Monday, December 3, 2007

essay: reflection on the recent teen driving deaths

Norwood Road and Route 28, a few hundred yards from where high school junior Alicia Betancourt was killed three years ago.

My senior year of high school, barely three years ago, was defined by the death of a girl I didn't know. And over the past month, as over a dozen kids my age have died behind in car accidents across the region, I can't help but be reminded of how the same thing happened in 2004 - and of the one accident that actually made a difference. Yesterday, the Post revisited Alicia Betancourt, whose life ended in a violent crash on Norwood Road three years ago. But rather than interviewing her family - specifically her father, whose crusade to memorialize his daughter through tougher driving laws gave him a national bully pulpit to yell from - they spoke to Hersh Kapoor, who was behind the wheel that night in September.

I graduated with Hersh, though I didn't know him well. He was quiet and reserved, but I believed he was a good person, even after the accident. The Post's profile portrays him well: reserved, reflective, anxious. But it's hard to capture someone who has been through what he has been through, if only because so few people know what it's like.

I'm sure the scene in Blake High School the day after Alicia Betancourt died was the same as it was at Richard Montgomery or La Plata this year: shell-shocked friends and classmates, suddenly aware of their own mortality; teachers heartbroken at the loss of a student they'd actually cared about; tear-stained cheeks and shirt sleeves; arguments about how it happened and who was to blame. Her English teacher, a volunteer firefighter, was first at the scene of the accident. Within 36 hours, the crash site had become a de facto memorial. This was grief, natural and a necessary means of dealing with the death of a popular junior. I wondered why I'd never heard her name until it made the eleven o'clock news, but it wouldn't be the last time.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

They said Hersh was going 110 miles an hour down Norwood Road, a twisty little rural road never intended to ferry commuters to East County and back every day. This proved to be a lie, but the rumors kept going. The eulogies kept coming long after the funeral was over: the show of her artwork in the school's gallery; the lengthy documentary produced by the TV Studio, of which she'd been a part. Dr. Arturo Betancourt, her father, made it his mission to make sure his daughter was forgotten. He told anyone who'd give him a platform what had become of Alicia. He lobbied the State to raise the driving age - and even though kids had been dying for years and years, this time, they listened, revamping the licensing system for the first time in decades.

Two weeks after Alicia passed away, Darcy Bernard, a freshman, had an asthma attack while at home alone. The principal made an announcement; the school newspaper wrote a story on it; that was all. Everyone chose to forgot. Some kids complained that the spotlight remained on Alicia because she was light-skinned, whereas Darcy was black; because she was a cheerleader, whereas Darcy was just the new girl, only a month out of another school; because her family lived in posh Stonegate and were members of the local country club. They had connections.

Another kid was hit by a truck, but there was no word about it on the morning TV announcements. I asked Mrs. Jeweler, who taught TV Studio and had been a devotee of Alicia, why she'd ignored him. "Well, he's not dead," she said.

When Dr. Betancourt appeared on 60 Minutes, I chose not to watch. When he appeared on Dateline NBC, I begged my mother to turn the TV off, but she refused. "You need to see this," she said. And I saw: Betancourt was angry. He was bitter. I wondered what his crusade was for: did he really care that I or any of my classmates were safe if and when we were able to get behind the wheel, or was he trying to bring his daughter back? He didn't name names, but you knew he was talking about Hersh. A few months after the accident, Dr. Betancourt said he'd been reluctant to file charges against the Kapoors. You don't need to take someone to court to call them a murderer.

I didn't see Hersh in class until February, though he'd returned from the hospital long before then. I was talking with some friends we had in common and he sat down and joined us. What was I supposed to say? I thought. How do I approach this kid who had more or less become a pariah? By now, everybody had learned the true story: they had gone out for ice cream and were rushing to make curfew. We had moved on, to an extent. It snowed like hell and everyone prayed for days off. Advanced Placement exams were coming up. Life had more or less returned to normal at Blake.

But Dr. Betancourt wasn't going to let anyone forget. At the end of the year, a day-long assembly was held about teen driving. Bereaved parents from throughout the county showed up to give lectures about responsibility and safe behavior. We discussed defensive driving schools. There was a video, sponsored by Geico, about kids from Walter Johnson High School and their driving habits; we laughed at all of the snotty Bethesda kids. The whole auditorium cheered when they showed a clip of our football team beating theirs at Homecoming.

Then Dr. Betancourt gave his speech. "I don't want another family to be destroyed like mine was," he said, managing to draw that sentiment out as long as possible - as long as Principal Goodman would let him speak. Hersh was allowed to stay home that day. No reason to pour salt in a wound that would never heal.

Three years after the fact - after my class and Alicia's class and two classes after them have all graduated, flushed out of Blake High School and out of East County - her legacy remains. There are numerous tributes to her on Facebook and a yearly 5K run raising money for a scholarship in her name. I can't help but wonder if this new crop of driving deaths will create another Alicia Betancourt. A girl whose great potential will remain unrealized. A strict father who didn't know how to keep his grief private. And a good kid who, unfortunately, got caught in the crosshairs of a national media frenzy.


Anonymous said...

Sort of reminds me of a junior who committed suicide during my senior year at Einstein (2006), Kanishke. A friend maintains a Facebook profile for him to this day. People can't seem to get past people dying. It probably didn't help that about a week or two after Kanishke, a girl (she and Kanishke both in the IB program) committed suicide. Before that, a guy who dropped out committed suicide, or so I'm told. The moral of the story: American school systems suck, and are much too competitive.

Anonymous said...

Why do people need to keep grief to themselves? Why shouldn't a father be bitter about the death of his 16 year old daughter? Why shouldn't he try to change things so maybe accidents like this will happen less in the future?

Your lack of empathy for your dead classmate's family is absolutely astounding.