Five years ago tonight, 17-year-old Craig Grumet of Roslyn Heights died in a car accident on Wheatley Road. I had known Craig since he was 10 years old when I was his Group Leader at Camp Pontiac, in the summer of 1997.
I don't want to go into a whole recap of the events of that terrible week; there's more contemporaneous writing on the memorial webpage I set up about five days after the accident. Click here to visit the page, and sign the guestbook if you like.
Craig was an amazing kid, a pleasure to know and to be around, and had great potential, but like so many others his age he thought he was indestructible. As much as it pains me to say it, and as much as I loved him and still miss him, he died because he took risks he should not have taken; because he engaged in risky behavior without considering, or perhaps even perceiving, the risk. He made a mistake, the kind of mistake one cannot undo. And it cost him everything.
One of the recurring themes on this blog, and the focus of my recently-published Note in the Brooklyn Law Review (74 Brook. L. Rev. 439), is that parents and educators do young people no favors by teaching them that their acts and forbearances do not carry risk, that they don't have to bear the costs of their unwise choices, that their mistakes can always be un-done for them after the fact. Parenting and education practice, and the confluence between the two, have combined to create a generation of not only narcissistic and shortsighted, but dangerously reckless kids.
Sadly, Craig is hardly alone among teenagers killed in car accidents on Long Island; it seems we lose one every few weeks out here. Nor is he the only acquaintance of mine involved in a fatal Long Island crash; in 2002, another kid I knew from Pontiac, Blake Slade, was drag racing with a friend of his on Route 106 in Muttontown when they slammed into a Jeep making a left turn and killed its occupants, a young couple about to be married. Blake was 19 when this happened; the other boy was 17. They were sentenced to three years in prison.
No one has ever suggested, nor have I, that teenagers ought to be expected to have the wisdom of experience that adults have, be as cautious as adults, or avoid risk entirely. Taking risks and learning from mistakes is part of growing up. But we fail when we enable the former without requiring the latter. If a student knows that he will be excused, bailed out, accommodated, given another chance, etc., whenever he makes a mistake, if he knows that someone else will have to bear the costs of his mistakes, he has no incentive to even try to avoid making them. We don't need to smother and frighten kids into inertia, but we do need to teach them that their choices involve risk, and when they gamble and lose, they must pay a price.
Craig Grumet, five years ago tonight, paid the ultimate price. He gambled, he lost, and there was nothing left of him to be given another chance. He bore the full measure of that fatal roll of the dice. Despite what I've said, no one should have to pay for his first mistake with his life. If only one kid has since thought twice about taking a grave risk because he didn't want to end up like Craig, then something good came of it. His life lost may have saved someone else.
I can't believe it's been five years. I still miss that kid so much.