Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Greater Good

On Teen-Age Drinking and Situational Ethics

It was 10:12 p.m., right in the middle of the brief thirty minutes I reserve for myself each day. My kids were tucked in their beds; their oldest brother was engrossed in Halo on the living room sofa. I was two minutes and a text message away. Sweat poured down my face as I worked my legs on the elliptical machine in my apartment complex’s small gym, devouring a trashy sci-fi novel to take my mind off my burning muscles.

Then with an icy blast, the door flew open, and a girl, naked from the waist up, staggered in and slumped against the wall, moaning, her amber hair spreading out to cover her breasts.

This wholly unexpected apparition was almost immediately followed by a slightly more coherent and more clothed young woman, who slurred, “Sammy, Sammy, are you okay? Come on, we have to get home.”

And two seconds later, a young man joined the party, with backwards baseball cap, low riding denim shorts, and a vocabulary laced with Marine Corps-style expletives. “Get Sammy in my car, Holly. Get in the goddamn motherfucking car. Jesus, I cannot fucking believe this. I have to drive you home now. My dad will go apeshit if he comes home to this.”

For about a second, which felt more like an hour, I really wanted the drama unfolding in front of me to be someone else’s problem. My precious half hour with the elliptical and some escapist fiction is about the only thing I have to look forward to in an otherwise frantic day of work and kids and studying for my Ed.D. program.

But it was not somebody else’s problem. It was my problem. I leapt off the elliptical, parked myself with hands on hips, and gave the three teens my best “don’t fuck with me because I have gone through childbirth four times and am way meaner than you are” stare. “Nobody. Is. Driving. Anyone. Anywhere. Except. Me,” I declared.

The two teens who were still capable of some cognitive processing stared at me in confusion. “Are you gonna call the cops on us, lady?” the boy asked.

The thought had definitely crossed my mind. “No, I am not,” I replied. “And I am also going to spare you the lecture on underage drinking that you all desperately need. You are going to get some clothes on that girl,” I pointed to the bare-breasted one who was so out of it she couldn’t tell what was going on. “And I am going to drive you girls home.”

A million thoughts were racing through my head. Was Sammy too sick to transport? Should I call an ambulance instead? Her breathing seemed okay, and her pulse felt normal, but I am not a trained medic. What if she’d had more than alcohol? Clearly I had an underage drinking situation on my hands, at best. That the girls had been up to other underage things was also fairly obvious, given Sammy’s state of undress.

In the moment, I decided to deal with the immediate need—to keep that drunk kid out of his car and off the road. And to get those girls home.

“Get your things together,” I told them. “I’ll run home and grab my car.”

I jogged to my apartment and started to say to my 14 year old, “If you EVER get so drunk at a party that you’re almost ready to pass out, so help me I will…” Then I stopped.

“You will what, mom?” my kid asked.

“I will drive you home,” I said slowly. “Anytime, anywhere. No questions asked. Please don’t drink, because you’re too young. But if you do, just know that I will come and get you.”

“You’re weird, Mom,” he shrugged, turning back to his Halo game.

I took the car back to the gym, where we managed to get Sammy into the backseat and strapped her in. She was still moaning, but seemed a little more lucid. Holly sat in the front seat and gave me directions.

“Do you think my Mom is going to know I’ve been drinking?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure she will,” I replied.

“What should I tell her?”

“I guess if it were me, I would tell her the truth.”

As we drove, Holly told me a little about her life. She said she wanted to stop partying, but she just didn’t know how. She felt really bad about letting her mom down.

“You should find something that makes you happy and do that instead,” I told her, adding, “Those boys you were with tonight, they’re total losers.”

“You think so?”

“I know so,” I said grimly.

By the time I dropped Holly off, Sammy was sober enough to give me directions to her house as well. I walked her up to the door and knocked, hoping desperately someone would be home. Someone was. I briefly explained the situation, deposited the girl in her mother’s arms, and left.

When I got home, my son and I did some research about teen drinking and driving. The statistics are a little frightening. According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website ( 
  • One in five teenagers binge drink, while only one in 100 parents believe their teens binge drink. 
  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, with one in three fatal accidents involving alcohol.
  • High school students who drink or do drugs are five times more likely to drop out of school or feel that grades aren’t important.

Clearly the situation I faced is an all too common one, and parents are in total avoidance mode. So what can we do? First, I think we have to have some uncomfortable conversations with our teenagers. And secondly, in moments like the one I encountered, I think we have to climb down from the moral high ground and embrace the reality of the situation. We have to keep drunk kids from driving.

The “SafeRides” program is one way that communities are saving lives by preventing teens from driving drunk. The program uses volunteers to provide rides for intoxicated teens, with no questions asked. We don’t have a program like this in Idaho, but I would definitely consider working with other teen parents to start one.

Similarly, parents and teens involved in Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) sign a “Contract for Life,” in which the teen promises to call the parent if he or she is too drunk to drive, and the parent promises, like I did with my son, to give the child a ride, no questions asked. Local SADD coordinators can be reached at this website:

I teach ethics at my college, and while I know that we have to address the morality and legality of teen drinking, I also believe that I have a duty, in a crisis situation, to set aside morality in the abstract, and to act in a way that provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Which means that no matter how I happen to feel personally about underage drinking, in the moment, I had to keep the underage drinkers from driving.

Should I have called the police? First responders? Maybe so. I chose in the moment to look at a bigger picture. Holly and Sammy will have some hard conversations to face with their parents. I hope they can have the courage to confront their problems, and to turn their lives around. But because of the sober choice I made, one thing is sure: they lived to tell about it.