Dear Annie: Your predecessor Ann Landers published a poem called “Dead at Seventeen” to get the attention of new drivers and impress upon them the dangers and responsibilities of driving a car. Might you have that on file somewhere? I have a 17-year-old granddaughter with a new driver’s license, whom I’d like to see it.
— Shirley in Indiana
Dear Shirley: This poem has been making an impression on teens for decades now and is as relevant as ever. Here it is.
“Dead at Seventeen,” by John Berrio
Agony claws my mind. I am a statistic. When I first got here I felt very much alone. I was overwhelmed by grief, and I expected to find sympathy. I found no sympathy. I saw only thousands of others whose bodies were as badly mangled as mine. I was given a number and placed in a category. The category was called “Traffic Fatalities.”
The day I died was an ordinary school day. How I wish I had taken the bus! But I was too cool for the bus. I remember how I wheedled the car out of Mom. “Special favor,” I pleaded. “All the kids drive.” When the 2:50 p.m. bell rang, I threw my books in the locker … free until tomorrow morning! I ran to the parking lot, excited at the thought of driving a car and being my own boss.
It doesn’t matter how the accident happened. I was goofing off — going too fast, taking crazy chances. But I was enjoying my freedom and having fun. The last thing I remember was passing an old lady who seemed to be going awfully slow. I heard a crash and felt a terrific jolt. Glass and steel flew everywhere. My whole body seemed to be turning inside out. I heard myself scream.
Suddenly, I awakened. It was very quiet. A police officer was standing over me. I saw a doctor. My body was mangled. I was saturated with blood. Pieces of jagged glass were sticking out all over. Strange that I couldn’t feel anything. Hey, don’t pull that sheet over my head. I can’t be dead. I’m only 17. I’ve got a date tonight. I’m supposed to have a wonderful life ahead of me. I haven’t lived yet. I can’t be dead.
Later I was placed in a drawer. My folks came to identify me. Why did they have to see me like this? Why did I have to look at Mom’s eyes when she faced the most terrible ordeal of her life? Dad suddenly looked very old. He told the man in charge, “Yes, he’s our son.”
The funeral was weird. I saw all my relatives and friends walk toward the casket. They looked at me with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. Some of my buddies were crying. A few of the girls touched my hand and sobbed as they walked by. Please, somebody — wake me up! Get me out of here. I can’t bear to see Mom and Dad in such pain. My grandparents are so weak from grief they can barely walk. My brother and sister are like zombies. They move like robots. In a daze. Everybody. No one can believe this. I can’t believe it, either.
Please, don’t bury me! I’m not dead! I have a lot of living to do! I want to laugh and run again. I want to sing and dance. Please don’t put me in the ground! I promise if you give me just one more chance, God, I’ll be the most careful driver in the whole world. All I want is one more chance. Please, God, I’m only 17.