Thursday, March 26, 2009

Speaker quiets auditorium full of students

Thursday nights are often the let's-go-somewhere and party night for a lot of Coker students. I am not sure that there was as much fun tonight. Before anyone had thought of a beer or cooler or shot, these students were blasted with a sobering dose of reality that could not be ignored.

Tonight they saw a video of friends having a Spring Break blast. They saw a video of these friends getting blasted and busting some really drunken dance-floor moves. The audience nodded along with the "Bully,Bully" lyrics even began to get into the music. And then Mark Sterner reappeared on stage dressed in an orange prison uniform. Behind him a photo of a demolished Lincoln town car. Then, another photo of a pile of metal, that had once been that automobile that had once been a party-car holding five best friends. From the mike came the words, "I wasn't the first person in my family to graduate from college. I was the first person in my family to to to prison." Mark Sterner, about a month from graduation had become a felon, convicted of killing his three best friends while driving with a blood-alcohol content level of 1.7 -- twice the legal limit in Florida. Mark was the least intoxicated of the five-person group. He got to drive. He also gets to live the rest of his life knowing he was responsible for the death of his three best friends. He doesn't mix words when he talks to audiences of students around the country. He outright says, I killed my three best friends.

Sterner's presentation is low key but highly polished. His story is personal and his story is riveting. His story is a nightmare. He tells the story hoping that his words keep another 21-year-old from creating the same nightmare.

At the beginning of the talk the students were talking, laughing, jostling, wondering why the speaker thought they might actually put their cell phones away while he was talking. Following the talk it was about 30 seconds before anyone moved from their seats. There did not appear any laughing, shouting to friends or the other normal end of talk action release. Most people just sort of walked out the doors, many appearing to be deep in their own thinking.

Coker College used some money from an NCAA grant and some other funds to bring this speaker to campus. The college works to help athletes and other students understand the need for right choices. There is no question -- this speaker was worth the investment. Somewhere, some night, some student is going to be moving toward his/her car and catch a memory glimpse of Mark in his orange prison jump suit and is going to find another way home.

Sterner told the audience he has now spoken to more than two million people with this message. He relives this nightmare in hopes that someone else will avoid a nightmare. It would be hard to believe he has not saved countless lives.

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