Often times I have been blown away by stories of happenstance and serendipity. Our story is full of them. Sometimes these “collisions” aren’t wonderful but are just as important. Some of them are downright heartbreaking. Unfortunately, that is the kind I need to talk about today.
About two weeks ago I received a message from Mark Jones, the Athletic Director at at Leechburg High School, reminding me that it is awards assembly season. To me that means presenting the “Ellen Jane-We Serve First Service Award” for the third year to a staff member, community member, or student who has gone above and beyond in their service to the school district, community, or student body. It is getting easier to do this, and it’s always nice to go back to LHS and reconnect with the people there who meant so much to Ellen. She taught at Leechburg for almost 20 years and her mark on the district is indelible.
I didn’t think I’d have much to say this year. Time is washing away the students who remember Ellen. This year's senior class still contains students Ellen taught for Health and Physical Education classes. Next year, there will be no students with direct ties.
So, I prepared some short comments, was ready to go, and something unrelated happened a few days before the awards night that made it crystal clear what the message to this year's class needed to be.... Heartbreaking happenstance...
Here is that speech.
How many students here had Mrs. Toy as a teacher?
Every year, that number drops, and eventually Ellen will be reduced to a friendly smile and pretty eyes on a plaque in the hallway. I myself have forgotten what her voice sounds like, but there is so much video out there that when I want a reminder, it’s there for me. One thing that is still clear, and is really more important, is what she might say.
Now I don’t find myself with a microphone in my hand very often, but today you handed me one, and Mr.Jones said I could do whatever I want. I have this microphone, and you guys can’t leave until I’m done...
Sorry about your luck.
I won’t take long. I know it’s spring, and soon you will be out of school, on the streets, at the pool, enjoying the park. As spring turns to summer, you will enjoy the excitement of new opportunities. Maybe your first solo drive, maybe a job, maybe a vacation, but not all opportunities are as positive. That’s what Ellen’s voice begs me to talk to you about, as she can no longer be the inspiration to urge you to care for yourselves, your health, and your life...
Tuesday night I attended a funeral for a young man. As I stood in the receiving line I watched the horrified faces, old and young alike, grappling with what they could possibly say as they inched closer and closer to the grief stricken parents and brothers. This young man was a victim of the opioid epidemic that grips our country. It robbed him of a promising engineering career and a long life, and it stole everything from his family and friends. Believe me when I tell you they handled the situation with unfathomable grace and dignity, but they shouldn’t have had to at all. It was just a moment when judgment went wrong, when this young man took a wrong turn, when that wrong turn morphed into an addiction that someone who was smart enough to earn a degree in engineering and who was loved by family and friends could not escape.
Will was 25 years old. He graduated from Seneca Valley High School and the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Civil Engineering. He struggled with this addiction but finally made it through to graduation and moved towards his independence. He had a job, his own apartment, friends, and attended meetings geared to helping him maintain his handle on life. He was loved and liked by all, had a fierce sense of humor, an easy smile, and a talent for music. He helped everyone, including his brother with autism. He was close with his family, understood their overwhelming support for him, loved the life that he fought hard to gain back. Again, one small wrong opportunity taken, one he didn’t think would take it all away, one that was tied to his first wrong turn, would end up being the one to devastate all who knew him. His bright light gone forever.
From his mom: “He was loved beyond measure. For someone like him to have fallen prey to this epidemic is beyond belief to all who knew of his integrity and devotion to family and friends. That’s why I would like his story told in a way that will cause any young person to think twice about what they are experimenting with… Will would appreciate this, as after he tried it once, there was no going back. It is addictive beyond measure and a lifelong imprisonment for those who try it even once. And, lately, with the addition of fentanyl, their first experience may prove deadly.”
So I beg you today to hear Will’s voice and Will’s mom’s voice through me, to hear Ellen’s voice through me, and to remember what I said today. You have a lifetime of opportunities in front of you. When this one comes knocking, think twice. Don’t answer the door. Realize that taking this wrong opportunity can and most likely will prevent you from living your life, and will prevent your family and friends from watching you live your dreams. Be courageous for you and for your family.
Will is any of us. We are all one step away from the wrong decision. Learn from his story. Think twice. Be courageous. Honor him by finding your joy in living this summer and for the rest of your life.
It is our hope that someone there in the auditorium heard this and took it to heart. As long as I have a voice I should use it, as long as someone keeps handing me a microphone I will speak. As long as I have a keyboard and a blog...
well you get it.
Have a happy, active, and safe summer everyone!