Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Light Extinguished

When I drove down Fremont yesterday morning, I saw the satellite news vans parked in front of South Pasadena High School. Sure, they might have been there because a science whiz figured out unified field theory or a student fan fiction blogger got a three book deal. But, more likely, when news vans are in front of a high school they are there because someone died. As I drove closer, I saw the lurking photogs with telescopic lenses aimed at groups of ashen-faced teens. Some kids were weeping. Some were clutching one another. Some were staring with a blankness that comes after being sucker-punched by the hands of fate.

Grief never fits anybody right. But it is especially too big to be worn by young people.

This past Saturday night, South Pasadena High School senior Aydin Salek passed away at a party in Altadena. Yesterday would have been his 18th birthday. He was the student Commissioner of Internal Affairs, a writer for the school paper, a student liaison to the South Pasadena School Board, the president of the campus American Cancer Society Club and a swim team member.

I spent about an hour reading the messages posted on a Facebook tribute page and kept seeing many of the same words used to describe him. Passionate. Generous. Inspirational. Influential. Kind. Brilliant. Funny. I learned that he donated money to charity. I learned that he helped feed the homeless in Pasadena. I learned that he surprised the swim team one morning last year with four huge boxes of donuts. I learned that he tutored some kids on the side, and irritated more than one of them with speeches about being more motivated. I learned that he danced to Usher in a car with a girl after buying her chicken McNuggets. I learned that he liked a good argument but loved a good joke. I learned that he wanted -- like so many beautiful young shooting stars -- to illuminate the world. To make things brighter.

Like any tragedy, this one has been spackled with big globs of rumor and innuendo, with lazy reporting and speculation. Local news stories have all but proclaimed his death a result of binge drinking. But we don't have any information yet on what, exactly, caused this tragedy. All we know is that a promising young man died and that he left behind a family whose despair can't possibly be expressed in words.

He also left behind a lot of shattered young people who really loved him -- friends who need space to grieve and who don't need insensitive questions from reporters hanging around school grounds or fingerwagging lectures from highhanded adults who seek to turn a young man's death into a talking point. David Bowie said it well:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through.

Family and friends have organized a candlelight Walk for Aydin Salek on Wednesday, December 14, at 7:00PM, starting in front of the South Pasadena High School Gymnasium.

The South Pasadena High School website will post pertinent information about this tragedy as it becomes available.

Update January 9, 2010: The Los Angeles Times published a touching story about Aydin Salek's parents, including a link to a charitable foundation in his name.


Judy Williams said...

May Aydin Salek be lifted up to a soul garden where his humor and inspiration will rain down. I hope his family is comforted by the love and many friends he left behind.

Mister Earl said...

Very sad.

altadenahiker said...

Oh this is so well said Laurie. The lovely heart of Aydin Salek, and the heartlessness of those who attempt to cash in on his tragedy.

Anonymous said...

thank u for writing this about Aydin.it means a lot.

alex said...

Laurie, thanks for your insight into this tragic turn of events. As an alumnus of SPHS, this hit a little too close to home. I found out about the incident over the weekend on Sunday, when I received a facebook message from my former high school literature teacher. While I of course never met or knew Aydin, I could relate very much to what the local school community is going through now. I can't help but imagine how difficult it would have been to experience the death of a talented and well-liked classmate while attending South Pas High. It would have been a complete shock.

So thank you Laurie for the post.

Anonymous said...

Laurie, you have written such a beautiful tribute to Aydin. Our youth as a whole are vulnerable to the unforeseen tragedies that life can pitch like a fast ball. Whatever happened, I don't believe that it was because this fine young man was reckless, so why are people out there judging, instead of opening our hearts and learning (or being reminded) that life is very precious. You're right, it's not an opportunity to point out a lesson, it's a very painful reality check.

Ken Mac said...


Mister Earl said...
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altadenahiker said...
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Mister Earl said...

Unfortunately, deaths like this are not uncommon. The daughter of a Gilroy firefighter died under similar circumstances earlier this month; a star athlete in Orinda in May. Today I read that 145,000 teenagers in the US are taken to emergency rooms under similar circumstances each year. And that's not counting driving-related events. So there is a lesson here, and it appears that each time something like this happens, lots of people get the lesson, and perhaps other lives are saved.

Laurie said...

We don't know the cause of death. We only know the young man was at a party where alcohol was served. Which, if I recall high school correctly, is pretty much every party at that age.

I knew of someone in college who died at a keg party and the papers used her as a poster child for binge drinking dangers. Turned out, she had an aneurysm and that was what killed her. I knew someone else who passed out at a party and was rushed to the hospital not because she overindulged but because she was slipped quaaludes by a guy there.

I don't know what happened to this young man, but whatever it was, speculation isn't helping anyone involved during this time of shock and grief.

The whole story just breaks my heart in a zillion different ways.

Laurie said...

Oh, and thank you for the kind words Alex and JEannie. Alex, I think confused you with another Alex the other day and didn't properly welcome you to the blog! Welcome.

I had a tragic event at my junior high school where a classmate shot and killed a teacher. I'll never forget those weeks of shock and fear and despair ... made worse by pushy reporters and local commentary about why it happened. It was my wakeup call to "the real world" and I'd just as soon have waited a few years before hearing the alarm. My heart goes out to everyone involved in this latest tragedy.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who responded today, and to the people who emailed such thoughtful messages. I'll respond to each one later tonight.

Trish said...

Laurie---thanks for the info and the words---how sad it is to lose any life! I had heard about it yesterday and just stopped in my tracks. I did not know him, but we are reeling from the teen who died that Mr Earl mentioned. Lots of speculation, lots of anger and pain running around. Reality is, all of it won't bring any child back. Honest, open discussion will perhaps prevent another tragedy.

I too recall high school years. Someone was driving drunk, killed himself and another teen, dinged up 2 others, 1 of whom was a classmate. I can still see the look in her eyes when she finally came back to school, as if it were yesterday. Still churns my stomach the same way.

No matter what the situation turns out to be, Aydin made a contribution to the SoPas community and will be sorely missed. I hope that SoPas and those touched by Aydin's death can learn something from all of this and grow. Let it **not** be a true tragedy where nothing is learned from so much pain and loss.

may Aydin's memory be for a blessing

Margaret said...

I had the privilege of knowing Aydin. He and I were both on a district-wide homework committee last year. I thought he would grow up to rule the world. He was truly exceptional. My heart goes out to all touched by his passing.

Petrea said...

Bowie said it well and so did you, Laurie: no one needs "fingerwagging lectures from highhanded adults who seek to turn a young man's death into a talking point." They're quite aware what they're going through.

Laurie said...

I believe a scholarship fund has been set up in Aydin Salek's name. I'll find out the details and post them here.

Such a loss. Such a tragic, tragic loss.

Mister Earl said...

I went to the Memorial ceremony at the high school tonight. It was quite moving. Students spoke, teachers spoke, students sang, the parents and some cousins spoke. At they end, each person was given a helium balloon to write a message on. All the balloons were released and gathered at one spot in the sky like a school of fish.

Aydin was quite a character. Very giving, very charismatic, but also very cocky and brash. He was both loved and often a challenge. What a great student body SPSH has. What wonderful kids and teachers. They have taken something very powerful from the death of their friend, and he will live on in them.

alex said...

The LA Times has penned an article on Aydin and his family:


It is actually quite a well-written, moving, and empathetic piece that sheds much light on the journeys that Aydin and his parents took from Iran to the US.

The Aydin Salek Leadership Foundation blog can be found here: http://aydinsalek.wordpress.com/