Fairfax County judge Helen Leiner looked sternly at the dozens of teens and their parents who had been summoned to her courtroom one day last week.
The family and juvenile court judge handles cases of child abuse, youth crime and other weighty matters. But on Thursday, the teens were there for a different purpose — receiving their driver’s licenses.
The unusual ceremony required by Virginia law sets the state apart from most others, where licenses are handed out at the department of motor vehicles or sent by mail. The solemnity of the courtroom, the story of a mother who lost a child in a wreck, and the playful and heartfelt entreaties from a Fairfax County police officer elevate the event into a coming-of-age ritual for hundreds of the county's teens and their fretful parents each week.
Many laughed during the ceremony, some cried and a few said they walked away with a profound new sense of responsibility.
“It’s not just facts, it’s personal,” said Cameron Long, 16, of the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. Her father, Steve Long, added, “It had a big impact.”
The personal would come in a bit, but the ceremony began with a video on drunken driving and a few facts from Fairfax County Officer Wayne Twombly. He said new drivers have a higher rate of crashes because of inexperience, distracted driving and teenagers’ lack of fear. He quizzed them on Virginia law for new drivers (one passenger under age 21 and a midnight curfew). He spoke about three fatal crashes of teens he has dealt with in his career.
“It will never leave me,” he said.
Jamie Pumpelly, the mother of a teen who died in a car wreck in 2005, then told them how that experience had stayed with her. She knew the exact number of days since her daughter had died driving home from a party: 4,032.
In front of a smiling photo of Jamie “Allie” Grimsley, Pumpelly relayed how the 18-year-old came to her two nights before she was to leave for college at West Virginia University. Grimsley wanted to attend one last party.
“She told me, ‘This is the last night I will see my friends,’ ” Pumpelly said. “Truer words have never been spoken.”
Grimsley, who had graduated from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, was the designated driver that night and didn’t drink, but on the way home she was distracted and her wheels went off the side of the road. The car slammed into a tree. Grimsley was wearing her seat belt, but she was killed instantly.
Pumpelly recalled slumping to the floor of the hospital when police told her that her daughter had died. When she got home, she said she couldn’t understand why her neighbors were going to work. Didn’t they know the teen had died?
Pumpelly said her son went to the morgue to identify his sister. He held her hand. The teen had red nail polish.
“Really bad things happen to good families,” Pumpelly said.
The mother of one teen sitting in the crowd cried softly as Pumpelly spoke.
Later, the teens and their parents filed up to collect their driver’s licenses and the ceremony ended. It would begin again the next week and the one after.
“If you can reach just one kid with the message, it’s worthwhile,” Twombly said.