An open letter to young people and adults all over the world about rules, guidance, and hoping for the best.
I woke up yesterday morning like I do every morning; the first alarm went off with its choir of crickets to gently bring me to consciousness. I stirred and hit snooze. The second alarm went off, this time it’s the sound of loud, repeating buzzes from across the room since the first alarm never does the trick. I hit snooze on that one and return to my bed. I repeated this cycle 2 to 3 times before I finally hit off on either alarm.
I greeted the dog while she stretched on her lavender blanket in the corner of the room. I turned on the radio and began my preparations for another amazing day in the life of me, which isn’t really amazing at all.
A news story was unfolding. A train derailed a few miles from my house. Rumor had it there were two young people killed in the incident. As the hours passed, more information became public and hearts continued to break with every available detail. By early evening, the basic information was out: The victims, both 19 years young, were simply ‘hanging out’ on a bridge when a slow freight train carrying coal began passing the girl’s backs.
The train derailed, flipped, and buried them in coal. Buried them. They were not struck. They were not in the way of the train, they were near it. When the coal was finally moved and the girls' bodies unearthed, they were in a sitting position. This description from various news outlets made me think of Pompeii. The girls were frozen in time and gone forever, all because they were 'hanging out.' Having Fun.
For the entire day, I couldn’t stop thinking of these girls and their loved ones. How would their parents ever reconcile this in their heads and hearts? How many times, when the girls were children, were they told “don’t play on train tracks?" My guess? Many. We all were told the same thing. Just two weeks ago, I talked with Morgan, my 5-year-old friend, about railroad safety - a discussion inspired by the same tracks on which the aforementioned accident happened.
Until I knew the ages and identities of the young people killed, my head was spinning out of control with thoughts of the kids I know through a few work-service trips I chaperoned. I still see these kids on Facebook, photos of them with drinks in hands and fun being had, all of them just ‘hanging out.’ Any one of them might have ignored the rules of the railroad. I might have done the same thing at that age, just to get a picture of town from the bridge like the shot one of the girls uploaded to Twitter in the hour before the derailment.
I am somewhat certain I can speak for all of us in the Ellicott City and Catonsville areas when I say, there will be none of that from here on out. This is not a letter specifically about railroad safety. It’s about how we instill common sense into our young people. Most adults know rules are set for a reason. Most adults know better than to ignore the rules, but sometimes do anyway. No one is perfect, but let’s take a moment to think about our own actions and how to lead by example. There are plenty of outstanding adults raising fantastic kids out there - I’m lucky enough to know a slew of them - but we have to remind ourselves that many kids don’t want to hear rules in the form of commands.
Who wants to be told what to do, anyway? Especially in the teen years? Who wants to be controlled when they’re just getting a taste of freedom, right? Later curfews! Driving! Experimenting with drinking and drugs! Moving out of our parents’ houses! All this 'cool' stuff came along and makes many young people want nothing to do with rules! Hey Adults! Lest ye forget the feeling of invincibility that surfaced during our teen years? Thanks to time and having more obligations in life, we tend to forget what it’s like to be young. We forget we didn’t know better until we lived through our own mistakes, our own accidents, news of friends being hurt, or killed, or dying of a horrific illness at a young age. Experiences like this could be called “growing pains” (sans the Kirk Cameron) which are all the happenings that weigh on our souls and hinder our fearlessness. Things that give us perspective, things that we learn from and keep in mind as we continue our journey through life. Things that have yet to take a toll on the free spirits that are our young people.
With that in mind, perhaps the rules we want to teach our kids can come off as advice as opposed to commands. Kids are inquisitive from the get go, so when they ask “Why?”, maybe we shouldn’t answer with the cliche go-to of “Because I said so.”
We can use our own experiences to educate our kids on life lessons. We don’t have to shout. Not at first, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times people (kids and adults alike) need to be put in check, but leading by example and engaging conversation about rules might have a more lasting affect on young people. I admit, I can only speak on what I have observed and practiced with kids that are not my own. I won’t pretend I know what it’s like to be a parent or guardian. It’s very easy for me to write things I don’t have to implement on a daily basis. I just wish there was a way to keep those girls off the bridge a few nights ago, which is why I’m taking such liberties to write anything at all. It’s the only thing I can do.
I am well aware that everyone has a mind of their own, and there will be times kids will do what they want. I am certain the girls who were needlessly taken from the world had been told to not play on train tracks, but if there is any way we can keep something like that from happening again, I’m all for it - even if it means me publishing a letter to the internet about how to instill rules in kids even though I’m not a parent.
To the young people, I can’t say it enough - rules don’t exist to keep you from being free - they exist to keep you safe. Safe now to be free later. I invite you to consider this idea the next time you don’t want to listen to an adult. The next time you decide to do something you know is foolish. The next time you want to 'levitate' over the street below you with your feet dangling off a railroad bridge. I’m happy to tell you, as someone who wasn’t the biggest rule-breaker back in the day, it’s okay to follow the rules.
My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the girls.