Graveside chats

Student recalls events of ‘Every 15 Minutes’


Erin Sheffield

As each student died, sponsors taped mock tombstones to the trophy cases.

Her eyes squinch up at the ceiling. It takes her a few seconds to answer my question.

“We were in theater class together,” she finally replies. “That was our freshman year, huh? So we were in theater together, doing ‘fun projects’ and making ‘friends’ together.”

I burst out laughing. She’s making a pointed remark about how often the freshmen bickered there. We never legitimately fought; rather, it was a class of very invested, theatrical people, and rarely did we agree creatively on what to do for a project.

“Clearly, we had different experiences, ma’am,” I respond.

“It was a nice way of putting it, Erin!” She’s giggling as well. We manage to settle down enough to make it through the interview.

It’s strange looking back at “Every 15 Minutes.” It was an anti-distracted driving program from two years ago (April 7, 2016, to be specific). Because of a statistic stating distracted or drunk driving kills an American every 15 minutes, a student was taken from class, dressed and painted to look “dead” and blocked from contact with other students throughout the school day. Students also watched first responders at a staged car crash. At the end of the day, the dead stayed at a retreat center in Ceta Canyon overnight without any technology. The point was to show the effects of a sudden death on a person’s world and discourage bad driving practices before prom.

I was among the dead, and even today, I can recall every event which struck my heart. Few beside me truly remember, though, and it breaks my heart to see how many people forgot.

Consequently, I am here in an interview with junior Carly Behrens. It’s one of several interviews I will host about the program. She’s right; we shared theater class, along with biology. She knew about the effects of the program long before anyone else, because her older sister participated.

“She didn’t die, but she was in the car with the drunk driver,” Carly said. She told me this two years ago as well; it’s why she took the program so seriously. “I already knew what was happening and knew the sadness of going through that once already. It was so real for my sister being in it when I was younger, so I’d already felt those emotions.”

I wasn’t part of the crash like Carly’s sister was, though. I watched with the rest of my class on risers surrounding the damaged cars.

“I didn’t think they’d set it up so well,” junior Josie Brown said later on. I sat next to her in biology and saw the crash beside her. “There were two totaled cars. There were some kids inside. One car was worse than the other, and there were two kids in there who had blood on their eyes. It was very obvious they had gotten in an accident. There were police around and firemen, and then there was a policeman interviewing this one girl who was the drunk driver.”

I didn’t think they’d set it up so well.

— Josie Brown, 11

The girl was Hanna Green, a senior. I was in the one-act play with her. Interesting how watching her fail a sobriety test lowered my opinion of her so quickly. I had to remind myself it was all staged.

I walked back with Carly and Josie. The crash shook me somewhat, but we were focused on the rest of the day’s events.

“We were coming back inside, and I was like, ‘I wonder who’s going to get picked today,’” Carly said in the interview. “You said something like, ‘I don’t know, but it’ll be interesting to see who does.’ You played it off really well. I did not think you were going to die.” 

In reality, I was tense all day. I knew I would die that day, but I did not know when. I checked the clock, fearing the inevitable, until they called my name in fourth period–journalism. 

“That was a weird experience, because I was sitting right next to you,” junior John Flatt said. We became friends in journalism. I sat behind him every day. “The cops came in, and they did your little epitaph. That was weird, because I was like, ‘I’ve never thought about one of my friends getting an obituary.’ There was a little bit of a shock factor.”

I left the classroom, escorted by a trio of policemen. As I walked through the cafeteria to the office, I could practically taste the eyes crawling on me. Most I did not recognize, but I heard Carly hidden in the crowds.

I looked at you and started crying because I was so scared.

— Carly Behrens, 11

“I remember sitting in the cafeteria at lunch and hearing people’s names being called,” she said. “When I heard your name, I freaked out. They were all staring at me. I remember freaking out and being like, ‘Erin, no!’ You looked at me, but you weren’t allowed to say anything. I remember being really depressed.”

“Then you came back to theater that day, and we sat next to each other,” Carly said. “We were doing those plays, and one was a car wreck. They got in a drunk driving accident. You were sitting right next to me, and I looked at you and started crying because I was so scared. I remember you sitting next to me and it feeling so real again.”

The next hours were quieter. I finished out the day. The “dead” loaded onto a bus to a retreat center at Ceta Canyon with no outside contact.

We started with icebreakers. Those and dinner occupied most of the evening. I spent most of my time with a fellow freshman, Kelsey Taylor, because we were old friends with a good history. The darker emotions from earlier did not return until we broke the clay pot together.

I don’t exactly remember what was all said about the clay pot, but I remember how we broke it,” Kelsey Taylor said. “Everyone got a piece. I still have my piece.”

Erin Sheffield
My piece of the clay pot sits on a bookshelf in my room.

I do, too. It was meant to symbolize connectivity, to emphasize we were all parts of a greater whole. We had to have connectivity for what came that night.

After it seemed the camp was wrapping up and it was time for bed, the leaders came out with a bucket of letters–goodbye letters.

My name was on two: one from Mom, one from Dad. Instructions were simple: read the letters, write replies to whomever we desired. Kelsey, like most at the camp, wrote her replies throughout the night.

“It was very difficult for me, because I’m not a very emotional person, and I don’t write what I actually feel unless I’m bawling,” Kelsey said. “I have no control over my emotions. That was one of those times when I completely lost it and wrote everything I felt.”

After I finished reading, I couldn’t gather myself enough to reply to my parents. I knew I was in hysterics. I kept restarting, each time more frantic than the last, but I couldn’t form the thoughts completely enough. I eventually decided I would plan the letters over time and reply at graduation, and every few weeks, I write a new note of something to include. I felt that was more fitting than a rambling, handwritten rant of love with tear stain smudges. I could not possibly describe all the joys of having such supportive, caring, perfect parents in 10 years, forget one night, but I could try to squeeze in each detail over four.

I did, however, write to two teachers, and I wrote to my best friend, Nick Swensen.

“After I got the letter, I was sitting there, thinking about it,” Nick said in a FaceTime call. “I was pretty emotional. If you did die in a car crash, it would be really sudden. I personally wouldn’t know about it for a very long time, because I don’t have contact with anyone besides you who lives near there. I’d be absolutely devastated. It’d be the loss of one of my best friends in the whole world.”

He wrote back, too. I keep that letter with the ones from my parents.

It’s almost the end of the interview. Just talking to Carly brings everything back: reading the letters, hugging my parents when I came back again, reuniting with my friends, every last moment. I ask one last question, and she mulls over her answer carefully before answering.

“I feel like it changed my relationship with everyone a lot,” Carly said. “Every day could happen to be their last, and you never know when it’s going to be the last time you talk to someone or see someone. You have to cherish every moment.”

I thank her and stand up. The phrase sticks in my head. It is, to me at least, the greatest lesson one can draw from “Every 15 Minutes.”

You have to cherish every moment.