One of my most haunting college memories is from a house party with a bunch of hockey players.
I was there with my former roommate– who was dating a hockey player– my cousin, and my very close friend. We had been drinking, as was customary for a Saturday night at OU, and I was admittedly pretty intoxicated.
At some point in the evening I entered the livingroom to see a very, very large hockey player face-down on the ground. It looked like he was passed out. Adrenaline kicked in and I immediately sprung into action. I was afraid he would puke and drown in it, or that he had cracked his head when he dropped, or I don’t even know.. just that he didn’t look right.
I ran over to him and began to try and flip him over to see if he was breathing, to see if he needed medical attention. No one would help me.
I was confused. I kept tugging on his arm and asking for help– this guy was huge. No one budged.
He wasn’t moving at all. I was getting scared and increasingly mad that everyone seemed to be standing in a circle around the edges of the room motionless.
After what felt like several minutes, this dude got up and started laughing. The room filled with garish, carnivalesque laughter.
He was fine. He had been faking it.
I was horrified.
I ran all the way back to my house. I felt so profoundly stupid.
How many of them had been in on it? My friend Nick consoled me as I sobbed on his shoulder, saying he couldn’t tell it was a prank either. My sweet little cousin said “I was one step behind you honey.”
I just kept saying “He looked like a ragdoll. I thought he was dead.”
I think often about that night. It has stuck with me for nearly a decade now. That feeling of helplessness and embarrassment stemming from what should have been the right instinct. To run in. To protect. To help a human I thought was in danger. It was a filthy trick that I have never ever forgotten.
Each time a hazing or drinking death comes up in the news– like the recent tragic story of Timothy Piazza at Penn State— I relive the somewhat blurry moments of that hockey party.
As an adult with a child on the way, I again feel helpless when I hear stories like this. With the advent of social media, there is a new level of potential embarrassment and peer pressure layered onto the enormity of young adult social situations. What if someone had taken a video or a Snapchat of that moment in my life and broadcast it to the world? The multiplicitous eyes that could have mocked me or left sneering comments…
But when I think about it now, I’m so glad that the outcome was just me looking like a silly drunk girl. Because the outcome could have been a mother losing a son.
I’m glad I was wrong. I’m glad I looked stupid. I’m glad I was raised to be someone who runs in.
The details of Piazza’s death are stupefying. Not least of which is the fact that it took hours for anyone to call for help. If even one of those boys had the sense to run in, to help, to protect, maybe this story would have turned out differently.
Now the question becomes, in this modern age of swift and relentless judgment, how can we raise kids who are willing to run in? Even when it means getting laughed at.
I think the answer is manyfold, but we can start with teaching empathy and personal responsibility.
Every time I made a poor decision, my parents would ask me something like “how do you think that made your sister feel?” I was trained to think about how my words and actions impacted other people. This doesn’t mean that I never do careless things, but it does mean that when my actions hurt another person, it bothers me deeply and I am compelled to rectify the situation.
As the oldest child, the heaviness of my role was constantly reinforced. I am responsible for not only my actions, but I am also a guide to the smaller people who look up to me. Sometimes the burden of this responsibility was stifling and overwhelming, but ultimately it made me very prepared for a world where many people are going to need many things from you. I think of myself as a steward of those in my care. If I let them down, I let myself down. When my child makes a decision that hurts another person or sets a bad example, I will ask them to think about the consequences of those actions.
This is how you build an internal compass. A compass that works no matter who is standing around watching, judging, trying to sway it.
The day after that party I called home. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I was obsessively stewing on it. My mom put my dad on the phone. He asked if I had been drinking, a question I answered truthfully. And then he said he was sorry I had been tricked, that he was proud of my instinct to help and that I did the right thing…. even if I ended up looking like a fool. And I believed him.
It didn’t take the sting of embarrassment away, but it reinforced that compass they had worked so long to calibrate in me.
These aren’t new lessons. They aren’t tied to any specific faith. They are very basic ground rules for operating in a world with other humans. And it is high time they make a comeback.