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May 26, 2009

My Turn: Don't let chance decide your fate


This week's "My turn" column is by Douglas Exley, retired Gilbertsville-Mount Upton school superintendent.

"I can't choose a side. I have to know what I'm flipping for."

These were the feverish words spoken by the old store clerk to Anton Chigurh in a defining moment from Cormac McCarthy's riveting novel, "No Country for Old Men."

The scene underscores the central theme of his novels: the issue of fate and whether or not you have control over what happens to you.

Chigurh tells the old man to just pick a side of the coin he is flipping because it's been predetermined by fate what will happen to him.

The old man can't accept this and doesn't want to call one side or the other because he doesn't understand why he has to engage in the coin toss. He wants to believe you do have the power, or right, to choose what happens to you and why.

To Chigurh, however, whether you live or die is as simple as heads or tails.

When you decide to run out to the store late at night to get some ice cream and are nearly broadsided by an oncoming car, is it fate that the other person was there at that moment or was it your choice to make that drive in the first place?

There are countless decisions, minor and major, made by individuals every day that can be looked at to see on which side of the ledger they might fall.

As adults, we have many experiences that help guide us in making decisions and thereby assuming more control over our lives and what we choose to do or not.

As a function of age, young people do not have the same background of life experiences, and most are not as well-equipped to quickly make sound decisions day in and day out.

Add to that the unrelenting push of peer pressure and the desire to fit in and it is easy to see how a young person's decision-making abilities can become distorted. If you throw into this mix the added factor of alcohol or drug use, then those decision-making abilities become even more impaired. When that happens, the bar of fate vs. choice strongly shifts to the side of the vagaries of fate, and the subsequent results are often extremely costly.

This was the case this past month when a terrible tragedy struck several families in our immediate area. In a deadly automobile accident, one young person was killed, three were gravely injured, and the young driver who survived relatively unscathed ended up in jail.

He awaits sentencing on vehicular manslaughter, and his life, like those of the passengers in his vehicle and their families, will never be the same.

After the news of the accident, the school district attended by several of the students, Gilbertsville-Mount Upton, quickly took steps to prepare to assist the grieving students and families.

Counselors, support personnel, local clergy and others were brought into the school to help all of those who had been so terribly impacted by this tragedy.

Students tried to console one another and somehow try to make sense out of why this had to happen to their classmates. It's a scene played out all too often in our area.

Is there anything more we can do? Can adults, schools, communities and the young people whose lives are at risk take stronger steps to protect them from a similar fate to what happened to the young people last month outside of Bainbridge?

If you think the answer seems to be "no," then we have to think that kids will be kids and unfortunately these horrible accidents will most likely continue and we will read about them in the newspaper.

If you disagree, then all of us have to stand up and take notice and do more to help young people understand there is a choice. And that choice is that no matter what the situation, no matter what it might do to a friendship or a relationship, you will never get behind the wheel of a vehicle when you have been using alcohol or drugs and you will never get into a vehicle where the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

You save your life first, then do everything possible to make sure no one else you are with gets into the vehicle. We have to help empower young people and let them know they have the right and abilities to make that choice. Quite frankly, it's a matter of life and death.

I don't like to think what happens to us in life, as what happens to many characters in "No Country for Old Men," is predetermined by fate, or whether the coin winds up heads or tails.

I hope young people will stop getting into cars or trucks where theirs or someone else's ability to drive is impaired, and they leave their life up to a flip of a coin; heads, I'm lucky and make it home, tails, I don't.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.