Death of a Schoolmate

I woke up this morning with little more on my mind than whether I should get up when my alarm went of, or sleep in another ten minutes. I got out of bed, and glanced out the window, taking little notice how dark and lifeless it looked outside. I took a bath, got dressed, ate breakfast, and left for school as I have done for more than three years. When I walked in the school building, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That whole view of the day - ordinary - was about to be completely shattered.

My first impression of distress met me while I was heading for my first period class, and I witnessed Kelley Brunsman crying hysterically in the hallway with a small group of girls comforting her. My first impression, and I now regret this thought, was "I don't want to know about it." Nothing else on the jaunt alerted me to the seriousness of the situation until I entered my classroom, and found it completely void of people, students or teachers. While odd for the time - sometime after the five-minute bell should have rung - I thought nothing of it except that maybe the bells were broken. The second thing to catch my attention was Mrs Jones, the teacher, who came in with her husband, her head bent down and a Kleenex in one hand. He sat her down at her desk, and stayed a while. I could not tell what was wrong with her. She seemed either sick or despondent, but something in her actions told me that the latter was true. Slowly, quietly, students began to enter the room. John Schmidt was one of the first, and he was behaving in the same manner as Mrs Jones. He sat behind me, as he has since September, and asked "Did you hear?" I answered him no, and he told me why the class was so empty, why Mrs Jones, Kelly, and himself had been so distraught, and why this school year will cease be any semblance of what it was just 72 hours ago, all in one sentence - "Melinda Brown died last night."

I turned around and faced forward without comment. I felt no tears come to my eyes, as I had never really known Melinda save as student to student, and even then she had never known me. The late bell rang, spiritless and forgotten, and the last of the students who had decided to come to school sat down in their seats. Even then, it was less than a third of the class. This had been Melinda's first period, and nobody had forgotten that. Mr Hibbler, one of the school's counselors, came in, knowing what had happened and the way many people were taking it. He talked to what was left of the class, urging us to express our feelings, which few did. Mrs Jones was taking it especially hard, and she came around to each student and just hugged him or her for a second or two, as if attempting to bask in the life that remained in the room. Mr Hibbler remained through the first half of the period, and when he saw that he had said all that he could say, left to go speak to another class. A few of the girls took his advice to visit a nearby counseling home, and the classroom grew that much emptier. Mrs Jones did her best to try to conduct class as close to normal as the situation would permit by giving us our six week grades and letting us work on our classwork, if we so desired. No one took that advice. Mrs Patterson, the principal, came over the PA system with a short talk about the situation and how to conduct the rest of the day. I began to feel more despairing as the period wore on, and I began to relate to people who had known Melinda for a good part of their lives, even though I knew I would never know exactly how they felt at that moment when they first were told about Melinda.

In between classes, I began to let my sorrow and aggression, which always seem to come at the same time, out on inanimate objects - slamming doors and kicking lockers. In second period, no allowance was made for these extenuating circumstances, and life went on as normal for most everyone in the class, except, seemingly, me. Math always seems to diverge itself from the outside world and concentrate on itself rather than what is really important, and today was no exception. Third period, English, was empty save for seven students who were obviously unaffected by the day's events. I preferred to isolate myself from their group, fearing I would loose the emotion of the day. Fourth period was a poor attempt at normalcy as half the class was absent, and half of those that were there refrained from paying any attention to the history teacher. I was still trying to grasp how school would be affected by Melinda's death, as I knew it would be, but it still seemed like a dream or story, where nothing is real. Lunch passed bleakly, without incident, and I began to recite a current song on the radio - "Fly to the Angels" by Slaughter - to myself because of it's appropriateness. The sun had not dared show itself, as if in mourning for Melinda, and it was still as colorless outside as it had been at seven o'clock that morning.

At eleven-thirty, the faculty had set up a gathering for the students who wanted to talk about what had happened, or who wanted to find out more about the accident that had taken Melinda's life. I, as well as approximately a quarter of the senior class and numerous lower-classmen, attended this meeting in the library. A counselor led off the proceedings by asking us all to join hands in order to be strong in this time of loss. He talked about the importance of letting out feelings and sharing them with someone else, and not to let yourself be destroyed by this, but to learn to deal with it and accept it. A teacher came forward and gave all the information the sheriff's office would release. She was driving eastbound on Brush college road when she swerved or slid for an unknown reason, possibly because of the rain and fog. At ten-seventeen pm, her car slid off the road, and she was thrown from it (she was not wearing her seat belt). The car hit the ground and rolled upright, landing on top of her. She was alive when the ambulance arrived, but died at the hospital due to internal injuries. She was knocked unconscious when she was thrown from the vehicle, and never awoke, so she did not suffer. At this point, several students broke out crying, which was to be expected and was perfectly acceptable. We stayed there, listening to another counselor, Mrs Patterson, and a few other teachers for another fifteen minutes, and then were excused to do what we preferred - to go to class, home, or to see a counselor. I solemnly went to my fifth period, and relayed the information to a couple of other people who had not gone to the meeting in the library. Sixth period was just as empty as any others had been, and although the teacher, Madame Humber, had not known Melinda at all, she sympathized with those who had and allowed us to sit in silence as long as we wished.

After school, my desire was to leave quickly and sort through what had happened - something that a school day, even as unusual and free from rules as today had been, does not grant. Perhaps if I had decided to go to the gymnasium or the front hall, both of which had been designated as areas to do such things, I would have felt differently as I walked out the school's doors to my own car, understanding how little it takes to take a life. But as it stood, I felt strangely detached from the day's happenings and had a desire to understand it more. I drove out to West Salem, where I lived and where Melinda died, and found Brush College Road. I drove down it for over a mile, until I began to see the remains of magnesium flares along the side of the road. I passed by Kelly Daczewitz and Kelley Brunsman walking along the side of the road, faces blurred and wet with tears, doing as I was doing - looking for the place where Melinda Brown was taken from us.

I found it, but not until the Kelly and Kelley had either turned back or visited and headed home, for there was nobody around. There were flares for several hundred feet in either direction of Brush College. The road made an S-curve, and that was where the first tire tracks in the soft shoulder of the one-laned road were visible. It curved to the right, and there were more tire tracks, as well as hundreds of small fragments of safety glass, some with the brown wiring of a rear-window defroster, glistening and shining in the recently manifested sun. There were other pieces of the car - here a segment of molding, and over there a few broken bits of a reflector. Further away, opposite the road, the shoulder ended in a grove of trees which didn't look hospitable. Some ass had dumped his load of Hamms beer cans, which made me so angry that I kicked them down the embankment. Across the road, the shoulder was littered with literally thousands of shards of automobile glass - pieces swept off the road by the police late last night. The shoulder ended in an embankment leading up, leading me to believe that the road had been carved out of a hill. I walked further down the road, but there was nothing more to see, so I returned to my car and went home, wishing, as many had done that day, that none of this had ever happened.

The night before, I had heard the sirens late at night. I foolishly dismissed them, as most would choose to do. As so many have done before me, I asked why it had to happen to such a young and beautiful person, who had such a life ahead of her. And, as those before and forever after me, I received no answer.

Fly to the angels, Melinda Brown.

Tyler Jones, October 26, 1990