Hovering between light laughter and attentive silence, Herndon High School students were presented firsthand with the consequences of reckless behavior and the power of a positive mindset in the face of adversity during a presentation on Monday.
"What I'm trying to say to you guys is that you need to think about the choices you make because our lives are so precious and so are everybody else's lives," Chris Skinner, a college partier turned quadriplegic motivational speaker, told students. "When you go out to prom or you go out on the weekend, you've go to think about that."
"When I come here I'm thinking that I'm gonna talk and they're going to learn," Skinner said to the students. "And I think they're going to remember me, Chris Skinner ... when it comes time to make decisions."
Skinner was paralyzed during a near-fatal car accident in 2000 after his spine was severed when he was thrown from his friend's car after the two spent the night drinking at a wedding. After deciding to be a full-time motivational speaker for high school and college students five years ago, Skinner, originally from Nags Head, N.C., has since spoken to over 500,000 students and released his autobiography, "The Ultimate Learning Experience," in 2003.
IT WASN'T ALL doom and gloom for the near-1,000 students in attendance and the other approximate 1,300 watching from their classrooms on live closed-circuit television.
With a mixture of jokes, references to modern hip-hop, colorfully-told anecdotes and consistent references to the undeniable fact that some students were happy to attend the assembly to get out of class, Skinner kept the students laughing while still delivering his message that every decision counts.
"I want everybody to see that life is precious," Skinner said in an interview following the event. "I want everyone to realize that life is important and that every breath that they have is a blessing."
Speaking to students last year on the same topic, Skinner has become a favorite among the school's administrators and the PTSA, which joined together to bring him back this year.
"We like to bring [Skinner] in to the students because it's a different way of sharing a message with the students that's not from a teacher or a parent, but someone closer to their age," said Lisa Lombardozzi, the president of Herndon High School's PTSA.
"Pretty much to not do anything stupid and to be smart about the choices you make," is an important message, said senior Justin Castle, 18. "You don't want to ruin your life in one night."
"I don't personally drink alcohol, but I was just sitting here worrying about my friends who do who are here," said Jillian Aschenbach, a 17-year-old senior. "I was hoping that they were paying attention."
Skinner said that while he tries to encourage students not to drink at all, he is aware that many students will still choose to drink on their prom and graduation nights.
"If you're going to do it, don't be an idiot," Skinner said to students about drinking alcohol. "Don't paralyze your best friend, don't paralyze yourself."
"Have fun, but do it with no regrets."