“I would give anything that night to have just hit a tree and not left this horrendous legacy. Those kids didn’t deserve what happened to them. In truth, I guess I did.”
This is part of Jordan Hayes-McGuinness’ ‘confession’ which is read aloud by his mother to rooms full of stunned, usually weeping high school students.
Her son didn’t write it. Her son is dead.
These are the words Melissa McGuinness imagines Jordan would say about the devastation his actions wreaked that night and the lives he irreversibly ruined, if only he could.
Also dead are four other young kids who were unfortunate enough to meet 18-year-old Jordan when he was drink and drug driving at high speed down a Gold Coast highway. The four victims were killed while sitting in their broken-down car waiting for help when Jordan came tearing along clocking up 140 km/hr in his red Nissan Pulsar around midnight in December 2012. The force from the crash caused the car Jordan hit to burst into flames. The other driver was the sole survivor.
Among the lives altered forever, was that of a 15-month-old girl whom Jordan made an orphan that night. Her mother and father, aged 20 and 23, were in the car that he hit.
“I screwed up and paid the ultimate price. What I did was unforgivable,” Mrs McGuinness continues, now addressing that little girl left to grow up without parents, “I’m the reason you’ll never see your mummy and daddy [again].”
For the past half-hour the Gold Coast mum has been calmly laying bare her traumatic story of grief, but also the crushing guilt that has been her lot for nearly seven years.
Throughout her presentation to year 11 and year 12 students, her composure is steely and unflinching as she runs through the facts of what her son did.
After doing this at high schools for over a year now, retelling this story with all its painful details, it has almost become routine for her. She can usually get through most of it without becoming visibly upset.
“Jordan was smart. Jordan was funny. Jordan was a great person, but none of that means anything now. None of it,” Mrs McGuinness tells the teenagers sitting in silence before her, some with their faces in their hands, more than a few crying.
“That’s because he defined himself by his choices that night. He shaped a terrible and permanent legacy for himself, his family and his victims’ families because he chose to drink, smoke [marijuana] and speed down that highway.
“And everything he did before that just pales in comparison.”
Teaching ‘dirtbags’ through the prism of grief
You Choose - Youth Road Safety is Mrs McGuinness’s campaign to try and teach young drivers the devastating, life-long consequences of reckless behaviour behind the wheel.
“Dirtbags” is the affectionate term she calls teenagers, particularly boys, because they think they’re “ten foot tall and bullet-proof”.
As any parent of a teenager will tell you, you can’t teach them anything with a lecture, so the mother’s reasoning instead involves using her own story, which she tells through her ongoing “prism of grief”.
“I’m not lecturing them about right or wrong, I’m demonstrating through actual lived experience what it’s like to be on the receiving-end of what I was,” Mrs McGuinness tells Yahoo News Australia.
“I show them a clip from Jordan’s memorial ceremony and I ask them to imagine while they’re watching it what it might be like if their family was in the same predicament that my family’s [going through].
“But pretty much just taking them on this entire grief journey from where it started –– as the excited teenager about to start his life to the horrible accident through one stupid choice one night. Then what it looked like for everybody else involved.
“The thing with... Jordan is he’s relatable because he’s just like any other other kid there that’s sitting in that auditorium... and I’m also relatable as the mum.”
“[Through Jordan they’re shown] this great kid that made this one stupid choice that could be any of those kids. Any of them.”
“But,” she adds, “it’s only so impactful because I’m the perpetrator’s mother.”
‘Perpetrator’s mother’ is a term she uses several times. The guilt from her son’s actions that night has weighed heavily on her for the past seven years –– to the point she felt like she “almost didn’t have a right to grieve [her] son”.
“Those kids were innocent kids, they were doing nothing wrong and my son behaved 100 percent irresponsibly and was completely responsible for their deaths.”
‘There are accidents and there are choices’
At the beginning of the hour-long talk Mrs McGuinness delivers to 15, 16, and 17-year-old kids, she runs through road toll facts and statistics.
The students’ attention often wanes during this part. Some will try to covertly whisper among themselves or steal glances at their phones before often being sharply reprimanded by a teacher.
Gradually, she unwraps the story of her son, using photos and short video clips. In one it’s his last day of high school — a fate, as the mother points out to those present, many will soon experience themselves in just a few short months.
By the time she gets to the point in the presentation where a video of a very different nature is shown, the whispering has ceased and their attention is firmly glued to what’s being projected onto the large screen at the front of the room.
The news clip from December 2012 shows a night scene awash with flashing blue and red lights which illuminate a horror crash of twisted metal.
The report shows Jordan’s prized red Nissan Pulsar mangled completely, while the other car in the footage has been incinerated beyond all recognition of what the model or colour once was.
“The death of five people in the one incident is a tragedy, especially leading up to Christmas,” a somber-looking officer tells the camera, “You couldn’t ask for a worse accident at this time of year”.
Then the names, faces and ages of the four young people killed flash onto the screen, along with the age of the only survivor from the crash. They were 16, 17, 18, 20 and 23 years old. The 16-year-old driver who had to climb over his friends was left with severe burns and a head injury that affects his memory.
As the news clip ends, the room is so silent, the wind can be heard whistling outside.
“As much as there are hundreds of reasons to be proud of Jordan... he died in shame,” his mother tells them, “This is how he’s going to be remembered. There’s no getting around that.
“My husband and I did not raise him to think that drink or drug driving was acceptable behaviour, yet I stand up here as the mother of a kid responsible for the death of four kids from drinking and drug driving.
“Think of all the good stuff that you’ve done. Think of all the effort you’ve put into your life. Think of all the effort people who have loved you put into your life. And imagine all of that being wiped out by one stupid choice. Because that’s the brutal reality of what happens.
“I still love Jordan profoundly, I miss him terribly... but this can’t be sugarcoated. He defined himself permanently by his actions that night.
“There are accidents and there are choices. Jordan didn’t have an accident that night. That’s what happened to his victims. Jordan made a choice.”
Each time she’s given this talk over the past year, it gets easier. It gets easier to rewatch the footage from the crash’s aftermath and the video of her then-ten year old daughter choking and shaking with sobs as she tries to speak at her big brother’s memorial service.
One thing that hasn’t changed since the start is how the kids react.
Whether it’s at an expensive private school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs or a public school on the Sunshine Coast, tears are shed by both boys and girls. And at the end of her presentation, with very little encouragement, the teenagers approach and line-up in front of Mrs McGuinness in droves to hug her.
In most instances, she notes, the first teen to instigate the hugging is usually the “biggest dirtbag in the room”
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