Our family had a remarkable day of exploration and discovery today. Our travels and conversations certainly provided much food for thought for upcoming blog posts on several topics! For now, in addition to uploading about 150 pictures to Flickr from our day, I’ll tell a sad tale we learned when we were in Kingfisher. Kingfisher, Oklahoma is located about an hour west of where we currently live (in Edmond) at the intersection of Oklahoma highways 81 (which roughly follows the same path as the Chisholm Trail) and highway 33. When visiting the Kingfisher Chisholm Trail Museum, the curator recommend we visit the Kingfisher Park (formerly named “Oklahoma Park”) and the old swinging bridge which goes over the river there. It was built just after the turn of the 20th century.

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Upon crossing the bridge (on foot) we immediately noticed photographs and some other items hung on the side of the bridge, apparently as a memorial. There were also photographs of kids, and one boy in particular.

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After playing at the park, we were returning to our car when we noticed two young people going out onto the bridge. My older daughter and I went back out, and asked them if they knew the story of the memorial. It turned out that on June 21st, less than two months ago, the cousin of the girl we spoke to had jumped off the bridge and drowned. Apparently another friend had jumped first and was able to swim to the side of the river to safety. The boy who ended up drowning (Jesse Taylor) jumped second and surfaced once, but never again– his body was found four days later over a mile downstream. Heavy rains had drenched Oklahoma in June and the river was running MUCH higher than normal. The sister of the girl we talked to had actually jumped in as well to try and save Jesse, but was barely able to swim out of the river herself. I did a search on the Enid newspaper website this evening and found this article, “Teen’s body found 1.5 miles from bridge on Uncle John Creek,” from June 24th that gives more details about the tragedy.

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It was difficult to know what to say in a situation like this. Tragedy is always hard to understand and deal with, particularly when it strikes someone in the flower of youth. In this case, poor decision-making clearly played a role, but that does not make the tragedy itself any easier to bear for those who knew Jesse, I am sure.

This is the second story of an Oklahoma teen I’ve heard about in the past month who has died recently. The other was a boy in Mustang who died in May, reportedly following a pharming party he had attended and in which he participated. Before hearing that story, I didn’t even know what a “pharming party” was. Evidently Time magazine carried a big article about this in 2005, but that had bypassed my radar screen. According to one of the high school teachers in our July Digital Learning Academy workshop, pharming parties are common and popular among many teens in our state.

As we consider issues that matter and are worthy of our passionate advocacy, helping encourage young people to develop sound decision making skills should figure highly on that list. “Traditional schooling” which is focused on content transmission, rather than the cultivation of relationships and the sort of apprentice / mentor learning which had proven highly effective for centuries in imparting wisdom as well as knowledge/skills to the young, typically does a poor job helping young people develop good decision making skills.

Our schools need to change in many ways, and one basic way they need to change is in focusing more on ISSUES THAT MATTER. The lives of these two young men who died in May and June in Oklahoma clearly are topics and issues that matter– and I hope the students in both Kingfisher as well as Mustang will take time this next year to discuss and process the impact of these events on their own lives– not simply after school or in the hallway, but also DURING class in the “boundaries of the bell” time when students are “formally” in school. I think we should encourage a school as well as community culture that encourages reasoned risk taking and helps students learn from their mistakes in life. It is tragic when the mistakes of youth prove fatal, however, as they did in both these cases. By taking time to celebrate the lives of these two young men, as well as reflect on what their lives and deaths can and should mean to those they left behind, perhaps those who ARE left behind can tangibly benefit from that process of reflection, sharing and study.

From the ashes of tragedy can arise a new flower of hope. I pray that is the case for both these Oklahoma boys and the loved ones they left behind.

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On this day..

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4 Responses to Tragedy on the Kingfisher bridge

  1. Gary Stager says:

    Hi Wes,

    I surely understand how moved you were by these two tragedies and I also desire your desire to “do something.” Sure, schools could be more personal intimate places where kids and adults sustained better relationships.

    Schools ARE often cold thoughtless places. I went looking for the newspaper article from 2001 that told the story of the Indianapolis school sophomores forced to take the state standardized tests on 9/11 AFTER they watched the planes hit buildings in America. One principal quoted in the article said that he told the terrified students that they could talk about their feelings AFTER they paid attention and did well on the test. I know that Open Court, Success for All and other shrink-wrapped curricula for “other kids” may talk about dogs, but disallow a little boy from finishing a heartfelt expression of sadness that began with, “Teacher, my dog died last night.”

    If you’re yearning for schools to be better places for kids, I’m with you. If you think the answer is some sort of curriculum where “they focus on issues that matter,” then your well-meaning intent will inevitably deteriorate into the transmission of information. Don’t do drugs! Don’t jump off bridges!

    Anytime schools try to standardize any good idea, things go awry. When you shrinkwrap something it dies. Just look at D.A.R.E. It seems like a mentoring program, right? Mentoring is good, we are told. Well, having officer Billy come into schools to scare kids and snitch on their family members has turned out to be wildly ineffective, yet school leaders lack the courage to just say no to “just say no.” Perhaps we could ban the DARE Program from schools and recover the time for recess, band, art or theatre – activities that make us human, not paranoid snitches.

    Do you really think that being told that or even discussing your feelings in a coercive classroom setting, such as in a health class, will make a difference? Sadly I don’t. I guess the best we can do is be nice to the kids we meet and hope for the best.

    FYI… Here are but a few D.A.R.E. references…

    http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/youthissues/1059145293.html
    http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/controversies/20070705122620.html
    http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/abstract/94/6/1027
    http://erx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/2/221
    http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0037-7791(199408)41%3A3%3C448%3ATADTDE%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T
    http://www.reconsider.org/issues/education/dare.htm
    http://www.druglibrary.org/think/~jnr/oakland.htm
    http://www.ci.slc.ut.us/mayor/pressreleases/Dare%20Revamp%2021501.htm
    http://paranoia.lycaeum.org/war.on.drugs/action/

  2. Gary Stager says:

    I left out a thought implicit in my last message (which is obviously being screened now since I included URLs.)

    It’s not as if schools don’t already teach that it’s a bad idea to take drugs or jump off bridges.

  3. Tina Steele says:

    Wes. Thank you for sharing these stories. It is especially meaningful since I also live in OK. My own son has had his struggles, and I was lucky that caring people had his school recognized his suicidal tendencies in middle school. Students today have so many things bombarding them. The breakdown of the family has contributed to so many problems. My son has never been the same when his girlfriend died at age 15 of leukemia. (They burried her on her 16th birthday). Death is difficult for young people to understand.

    On a less serious note:

    I’ve tagged you on 8 random facts meme
    http://mstina.wordpress.com

  4. tom says:

    Wes,
    That really is tragic, and I think you hit on something very critical:
    “encourage a school as well as community culture that encourages reasoned risk taking and helps students learn from their mistakes in life”.
    Currently parents, communities and the legal system put an expectation on schools to minimize risks to students, and to ensure student success without having to experience failures. We have divorced mistakes and risk from learning., and the apprentice-craftsman mode of teaching skills and judgment is considered antiquated. But of course no craftsman would agree to take on 30 apprentices at the same time either. There’s just not enough time for mistakes and not enough insurance for risks.

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