The craziest thing about “Every 15 Minutes” is the fact that everyone involved knew it was staged, but it affected us as if it were real.
“Every 15 Minutes” is a program hosted by the La Mesa Police Department in partnership with Helix High School. It is put on about every two years in late April, and is an awareness program about driving under the influence. A car crash is staged during the day between two cars: one with two “drunk” individuals, and the other with two sober students who are simply just driving by school. I was one of the “walking dead” students selected to participate.
About a month prior to the event, our parents were contacted, and given specific instructions on where to take us on what day, and asked to keep it a secret. So a group of students met up at the police station on a cold night and we were told that all of us were chosen to be apart of the program so that it could have the biggest impact on the school: we were all chosen because we were the leaders of different social groups.
After the informational meeting, we didn’t hear from Ms. Cheryl Tyler or Ms. Danika Markey (the Helix staff in charge of this event) until a week before the event, when they gave us a list of things we would need to bring for the overnight trip and what we needed to tell and have our parents do. Most importantly: to keep it a secret from everyone.
The following week, on Apr. 20, there was a meeting before school where they explained what was going to happen, gave us food (we called it our personal “last supper”), and took our phones before sending us off.
I was pulled out of my first period class by a Grim Reaper, who wandered around the classroom before tapping my shoulder and leading me away (the guy next to me was freaking out pretty bad). I returned with makeup to make me look dead, and I was instructed not alk to anyone. When the officer read my obituary allowed to my creative writing class, I could hear him choking up, as if he had done or seen this too many times, as if this was real.
When my friend was pulled out of class after I was and returned with ghostly makeup and a headstone, I nearly lost it myself. A police officer was reading her obituary and I had to look away. Of course, she wasn’t dead, actually. She was right there, standing with sad and “dead” eyes.
And when we were standing on the hillside in the front of the school, watching the staged car crash being set up and awaiting the junior and senior classes, it all felt too real. Mugen Blue, a senior I had known since our sophomore year, was lying still on the top of the car as fake blood was poured on his face. Grace Hayman was sitting in the car with a large (fake) gash on her head.
They were “both dead.”
And even though they both were technically still alive, they weren’t. We couldn’t talk to them or hug them or say how much we love them. For hours, the last image in our minds were them in an ambulance or in a body bag.
Scott Young, a senior involved in the car crash scene, told us later that, when he was sitting next to Hayman in that car under the hot sun with the police and firemen all around, he cried. He said that seeing her in that makeup with her eyes closed and scarce breaths, knowing he couldn’t talk to her and make sure this was all fake, scared him.
After the car crash scene, all those who were “dead” took a trip to the courthouse to watch the scene of Carson (the drunk driver) on his trial. We heard the sadness in the families’ voices as they spoke about their dead or hurt children. We heard the pain.
“I’m trying to find grace in this situation,” Hayman’s dad, with a wavered voice and tears in his eyes, had said to Carson, “but I can’t. I can’t find her because you took her from us.”
Behind me, a good friend of Hayman’s, Kaitlyn Keyes let out a small sob and covered her face.
When the judge sentenced Carson, he raised his voice, and yelled at the guard – who slammed the cell door when locking Carson in – to get Carson “the hell out of” there. He later told us that he had lost a child about twenty years ago, and seeing these cases – even faux ones – hits him hard.
Around three in the afternoon, we finally were able to see Blue and Hayman again. After we all reconnected, we got back on the bus and drove to a church where we would eat dinner and spend the night. When we arrived, we all bonded over playing games. We still didn’t have our phones, but that didn’t matter to any of us. Even from different social groups, we played games like little children and bonded over the agony of the day.
After dinner, a guest speaker came to talk to us about losing her daughter. She told us that her daughter’s car had flipped, and that a man (they called him the “Good Samaritan”) had stopped his car to help her. A drunk driver was speeding and killed both of them. It was two weeks her college graduation party, and it was turned into a funeral service instead. The man had a wife and three children.
I remember crying on Blue’s shoulder and his head was in his hands. I remember tissues being passed around and the frail mother’s hand shaking. And I remember her telling us that her daughter loved animals, but, despite her taking care of them after her daughter’s passing, they all died shortly after, as if they just missed her too much.
Our parents wrote us letters after they learned of our passing about everything they wish they had told us, and when we got upstairs Tyler had told us to write a letter to somebody on what we wish we had told them. We got to read them out loud.
When Seby Pletcher and Ryan Gwin read theirs, they cried. It was amazing how open and vulnerable we could all be with each other, even if we were a group of 20 acquaintances at the beginning of this journey.
The next day we ran through the assembly about three times before the actual performance. But when the junior and senior classes filled the audience, the baby pictures flashed, and those who “died” blew out the flame of the candles that represented our lived.
This experience was one none of those involved will forget, and I’m so grateful for this experience.