To this conclusion I have come: the deadliest years of our lives are the ages 16 to 21. Those years give us a headiness that comes from new freedom — a driver’s license — and the passing of the torch from strict childhood rules to more trust, different restraints and relaxed curfews.
When you add the opportunity to go off to college or move out on your own, we’re fooled into thinking that we’re mature enough and wise enough to make decisions that will affect the rest of our lives.
Sometimes I look back and thank God for the grace that got me through those years. And, I thank Him especially that there weren’t cellphones back then that tempted me to text and drive or make calls while steering my way around town or on the interstate. I’ve never considered myself a terrific driver so during the years when I was first learning, I surely would have been in a serious accident had I tried to multi-task. Even today, I constantly reprimand myself not to pick up my phone when I’m driving, even to answer a call.
Often, I’m astounding by the craziness of drivers, especially kids, who swerve around me at a high rate of speed while I’m running and I always think, “If you hit me, your life would be seriously altered. Maybe ruined.”
But how do you tell a kid that? Or rather how do make one understand? Truly understand about choices and the guilt, responsibility and consequences they bring?
As a sports writer, I knew a young man who, by the age of 17, was a hero to many. He was a high school tailback with dancing feet and lightning speed. He was handsome, likeable and personable so dozens of colleges came calling. On Friday nights, crowds stood and cheered his amazing feats and on Saturday morning, his photo graced the sport page. He was, undeniably, a star. He chose one of the top schools in the nation and, heady with fame and a misconceived notion about his maturity, he headed off to the big leagues. He dreamed of stardom in the NFL. In fact, he considered it just a matter of time. He was, after all, born to be a star.
At college, though, he was no longer THE standout. He was one of many who had thrilled stadium crowds on Friday and was celebrated in Saturday’s news. Using unformed decision-making skills, he made bad ones. One bad choice led to another and soon he was on probation and sidelined temporarily.
The head coach, wise, respected and celebrated, called him in. “What are you doing?” he asked. “You have the chance of a lifetime and you’re throwing it away.” Then, in a no-nonsense manner, the coach laid down the law. It worked. For a month or two. The player straightened up but soon, too soon, he was in trouble again.
And this time he lost his scholarship, his place on the team and, because he was from a very poor family, had no choice but to pack his clothes in a couple of boxes and head back to the little shack where he grew up. The one with the roof that leaked and a furnace that sometimes worked but mostly didn’t. His mama, a housekeeper who had worked her fingers to the bone to raise him, said, “You let us down, boy. We’s countin’ on ya to git us out.”
The last time I saw him, he was flipping burgers at a fast food joint, the sadness of his youthful decisions etched in deep lines around his brooding, lightless eyes.
He shook his head woefully. “If only I could go back,” he mumbled softly. “Tell all them kids out there to look at me and learn themselves a lesson.”
So, now I have. Maybe the message will get through to one or two.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.”