'I don't know what I can say except I'm sorry."
How many times have we heard those words? Wednesday we heard them from Michael Schoenfeld, the 17-year-old sentenced to 30 days in a juvenile detention facility and 500 hours of community service for recklessly causing the car crash that killed his best friend and two others.
I've heard the exact same phrase from my own 17-year-old son--a former playmate of Schoenfeld's when they were elementary schoolers--and from my 14-year-old, too. I've heard it from relatives and friends. I've said it--and at moments, meant it--myself.
Schoenfeld may be too young or too traumatized to know it, but there is always something else we can say when our behavior irrevocably hurts others.
But "sorry" is a great place to start.
Especially for Schoenfeld, a Takoma Park resident whose voice shook and who one observer says "looked like he had the weight of the world" bearing on him as he stood before a Montgomery District Court judge and the sobbing family members of crash victims. His words: "Killing your best friend, it's hard to go through life knowing that."
Who can imagine how hard? I last wrote about Schoenfeld in March, before he was found responsible for the July 1998 accident on East West Highway that killed Irn "Nu" Williams and Matthew Waymon, both 16, and John Francis Wert, 40-year-old husband and father of three. Witnesses said Schoenfeld, driving his mother's Subaru Outback with five other teenagers crammed inside, swerved between several cars before losing control at 68 mph--more than twice the posted limit. Skidding into oncoming traffic, the car flipped over onto Wert's truck and an Acura.
Schoenfeld's passengers testified at his July trial that they'd screamed for him to slow down.
This kind of tragedy drives a stake of fear through parents--not because Schoenfeld is a monster but because he isn't one. Tragically, he behaved like numerous teenagers and too many adults--recklessly, foolishly, yet in a manner consistent with young folks' conviction of their invulnerability.
Schoenfeld, now a high school senior, said more Wednesday:
"I wake up every morning thinking this is a nightmare and realize it wasn't," he told Judge Eric M. Johnson. " . . . I hate to say it [but] I was the lucky one. I'm alive. God saved me for some reason. I wish He had saved Matt, Nu and John Wert. I wish I could bring them back, but there's nothing I can do."
To bring them back? No, and yet . . .
As a grown-up who hates apologizing, as a mom of precious teenagers, as a soul who cringes to think what Schoenfeld must have felt, waking in a hospital to learn that he'd accidentally squandered his beloved friend's life and the lives of two others, I say this:
There is more you can say, Michael. Something you can do.
You can explain to John Wert's and Nu's and Matt's kin--up close and personal and not in court where the law required you to be--the depths of your sorrow. Lynne Waymon, your buddy Matt's mother, says you recently wrote her family an apologetic letter taking responsibility for the crash. That's a great start.
You can continue by admitting to each victim's family what they must already know--that you meant no harm but that you were 16, had just gotten your license and wanted to give your pals a quick, vehicular buzz. You can confess how horrible you feel for having instead given them, and yourself, a package of impossible pain.
The victims' families might curse or reject you, or perhaps repeat your words in one of several pending lawsuits. Tough. Your comfort isn't at issue.
Your soul and peace of mind are.
Your community service requires educating teenagers about reckless driving. Good, you can go to Scout meetings, churches, schools--Montgomery Blair High, where Matt and Nu and you once were classmates, for starters--or stand on street corners if necessary to give kids some astounding news: They're not invincible. A car isn't a toy, and whenever teenagers race, weave back and forth, hang out of windows or otherwise treat vehicles like amusement park rides, they risk losing every incalculable thing you, the crash victims and their families lost.
Mostly, you can make your life the best proof of why you are alive. God indeed saved you for a reason. Maybe you can make the "luck" that pulled you from that mess of crushed metal our luck as well.
Maybe you'll prevent a death. Maybe you'll keep five kids out of wheelchairs.
Maybe, if you can't earn your victims' families' forgiveness, you'll earn something better. Maybe by recognizing all you can say and do--by risking yourself for good as fully as you risked yourself for sport--you can forgive yourself.
CAPTION: Michael Schoenfeld apologized for his role in crash that killed three.
CAPTION: Irn "Nu" Williams's aunt Mary Jansen, left, cousin Jerry Alexander and mother Maureen Brogen.