With a half-empty bottle of Pinnacle beer and car keys in hand, a sophomore left the party scene and made an intoxicated journey back home.
“We was havin’ a party for my sister, right? So, we was, like, we was getting thown, you know what I’m sayin’, at the party. I had messed around. I was drinkin’ a lot, and I, uh... I had to drive home. And, uh... I had really liked what I was drinkin’, so I asked her if I could take it with me. So, you know, I had got in the car, crunk it up and had drunk one more swallow, and then laid it down... you know what I’m sayin’? So at this point, I’m kinda gone. And I just… take off. I mean, like, I did pretty good drivin’. I mean, I was swervin’, but… I made it home,” he said.
As he surveyed students walking past him in the hallway, the sophomore said, “You know, there's a lot of crazy people here.”
“A lot...” he started to say, with a faint chuckle showing his gleaming white teeth, “Yeah... a lot [of students] would drink and drive.” His smile faded as he leaned back into the wall.
Drunk driving is a “dirty little secret” among students, math teacher Scott Johnson said.
“…and as long as it continues to be a dirty little secret, kids are going to continue to do it,” he said.
For Johnson, the issue hits home.
On August 23, 2006, at five a.m. on a school day, Johnson said he got a “phone call you never really want to get.”
It was a call about Adam, his son.
“It was a single car accident,” he said. “...all I knew at the time of the phone call was what time it had happened, what he hit, and that he had not survived.”
Upon arriving at the scene of the accident in Knoxville, Johnson started to dig deeper. He said the speed at which Adam had turned a curve on Kingston Pike (a “pretty wide four-lane road”) was “excessively fast.”
“He lost control of the car and smacked into a utility pole, and he hit the pole hard enough that it tore the car in half,” Johnson said.
Adam was a gap-year student, he said. A year after graduating high school, Adam had plans to start classes at the University of Tennessee.
“A lot of these kids were moving in; I think he went from party to party that night, come to find out,” Johnson said. “As a matter of fact, he was gonna crash at a friend's apartment, and the friend that he was gonna stay with actually made him give her his car keys; she was very adamant about him not driving. But sometime during the night, he got up and got his car keys and got in his car.”
Although Adam grew up with his mother, Johnson's first wife, for “most of his life,” Johnson said his relationship with his son was “as close as you can be without living with somebody.”
Johnson said his and Adam's conversations amounted to the “usual things parents would tell their kids,” like “'Don't make stupid decisions,' and, 'Try to think about what you're doing.'”
“I always thought he had pretty good judgment. That’s why it came as a surprise,” he said.
Adam's social circle, Johnson said, ranged from the “pretty responsible” to the “probably not as responsible.”
“Your friends have influences, but it's gotta be you that makes the good decisions,” he said. “In the end, it's going to be your decision that’s going to have an effect on what happens to you.”
Nevertheless, Johnson said all of Adam's friends were “greatly saddened by what happened.”
“And for a while, [the accident] might have even changed them a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know how long it lasted; maybe it did make them think a little bit before they acted.”
For “several years” since Adam's death, Johnson said he tries to use the accident as a “teachable moment to the kids.”
“I tell them, 'here’s a kid that was raised by a good family and had a lot of good support both from friends and family and I thought had good judgment,'” Johnson said. “But it only takes one bad decision.”
“If I can get a kid to at least think about what could happen if they made that bad decision - to just stop for five seconds and just think about what they're doing - and keep them from making a bad decision like that, that’s all I'm trying to do,” he said.
“Pressure to conform” and less emphasis on the “nuclear family,” however, render “kids more susceptible to [irresponsible behaviors] than they used to be,” Johnson said.
“A lot of these things they watch and listen to seem to condone bad behavior and bad decision-making,” he said. “And then you couple that with the erosion of the family, which we’re also seeing in society now. A lot of kids are being brought up in single-parent homes or no-parent homes.”
Building awareness to the issue, Johnson said, can only happen if we learn to recognize and address students’ short attention spans and “continually reinforce” efforts to make an impact.
“You know, if you park a car out front [of the school] that has been involved with an accident, [students] might remember it for as long as it stays out there,” Johnson said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Okay, don’t drink and drive.’ That’s obviously not doing anything. It needs to be more, ‘if you drink and drive, this is what might happen:’ this could be you, or it could be your best friend or your girlfriend, or it could be your mother.”
The consequences of an act as irresponsible as driving under the influence can devastate those left behind.
Margaret Johnson was her best friend.
“I wish I didn’t have to tell this story. I wish Margaret was here today, but she’s not. And it doesn’t get any better, it does last; it never goes away,” Meredith Cummings, journalism professor at the University of Alabama, said.
Cummings met Johnson, a native of Leesburg, Florida, in Tutwiler Hall their freshmen year. She said their friendship blossomed when they became sorority sisters.
“I called her Margie,” Cummings said. “And I remember so many wonderful qualities about her... Margie was so sweet; she was just a really kind and gentle person, would not hurt a fly, very devoted to her studies... She wanted to be a nurse – and that's very much like her; she was a caretaker.”
From “one a.m. TCBY runs” to sorority formals, to extended summer visits in “sunny and warm” Leesburg, Cummings said she and Margie “just had so much fun together.”
“I loved her laugh,” Cummings said, “When she laughed, the only way to describe it is like, if you've ever had a McDonald's cup or anything, and you move the straw up and down, and it goes, 'Err Err Err Err!' That's how she laughed.”
Cummings said she thinks about Margie every day.
“I woke up this morning thinking about her,” she said. “I woke up and I was like, 'God, I would love to see the woman that she would have become.' I would have loved to have seen the mom – You know, she was always gonna have lots of kids; she would have been a killer mom. And it just breaks my heart... I was robbed of that opportunity to see, to hear the great woman then that I can only imagine what magnificent things she would have done.”
On Dec. 23, 1993, just after her first semester of college, Johnson and her mother were driving from a relative's house on a two-lane road when a man came over a hill and hit them head-on.
“He just blew the blood-alcohol level off the charts,” Cummings said.
The car behind them saw the whole thing. Margie's dad, brother and sister were in that car.
“I wish I could come up with a 100% foolproof plan or program so that I could make sure this never happened to anybody else,” Cummings said. “...but we're all humans, and we're not invincible.”
Cummings returned to Leesburg, a place that she said was filled with great memories of her and Margie, to attend the funeral.
In the parking lot, there was a truck. And on that truck, Cummings said, written “really large,” in “that kind of paint like you do at homecoming,” were the words, “My friend was killed by a dumb, drunk jerk.”
“And that’s exactly how we all felt,” she said.
The driver died just before New Year's, Cummings said.
“If I could be at the bar with him, I would ask him what the problem is in his life that [caused him to] care so little about himself. That he would get in a car and drive drunk... Because, he did that. And, um... you know,” she started to say before letting out a sigh. “I am anti-death penalty, and I don’t believe in killing anybody, ever, but I gotta say, I wasn’t too sad when he passed away.”
To help teenagers put the potential consequences of drunk driving into perspective, Cummings said she would ask them to “imagine their favorite person in the world” and place them in the shoes of Margie and her mother.
“You don’t want to be that [driver]. That’s not something you can get rid of,” she said. “Yeah, you can go to jail; you can serve your debt to society, but that never leaves your conscience. You’re stuck with it for the rest of your life, and that’s a pretty heavy debt to carry.”
Though underage drinking is illegal, Cummings said she acknowledges the fact that high school students will “do it anyways.” The “real danger” with this, she said, is when teenagers try to “cover it up.”
“They're hiding it from their parents, and they're hiding it from their teachers because they know they'll get in trouble,” Cummings said. “...they want to get home on time before they get in trouble, so they drive, because that’s 'the best way to do it.'”
The best way to do it, Cummings said, “is not rocket science.”
“Call a cab. Call a friend. Pick up the phone and press some numbers,” she said. “I really believe any parent would rather get a phone call from their child who is completely falling down drunk saying, ‘Come get me Mom or Dad,’ than get a phone call from the morgue. Any of us would.”
If he had known about Adam or Margie; if he had experienced someone close to him pass away due to the conscious decisions of someone else, the sophomore said he would have thought twice about driving home from his sister's house.
“If you drunk, you cannot drive,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever do it again because, you know, I’m not that type of person to drink and drive. I know right from wrong. I admit, I shouldn’t have ever did it that night. ‘Cause, you know what I’m sayin’, usually I have a ride with someone. But I drove that night… And that was my first and only time.”