A New Tradition… my W&L speech

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As I unwind from our long drive home from Virginia, I can’t help but recall and rehash the speech I gave on Thursday evening in Lee Chapel at my alma mater Washington and Lee University. As many of you know, I was invited by the Kelsey Committee to speak to the student body during their inaugural Generals Week on the topic of drinking and driving.

The two incredible students who reached out to me with the invitation mentioned that my first email to the student body helped heal them after the most recent tragedy in December. Helped them feel less alone after their friend, roommate, sorority sister and fellow General Kelsey Durkin lost her life. It was an honor and privilege to be asked, and I sought out to honor Kelsey’s memory as well as the many Generals who have been affected by drinking and driving before her. 

Writing this speech was beyond challenging. Alumni either didn’t want to remember what it felt like, or when they did… it was still too painful to share. And over the last month, I realized more and more just who I really needed to reach. The cross section of students who were the most unlikely group to actually attend the talk… and whose faces I didn’t see in the crowd Thursday night.  In spite of the gender imbalance in the audience, the turnout was good and the young women and few gentlemen I saw and met were of course impressive. This talk and this weekend at W&L was just the beginning though. The foundation has been set and the seeds planted. It will now be up to those students who sat across from me that night to spread the word. To continue to be Generals Strong and keep their “Promise for Kelsey” alive. 

You students that sat in Lee Chapel… it’s time to get to work…

The speech I gave that night is below. As a blog writer and a novice at that… this is a speech… so as a written piece it certainly loses something. If you are a student at W&L, I ask that as you read it… you imagine yourself seated in Lee Chapel. Picture the white walls, stark pews and the faces of your fellow Generals beside you. 

—–

Good evening students, faculty, coaches, friends. Thank you so much, Meade, for that introduction. As she mentioned, I am that 30-something alumna who wrote you a letter on my blog after the accident last fall. I was graciously invited to speak to you tonight by the Kelsey Committee, and want to thank them for their invitation as well as my fellow alumni who lent me their wisdom on this challenging topic.

I have to admit, after my initial gratitude from being asked to speak subsided, unease settled in its place. It was a fear that you would perceive me as just another older person going on and on about a topic… that has been discussed countless times.  That you would turn a deaf ear, assuming you’ve heard it all before.

I am not here to lecture you. I am not your mother. I’m not your faculty advisor or another older person giving you a hard time about drinking. I’m also not naive enough to think that one person, one speech and one weekend can change this culture forever. But I am here to reach those of you that are ready for change. Ready to wake up and be accountable. 

I’m not claiming to be an expert.  I don’t run Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. It was my friends, not I, who started Traveller.  There are probably far more qualified people to speak on the topic of drinking and driving.  So why am I here?  Because I ….. was you.  And I hope that I can be the first person discussing drunk driving that you can actually relate to.  

I am a General. I was a Kappa. I was a lacrosse player. I was exactly like you… many years ago. I came to W&L for the tradition, for the people, for the culture, for the possibilities. I came, I studied, I played, I partied, I drank, I watched drunk friends drive, and I watched other friends get in the car.  I rode in cars with drunk drivers. And I lost friends.  Three to be exact. What makes us different now is that I have perspective. The kind of perspective that comes from living for over a decade with the choices I made here. The choices I allowed my friends to make.

Drunk driving claimed the lives of two people while I was here in school. One more has permanent brain damage. Living through these experiences was no different than what you went through last year. Shock, grief, anger, guilt, memorial services, the quiet because no one knew what to say, feeling lost and unsure of what matters, and scared… because it could have been me.

The fall of my sophomore year was the first time drunk driving tragedy struck my somewhat insulated world. It was my dear friend from high school and then college. What a guy.

I had spoken to him the night before. He called from his fraternity house… hoping I’d gather some girls to come down and hang out. It was just before fall break, so I bailed and stayed in for the night. He decided he was fine… sober enough to drive because he waited a while… tried to sober up. When I was told the next morning… my first reaction was… “It can’t be Kelly… I just talked to him. Surely you have the wrong person.”  

The guilt that remains with those of us who live through these tragedies is carried for some time. Could I have said something to him? Could someone else at the house have stopped him? After a very long stay at the hospital, he went home with permanent brain damage. He is alive.  But forever changed.

One year later… Homecoming.  I woke up to an email sent by the administration. Two students were killed at 2am after a Tahoe flipped into an embankment. They were travelling home after an off-campus party. The couple had just started dating. He too thought he was “fine to drive”. She…….. trusted him.  Same windy roads. Same poor choices. 

I remember how we gathered together and cried. Stunned. Feeling empty. We questioned our own actions. Vowed things would be different.  Traveller was formed in response by two of my brave and incredible friends. A GIANT leap towards making things safer. The bubble in which W&L resides was forged again.  That feeling that nothing could touch us…. came back… months later.  And life… as it does… moved on.

I also felt invincible when I was a student. Something bad happened over there to them, but the same wouldn’t happen to me. My fellow alumni and I clearly remember the irrational game of musical seats in cars to get home at two in the morning. That moment when the prospect of sleeping at an off-campus house seems like the worst threat. When any car, any ride home… sounds life saving not… life threatening. 

My junior year, during exams, I went to an off-campus party. We never made plans for how we would get home. We just always did.  So… I stayed after most of my friends left and felt I HAD to get a ride with the last car going back to campus. The guy I liked was hopping in… so… I willingly leaped in the back of some guy’s pick up truck alongside 6 other people. 

I had no idea if the driver had been drinking. I never asked. Most likely he had… Traveller had stopped running. I vaguely remember he had been around the keg. When I heard the news of the accident in 2010, after the same party, and how two kids from my hometown were in the hospital… I remembered that ride 10 years earlier. Years prior the headline could have easily been Eloise Priest from Alexandria VA lost her life as she was thrown from a truck.  Same windy roads. Same poor choices.

After I wrote my first letter to you, I received a number of emails filled with thanks, with remorse, with regret. A girl who had driven drunk once while at school emailed to make her confession.  One girl mentioned how she had seen Kelsey at the party just before she chose to leave. She blamed herself for not stopping her.  Another guy who hosted the party was beside himself that not enough sober rides were available. That he let his buddy drive. 

I also received a few emails from alumni and campus leaders who have lost faith. Who no longer believe a student body such as yours can really change. “They’re spoiled, their egos allow them to believe they are still invincible even after their friends have died.” They reminded me that you seniors said a pledge in 2010 after that accident. What makes any pledge you say now different?  Actions speak louder than words after all.

So, let’s get a little less comfortable… 

9 out of 10 W&L drunk drivers are male.  And that is not because of the gender makeup of this student body.  The cars head to or from off-campus parties. Traveller will not always be running, and that system is not to blame. The off-campus parties… they will continue… we all know that.  And the housing system is not to blame.

You are the only part of this equation that can truly change things. 

One of the greatest things about Washington and Lee is its traditions. For so many, they are what set us apart from other schools. It is a school of honor, and this tradition guides you as you’re given academic freedom.  This is a town and campus with a decades-old speaking tradition. It is a tradition that builds community, linking us to one another in this small town. Now… it is time to create a new tradition- one of responsibility.  Responsibility to your fellow General.

 

Gentlemen…please look at the guy next to or closest to you.  If you do not know him… please introduce yourself.  He is now your responsibility.  Your fellow General for which you are responsible.

And ladies… you are complicit in this as well… you get in the cars. You let your friends get in the cars.  And some of you … also drive. Now ladies, please look at the woman closest to you.  Again, if you don’t know her… introduce yourself. She is your responsibility.  Your fellow General.

Take his or her keys. Do not let your friend or fellow General drive or get in the car. 

You are all some of the smartest young adults out there.  Every pledge class or social group needs a rotating list of drivers on call.  If that doesn’t work, then every set of roommates needs a sober driver.  You will survive a few parties sober. Trust the former athlete, it might not be quite as fun in your eyes now… but you’ll live. And so will your friends.   

Okay so I lied when I said I wouldn’t lecture you.  I am a mother after all.

Now, I would like you to close your eyes. I’d like to set a scene, one that you are all probably familiar with.

You are at a party at an off-campus house. You drove all of your friends, planning to leave your car there. Your roommate promises to drive you out there the next day to get it. As you make your way to the house, you notice kegs on the front porch and you stop to grab a beer. Music is blasting from the main room and it’s crowded as you make your way through. Good turn out… you think.

There’s a nice bonfire out back and you make your way outside again. You and your friends gather together and someone is telling a hilarious story about something that happened last night. You’re laughing, having fun – just blowing off steam. Hey… you’ve earned it.  The girl or guy you like is there and you work your way over to talk to them. You both grab another beer or two. You’re not counting.

After a while, the kegs run out.  And the guy or girl you were flirting with disappears. The party is starting to dwindle. You’ve been drinking… but only beer… and it’s been a while. You spot your car and think how nice it would be to leave. You don’t feel drunk. You tell yourself you’ll chug some water just in case. You really want your car in the morning. 

Some friends see you walking to your car and suddenly pile in the back.  A tightness forms in your stomach… a bit of nerves now that others are involved. There is a moment when you consider not driving.  But… these people are now counting on you to get them home.  It’s not that far… this is seriously the smallest town in the world… you think. So you hop behind the wheel.  

This isn’t that bad, you think to yourself, you can do this. After a while though, the roads start to wind around, curving after every turn. Driving has never felt so hard. You squint so that your eyes focus. You turn off the music but the girls in the back are shouting and laughing making it even harder. You roll down your window, fresh air will make this easier.

Suddenly, you realize you’re going faster than you should just as you hit another curve. You try turning with the road, but you turn too sharply … pull too hard on the wheel.

And just like that….  the car skids off the road. 

Your breath catches in your throat as you watch the car crash. The airbag hits you so hard it knocks the breath out of you. You face burns as if it’s on fire. You taste blood in your mouth… cut from the airbag’s impact. There’s a stabbing pain in your side, probably broken ribs.

As you slowly open your eyes, you see a cracked windshield. There’s blood on the roof of the car… but you don’t know who’s.  The sound of the horn is deafening – suddenly realize your body weight is what’s causing it but you can’t move. You hear movement in the backseat. Moaning and someone is crying. There is a muffled scream but you can’t tell where it’s coming from.

Can you hear them?

You wait for help for what feels like an eternity. Finally, the scene is filled with flashing lights. You are hauled to the side of the road and all you want to know is how your friends are. Why won’t anyone tell you if they’re okay?

As you are put in the ambulance you hear the worst screaming you’ve ever heard in your life. And then you see them. A person on the side of the road. They must have been thrown from the car.

Who is that?

Can you see them?

Now… imagine it’s Meredith or Caroline, Bobby or Russell, Mark or David…..

Today, you are lucky that they are all still here. All of you have a clean slate to make the right choices. Starting right now.

I’d now like to take a moment and remember those who died or who are forever changed by drunk driving while students at Washington and Lee. They were or are boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends, teammates, roommates, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. They too are Generals.

Randolph Chitwood

John Hunter

Daniel Martin

David Thompson

Kelly Radford

Kristin Shelton

Adam Burchett

Kevin Dyer

Natalie Stier

Kelsey Durkin

You are adults now.  Your choices are what define you. They make up your character and are what ultimately make or break you.  This school has done everything imaginable to protect you. To help you make the right choices. But in the end… it is up to you.

The adage I leave you with has been around for a long time. 

Friends don’t let friends drink and drive.
 

It’s time for a new tradition here beyond the speaking tradition and one of honor. It’s time for a tradition of being responsible to your fellow General.

Be Generals strong.

Thank you.

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