November 24, 2020

Joe Rogers: It tolls for thee

I’d see it every Sunday on the way home from church, just at a left turn in the road: a cross, a wooden bench and a heart-shaped space holding a variety of objects, outlined by paving stones beneath a small tree.

As in the famous poem, it was a bell tolling. But for whom?

Curiosity recently got the better of me, so I set out by bicycle to have a closer look. What I found did my soul good.

Mostly.

An engraving on the wooden bench identified the subject of the memorial: Jacqueline Rose Vincent, age 16. I wanted to know more about her, and with Google it was the work of mere minutes to learn the details of her death.

Jackie, as she was known to her friends, had just completed her sophomore year of high school and had been at a party for the end of school. A little after midnight on Friday, June 22, 2007, she was walking home with friends, and someone decided they should take a shortcut across railroad tracks.

Jackie tripped, fell, and came in contact with the electrified third rail, which carries 750 volts. An ambulance was called, but she couldn’t be revived.

A memorial Mass was held days later. Her friends posted several tributes on YouTube, filled with ever-smiling photos of a vibrant, vital Jackie. One of them was accompanied by words and music from Green Day:

It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life!

The memorial, which is near the spot on the tracks where Jackie died, was another project by friends, along with family.

It is all so ineffably sad, of course. But I found it uplifting, too. Wouldn’t we all, young or old, like to think that after we’re gone we will have meant enough in this world for someone to call attention to our lives?

The memorial and tributes to Jackie are testament to a basic goodness in people. And that’s where I should have left it.

Instead, I foolishly read some of the comments on news articles about the young girl’s death.

There’s something about comment sections that bring out the worst in people, particularly when they can hide behind anonymity. And so they did here. Mixed in with the expressions of grief were accusations: Jackie and friends had been drinking, or worse; what were their parents thinking by letting them stay out after midnight; she deserved her fate.

And this, from one commenter:

“Who walks across the tracks at midnight? Actually, who walks across the tracks at all? Bad actions cause bad consequences…this girl should have known better and I have not one ounce of sympathy for someone so stupid.”

That kind of response is a reminder that some people, when faced with an opportunity for grace, feel compelled to exhibit coarseness and worse. It doesn’t speak well for humanity.

Surely it’s better, instead, for us to take heart in the celebration of this young girl’s life, even though we didn’t know her.

John Donne was right, after all. We’re all in this together.

Joe Rogers worked for The Clarion-Ledger, The Tennessean and The New York Times. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com or on Twitter @jrogink.