I never knew Leland Martin.
Described by friends as a caring, funny and sweet teenager, Martin lived in Winder.
In a small town kind of way, though, we were connected. His family and mine once had a tie through marriage. It’s a faint connection, but today I feel like I’ve lost a beloved nephew or cousin.
Leland’s story is just that tragic. It’s still unclear exactly how, or why, Leland Martin died. All that’s known is that he had been drinking at an after-prom party in a home where the only so-called adult present was, apparently, the one who supplied at least some of the alcohol. His, or her, identity is yet unknown. Leland got into a fight sometime in the wee hours of that Sunday morning but those details are sketchy, too.
No one yet knows whether it was the alcohol, the fight, a combination of the two, or something else that led to this young man being in a morgue, instead of math, come Monday.
Martin, a senior at Winder-Barrow High School, was found dead last weekend, lying on a couch, alone, in a house where, hours before, a couple of dozen teens had “partied” after one of the most joyous nights of their young lives, the prom. As we all know, and think little about anymore, that euphemism “party” has long lost its meaning as a fun, care-free event where friends gather and enjoy each other’s company.
Today, to “party,” means one thing to young people: drinking alcohol.
And not just having “a beer or two.” Too many young people today revel in “partying” their way into drunken stupors or out-of-control intoxication.
Young girls “party” their way into compromising positions that lead to unplanned pregnancies, sometimes with near-strangers or, if they’re luckier, “only” a sexually transmitted disease.
They call it “getting wasted.” How appropriate.
Leland Martin, an outstanding student who had earned a scholarship to Young Harris College, fell victim to a society that has produced attitudes of complacency and acceptance, attitudes that make it easier for — no, make it certain that — bad things can happen to good people.
An Athens newspaper noted many of the things still unknown about this tragedy that so needlessly took the life of yet one more young person.
The newspaper also cited many things that are known, however. Things known to be wrong, but accepted. Things commonplace, but dangerous. Things ... that could have made a difference.
Like an attitude that underage drinking is a given and that nothing can be done about it.
Like an attitude that prom is a time when teens should be given near-unchecked freedom to stay out all night and go places and do things that, literally, risk their young lives.
What if neighbors, who likely noticed the party going on in that house included underage youths, might have called the police instead of thinking it was none of their business?
Leland Martin might be planning his college days coming up soon if only one of his peers had had the courage to call for help instead of being fearful of being caught drinking.
There are still lots of unknowns surrounding the death of a young man who, but for a few bad choices, could have grown up. Though he may never have cured cancer or become president, he could have made those who loved him happy by just continuing to be here.
When I think of Leland Martin, I wonder what it will take to change these attitudes. Or worse, what will happen if we don’t?
We should all think of Leland Martin and remember the one word that describes the promise of his life and others who’ve gone his way.
• Robert M. Williams Jr. is a native of Effingham County. He publishes newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, Ocilla and McRae. His commentaries can be heard on Georgia Public Radio. Reach him at: email@example.com