We have all seen them. Far too often we have seen them - white wooden crosses on the side of the road, adorned with flowers and Teddy bears and goodbye letters from devastated friends. These impromptu memorials generally mark the spot where a life was tragically lost in an automobile accident.
We pay attention to these memorials, don't we? I know I do, and whenever I see one I find myself wondering who the person was and if they happened to be a teenager. And then I usually say a prayer for my own children, and ask God to protect them from a similar fate, because life is so precious and so fragile and none of us are immortal. We all should understand that it can end in the twinkling of an eye - and that no one is immune from sudden death on the highway.
But usually the white flower-strewn crosses are in other people's communities and commemorate people who are strangers, whose faces we have never seen and whose stories we will never know.
But sometimes they aren't and they don't. Sometimes the memorials are a hundred yards from our own driveways and were put there to remember a person whose smiling face we are accustomed to seeing every day.
Saturday was a beautiful fall day. I spent it with my wife and my three children in Athens, along with a circle of close friends and 95,000 other lovers of Southern college football. Little did I know that at 3:45 Saturday afternoon, as I was enjoying the company of my friends and family, 60 miles away in Conyers, a stone's throw from my front door, three students from my high school were in an automobile, hurtling out of control on a curve that should have been straightened out a long time ago. The car left the roadway and rolled, crashing into a tree, and one promising young life ended instantly. Others were changed forever in ways that we will never fully know or understand.
I got the news around 7 p.m. when my daughter Jenna and her friends met me at our car. The horrific news had made the rounds, via text-messaging, primarily. When we arrived home Saturday night, we learned more about the terrible accident than we wanted to know, and when I looked at the yearbook picture of Mariyam Crossley, the beautiful young lady whose life was snatched away so suddenly, I couldn't hold the tears back. I didn't teach her, but I saw her virtually every day, and she always - and I mean always - had a smile on her face as we passed in the hallway or as she walked past my door.
And my heart went out to the two young men who were also in the car, because even though they are OK physically, they will carry an awful burden for a long, long time.
But Sunday evening I was reminded of how lucky I am to be a teacher at Heritage High School. Once again I was reminded of how many wonderful young people we have in this county. At about 5 p.m. Sunday evening, a crowd of more than 100 of the finest teenagers you could ever hope to know gathered at the site of the accident, along with a handful of adults who were there to minister to and support the grieving students in any way they could.
And you need to know that it was as diverse a group of students as you could ever imagine - a testament to Mariyam, to be sure, and to the fact that she touched the lives of a large cross-section of the Heritage population; but also a testimony to the fact that at Heritage High School, when the chips are down, the student body comes together and stands behind one another and lifts one another up and sustains one another until the crisis has passed.
There will be rough days ahead for Mariyam's friends and family, as well as for the other students who were with her. We will walk past her locker each day, wishing we could still see her standing there with an armload of books and a smile on her face. Students and teachers who had classes with her won't be able to avoid looking at her empty desk. There will be the visitation and the memorial service and at next week's homecoming, there will be an important contestant missing.
But eventually, for us, life will go on, and the flowers on the white cross will whither and fade away, leaving us with memories that will grow dim with time.
But I hope the memory of Mariyam Crossley will serve a purpose. I hope, and pray, that it will help the friends she left behind realize that life is precious and fragile. I hope that they will embrace life on her behalf and take advantage of the opportunities they have while they have them - and I hope they will slow down and be more careful and do everything they can to make sure that Mariyam's white cross is the last one we'll have in our community for a long, long time.
Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08bellsouth.net.