeckner, 13, has written “It all Started with Five Horses,” a 279-page novel for ages 10 to 15. The story revolves around five horses that are inspired by a falcon to escape a cruel master and meet up with a herd of wild horses searching for the dominant stallion’s daughter. 

But the falcon is not all he appears to be. His cruelty to one of the main characters, Faith, causes arguments to escalate among members of the herd. Questions arise such as can they find the stallion’s daughter? Will Faith be able to prove the falcon doesn’t have the herd’s best interests in mind? There are many adventures for the horses and a plot twist at the end. 

One of Alexis’ former teachers had been encouraging her parents to get Alexis published. “She said she’s never seen a writer like Alexis,” the writer’s mother Lisa Schelthoff recalled.

The book is the fifth the seventh grader has written, but the first to be published. [AUTHOR NOTE: The book was printed but never published.] It took her nine months to write. Her mom and stepdad, Steve, had 100 copies printed up by Iconix.biz and presented them to Alexis for her birthday in September.

Three boxes were wrapped, containing the books. Alexis said she started crying in disbelief when she saw them for the first time. 

“Hang on a second, is that mine?” Alexis said when she opened her present. “It was a dream come true.” 

So far, Alexis has sold about 50 of her books. A donation of $5 or more is requested to purchase a paperback signed by the young author.

Teacher Laurel Sarmento found the book to be a good read.

“It is very impressive,” she said via email. “Wow, what a kid!”

Fifty percent of the proceeds are donated to Heifer International, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ending world hunger and saving the earth.

By providing trees, livestock, training and other resources, Heifer International has helped millions of families in more than 125 countries around the world lift themselves out of poverty and into self-reliance since 1944.

Her family’s motto is “You make a living from what you get, you make a life from what you give.”

The organization was chosen because of its mission and that the people who are helped are given the opportunity to help themselves.

“What a small thing we could do, to make such a big difference,” Lisa said. “It is important to give back and make the world a better place.”

The other half will be used to help Alexis publish her next book, “The Neighborhood Pack,” a story about a pack of dogs that must save a small town in Minnesota from a pack of wolves, while trying to learn to cooperate with each other.

This aspiring author has been writing since she was five years old and says she loves to write. She likes that “anything can happen in a book. It’s all imagination.” Her inspiration is J.K. Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series. Alexis is also grateful to her family and friends for their support and encouragement.

“I wouldn’t be the author I am without them,” she said.  

To learn more about or purchase a copy of Alexis’ book, call 516-3525 and leave a message. For more information about Heifer International, log on to www.heifer.org 

Ode to My Horse Ring

Like all my stories that I post on this blog, I will try to weave in some sort of life lesson or message into this particular narrative. However, this story may be one of those tales that is told purely for the sake of being told.

When I was roughly fourteen, my mom bought for me a beautiful silver ring with a horse woven through it. Back then, I was struggling in my new school and trying to adapt to a new state, but the worst of what I would end up facing was yet to come, although I didn’t know it then. My mom gave the ring to me in the hopes that I would draw courage from it.

Strangely enough, I did.

I have always loved horses and have felt connected to them for my entire life. Certainly I feel this way because of my favorite movie, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (if you’re bored, read more about its influence on my life here), but also because horses represent so much to me: freedom, healing, and strength most of all. When I put the ring on for the first time, I was surprised to find that it fit perfectly on my left ring finger and only that finger. (I have extremely tiny fingers which is why this was a shock.) It couldn’t have been more perfect, however, because I decided that the ring would symbolize my “marriage” to horses and my commitment to everything they stood for. And whenever I looked at it, no matter what ordeal I was going through, I remembered that commitment and tried to find the inner strength I knew horses represented.

My horse ring (and Tigger!)

I never took that ring off. It was on my ring finger no matter where I went or what I did. Every picture I am in from fourteen onwards, every memory that I have starting from then… I am wearing that ring. I have worn it without fail for six or seven years. And the other day, on an act of impulse, I looked at my hand where my ring lay shining on my finger and I realized, with a start, that I didn’t need it anymore.

It’s strange how we come to these life conclusions so suddenly. It’s strange how we are so often looking the other way in search of a solution different than the one that raps smartly on our minds when we least expect it. In no time at all, I realized that the ring had, as of late, reminded me only of the nasty situations I was in when I would rely on it. I came to understand that the ring no longer served as a holder of strength and courage; those instincts had been inside of me all along.

I never realized how many times a day I would play with that ring or rub my fingers together to make sure it was still there until I took it off. But each time I automatically reach for my bare finger now, I remember something else I have learned: materialistic items are not nearly as important as what they stand for. I think the horses that I know and love at the ranch I volunteer at, the horses I am just as committed to without that ring, would agree: inner strength is not drawn from an object. It comes from within. And although my finger feels naked without it, I know I’ll get used to its absence in time. If there is anything I have come to understand these past few days, it is that my need for my ring has passed, and it is now time to move on.

As for the ring itself… Well, I am always in search of closure, so maybe I’ll bury it somewhere in the Sonoran Desert, my favorite place in the world. Maybe I’ll hang on to it and pass it down to another girl when she needs it. I haven’t decided just yet. The beauty is that I have all the time in the world to decide. After all, it is just an object. Everything it stands for is worth so much more.

Joe and McKenzie – A Story of Near Suicide and Friendship

After I wrote down Tyler’s story a few days ago, I decided to tell another tale of mine that also contains a powerful message, one I fear bears relevance to today.

This incident took place when I was in the 6th grade, a few months after my family had moved from Arizona to California. I was new to the school and hardly knew anyone outside the sixth graders I had classes with. Before I fell into the wrong crowd and became the victim of good old middle school bullying that would put me into contact with just about everybody in the school, I got to know my classmates on a decent level. There was Nicole, who never wore the same outfit twice and wore lots of makeup – a mystery to me back then. Then there was Chris, who always made everyone laugh, even our teachers. There were the guys who were afraid of girls and the girls who were indifferent to guys. There was the popular crowd, the loners, the kids who doodled on their notebooks and the people who made fun of them. Typical middle school.

And then, in the midst of all the different kinds of people and social infrastructures, there was Joe and McKenzie.

Joe and McKenzie were best friends. They talked to other people, certainly, for they were in the ring of popular kids, but more often than not they were together, quietly talking and sharing stories, sharing laughter. Joe always brought sunflower seeds to school – a huge trend back then – and before he shared them with everyone else it always seemed to me like he made sure McKenzie got the first handful. I didn’t pay too much attention to them, for I was caught up in the happenings of my own life then, but I saw them often enough to envy them, to know that their friendship was real.

One day, a month or so after I made my debut as the “new girl”, I was in the middle of my morning English class when our door burst open without warning and rushing in came another teacher, dragging McKenzie beside her. She and my teacher gave each other a look of sorts, then McKenzie quietly took a seat at the back of our classroom and the other teacher left. Without pausing in her teaching for a moment, with no change in her voice whatsoever, my teacher casually walked over to the door and locked it.

My classmates and I shot bemused looks at one another; some of the girls who knew McKenzie tried to get her attention. But she sat silently without making eye contact with any of us, and my teacher went on teaching despite the ten or eleven hands that had just been raised by my bolder classmates.

About five or ten minutes later, our principal came on over the loud speaker and ordered a lockdown. She was very calm and our teacher had already locked our door, so we automatically assumed it was a drill the teachers had known about beforehand. I thought no more about it that day, though looking back now I think I should have been able to put two and two together.

The next day we heard what had happened. I can’t remember who I heard the story from, exactly, and some parts of it are fuzzy in my memory. I know some information was sent home to parents in a letter. The gist of it, however, is nothing I will forget very soon.

Joe and McKenzie had been talking on the phone the night before McKenzie was hurried into our classroom. Joe – happy, smiling, always joking Joe – had told McKenzie he was going to kill himself the next day. He said he was going to come to school the next day with twenty dollars, a note, and a gun in his pocket, and he planned to run away from school midmorning at break. When the twenty dollars ran out, he said, then he would commit suicide.

I can imagine how McKenzie must have pleaded with him not to go through with it. We were all in the sixth grade, for God’s sake. Everybody in my grade was eleven or twelve. But Joe apparently was insistent, and he told McKenzie under no circumstances was she allowed to tell anyone. He had told her and no one else, I’m assuming, so he could say goodbye to his best friend.

McKenzie did the bravest thing anyone in her situation could have possibly done. The next morning, she went straight to the school counselor and told her everything. The councilor told the principal. The principal told all the staff and the teachers and made sure the local police were on standby. By the time Joe got to school that day, the entire administration knew that a student was bringing a gun to campus and that he intended to run away and kill himself.

I’m unsure of some of the details here; it’s been more than eight years since this happened. But one way or another, Joe got wind of the fact that McKenzie, instead of staying silent like he had asked, told on him at the cost of their friendship to save his life. Well, he got angry. Too angry, as any emotionally distraught kid wanting to commit suicide would be. While McKenzie was in class, he decided that before he ran away he was going to find her and kill her.

When that teacher had come running into our classroom with McKenzie at her side, Joe had been ready to burst into that classroom and shoot her and anybody else in his way. By rushing her to our classroom, whoever had figured out what Joe intended to do had protected McKenzie by making it impossible for Joe to find her.

Apparently when Joe got to the classroom where he would have found McKenzie and shot her, police officers were waiting for him. So he panicked and fled school grounds. And, as my parents were told, the officers followed him and gently convinced him to surrender the gun. Maybe he was desperate for someone to stop him, maybe he hadn’t intended to do it all along. Either way, Joe gave up his weapon, and the last thing I ever heard about him, all those years ago, was that he was being sent to get professional help.

Looking back over these events that happened when I was twelve, I don’t think I realized the significance of the bravery McKenzie had when she went against the wishes of her best friend to save his life. I don’t know if their friendship was ever rekindled. I hope it was. But McKenzie had been willing to surrender that friendship in order to do what was best for Joe…and that is something that is too inspiring to properly describe. And she was eleven or twelve at the time. At such a young age, she knew what she had to do and, despite the high cost, she went through and made sure it was done.

Lately in the news so many – too many – teens and young adults are committing suicide day after day. Every one of these can be prevented. I fear that the ones who need help the most are the ones who never speak, never give any warning beforehand. The ones who want to be saved might be the ones who tell their friends they’re going to do it.

If there is anyone who is reading this who has had suicidal thoughts, please, please listen carefully. I personally want you to know that the darkness you are in is only temporary, no matter how hopeless the future seems. Trust me, I was there once. Suicide seems like a safe option sometimes, an easy way out. Sometimes it is comforting to know that if things don’t get better, you have an escape plan.

What you need to know is that you are loved, you are special, and you have a lifetime ahead of you that will be better than the life you are living now. Please dial 1-800-SUICIDE now (1-800-784-2433) and talk to someone you can trust, someone who wants to hear what you need to say.

And to those of you reading this who know loved ones who have talked to you about committing suicide… be brave for them and help them. Be brave like McKenzie was for Joe. You have the ability to save a life simply by telling somebody what your friend or family member intends to do, and I know you have the courage to do it.

Tyler’s Story

The other day I was going through random piles of junk in my room when I found one of my old songbooks under my keyboard. Upon opening it, I revisited the stories behind so many lyrics I had written between the ages of twelve and seventeen. (I have not written any songs on my piano in several years, but I think if I really searched for it, the instinct might still be there.)

Anyway, as I was flipping through this notebook, I came across the lyrics of a number I had named, “Tyler’s Song”. And in a flash his story came back to me. It is one that I have carried with me for years and one I will not forget until my dying day. Above all, I think it is one worth sharing – if anything else, perhaps it will serve as a lesson to those who read this.

OOO

Just before I turned fifteen, my family and I moved from California to Bradenton, Florida, a little city on the west coast that is roughly ten miles north of Sarasota. I attended Lakewood Ranch High School. Maybe the awful experiences I had at that school (and in Florida in general) made what happened even worse in my mind, I don’t know. Either way, telling Tyler’s story always brings back feelings of deep, deep sadness and regret.

One November day when I was in my seventh period chorus class, an announcement came on over the intercom system telling all teachers to immediately turn their TVs to the school channel. (LRHS had its own news channel within the school that was run by students; that’s how we got our announcements in the mornings.) So my teacher flipped on the TV and we saw my principal sitting behind his desk, looking at the camera with a very serious look on his face. Immediately the mood in my class sank; we knew something was wrong.

Our principal began to speak. He told us how that morning, two students had left campus without permission: Tyler and Amanda, he said, were their names. Tyler, a sophomore, had been driving and Amanda, a junior, was in the passenger seat. To this day it is not exactly clear why they left campus before school ended.

Less than a mile down the road that led away from the high school, our principal went on, Tyler lost control of the car. He hit the median in the road and the car swerved to the right. It rolled over several times and crashed on the driver’s side on the side of the road.

Amanda had been wearing her seat belt, and walked away with no major injuries. Tyler had not… and he was killed on impact.

Our principal paused for a moment after saying these words, as though the weight of them had made him physically unable to speak. “I cannot stress how important it is that you kids always, always wear your seat belts,” he said, choking a bit as he spoke. The rest of his words were a blur. He went on to say something about how there would be grief councilors at school in the morning to speak to us, and said a few words I can’t recall about always remembering Tyler. Then he was done, and my teacher wordlessly reached and turned the off TV.

The memory of the stunned silence that followed the end of the broadcast has not left me to this day. I remember only murmuring an explanation to the girl next to me who didn’t speak English very well and was confused as to what had happened. Besides that, everything was silent. We were horrified. We’d heard about deaths from car accidents all the time. Certainly they happen in the news all the time. But the idea that this time, this time the one who had been killed was one of us, somebody our own age, taken from us not a mile from the school where we sat…it was so much. So much to take in.

I was in shock for at least a week. My mom wouldn’t let me go to school the day following the accident; she said the atmosphere of the school would have been too grief-stricken for me to handle. I objected but she insisted so much I got a feeling that maybe she just wanted to keep me close to her out of gratitude that she – unlike Tyler’s mom – was not a mourning parent. So I sat in my room with my textbooks instead, trying to read but thinking of nothing else but what had happened.

I had seen Tyler walking around school every now and then. He was always surrounded by friends. He looked happy. The idea that he was dead because he hadn’t put on a seatbelt, the idea that his life was taken away in less than sixty seconds because of a stupid mistake, was mystifying to me. I just couldn’t understand it. I still can’t.

They say during the grieving process, people need to have some sort of closure, some way of remembering the ones they’ve lost in order to start moving on. I wouldn’t describe my reaction to Tyler’s death as “grieving”, but I certainly felt I needed to do something. I needed to honor this poor boy in some way. And so I did the only thing I felt I could do – I sat down at my piano and wrote him a song. It only took me an hour. Of all my songs it was probably the easiest to write. It helped a little bit. But I could not forget Tyler and how his life was tragically cut short. I still haven’t, and never will.

It has always been a habit of mine to put my seatbelt on the second I step into a car. But ever since the day Tyler was killed, I always think of him whenever I pull that seatbelt over my lap and click it into place. There have been a few times since I got my license where I’ve had friends in the car that simply refused to put their seatbelts on when I was driving them places. I’d remember Tyler every time. I’d put the car in park and refuse to drive until they did as I asked. And as we drove, eventually, I’d tell them his story.

Tyler’s death was tragic. But if anything good can come out of what happened, it’ll be the fact that those who knew him will be sure to put their seatbelts on in the future. As my principle said in an article written after the crash that you can read here, “”We always have to look for any good that can come out of any tragedy. If it’s for Tyler that you will put your seat belt on every time you get into a car, then that’s what good will come of it.”

We are not immortal. We are fragile, vulnerable beings and vehicles have the potential to be dangerous. So the next time, reader, you want to skip putting on a seatbelt while driving or being driven somewhere, think of the thousands of people who have died needlessly in car wrecks because they didn’t take the few seconds to put their seatbelts on. Think of Tyler, a poor boy who needlessly died at sixteen and left those who loved him forever grieving. Put your seatbelt on for him, if for nothing else.

OOO

Tyler’s Song

Sometimes we make mistakes

Ones that we can’t retake

in this whirlwind we call life

Often our faults can break…break us

We never think these errors can take us

~

He was a boy, and she was a girl.

Both of them lived in a normal world.

Then one November day

one of their lives was taken away . . .

~

Chorus

Never knew seconds could be enough,

never knew God could take someone so young.

Sometimes I wonder, I question fate:

Was it meant to be or was it a mistake?

The rest of the world will go on and on

acting like nothing was ever wrong

Our lives are paved but we just don’t know

For now it’s a broken road

~

He was going too fast

Thought that his speed would last

But it turns out he was wrong

One quick turn and his car was in the grass

And onto its roof they crashed…he was gone on impact

~

He was a boy, and she was a girl

Both of them lived in a normal world

She wore her seatbelt that day

He did not…and she walked away…

~

Chorus

Never knew seconds could be enough

Never knew God could take someone so young

Sometimes I wonder, I question fate

Was it meant to be or was it a mistake?

The rest of the world will go on and on

Acting like nothing was ever wrong

Our lives are paved but we just don’t know

For now it’s a broken road

~

How can it be?

Losing your life when you’re only sixteen

I never knew him but to this day

I can’t understand how he was taken away

~

Chorus

Never knew seconds could be enough

Never knew God could take someone so young

Sometimes I wonder, I question fate

Was it meant to be or was it a mistake?

And the rest of the world will go on and on

Acting like nothing was ever wrong

Our lives are paved but we just don’t know

For now it’s a broken road

~

Sometimes we make mistakes…