On Feb. 17, 1984, Jim Rockwell made some irresponsible decisions that changed his life forever.
On April 2, 2014, Jim visited Everest Collegiate High School, hoping to convince the students to consider the effects of their actions on themselves and others.
In an effort he calls the Rockwell Project, he has been traveling the country for 22 years now speaking to young people. Jim’s website, http://www.rockwellproject.com/, states he hopes to deter underage drinking among teens and young adults. But it is likely his presence does so much more.
The lanky, congenial man now walks with a cane, has altered facial muscles and eyes that no longer work together. He speaks slowly and with difficulty. No one would know this is the same person in the photograph of his younger self, at age 16, a promising athlete and musician in Orange County, California, with everything going for him.
Like so many other young people, the 16-year-old Jim made bad decisions, and one tragic enough to cause an auto accident that almost ended his life.
On that fateful day, Jim not only decided to skip his late-day classes, but he influenced his friends to join him at his house to drink alcohol and go for a drive in the car.
He still harbors the guilt of endangering the others in the car with him when he would eventually misjudge a turn in the road and lose control, nearly hitting an innocent family in his neighborhood and striking a telephone pole.
“At least I had the good judgment to swerve and not hurt 4 innocent people,” he said. “I was the one driving. I should have suffered the consequences.”
While the two other boys in the car escaped major injury, Jim himself was thrown through the windshield onto the pavement. The car then rolled down the embankment and pinned his head to the ground.
“Everybody thought I was dead,” he said. “I had no noticeable vital signs.”
At the hospital, doctors would declare Jim brain dead and urge his parents to “pull the plug.”
“They said this over and over to them for 2 ½ days,” he said.
After 3 days, some slight brain activity would return, but doctors predicted Jim would never come out of his coma, and they wanted to transfer him to a facility for long term care.
“My Dad fought to keep me in ICU for three weeks,” Jim said. “Then I started to make motions like I would come out of it, and they couldn’t believe it.”
The roller coaster ride wasn’t over, however, and swelling on Jim’s brain would bring back his coma, and he was finally transferred out of ICU to the other facility. But after three weeks, Jim would become the first person to recover at that same facility. “I am a medical miracle.”
Finally on July 26th of that year, Jim was sent home with the understanding the long road to rehabilitation, and some semblance of a normal life, had just begun.
He remembers how so-called “friends” at the time scattered “like cockroaches when the lights are turned on” when he returned to school in a wheelchair.
Jim said he discovered who his true friends were — those who stayed with him and visited him nearly every day while he was in the hospital. “Those are the kind of people you should be with,” he said. “They will benefit your life, throughout your life.”
His true friends included his girlfriend at the time. However, Jim’s anger and resentment would eventually drive her away. “I broke up with her,” he admitted sadly. (Since then, he was blessed to meet a wonderful woman, and has been married for three years.)
“It drives me crazy about what I have to go through being disabled,” he said. “If I had just been responsible…”
One of the things he most misses is his ability to play music. An accomplished pianist and trombone player in his teen years, Jim said he still has “music in my head and in my heart.”
“Now performance is all I have left.” Jim uses this gift to share his story and hopefully help young people to think twice about their choices.
What advice does he give?
- Appreciate your gifts and try to improve yourself. “You need to stay at 100 percent,” he said. “You need all your percentage points so you can get through adult life. That is what life is about. Improvement….The brain is still developing and changing through age 25…Keep studying for that test, even if you get a C the first time.”
- Appreciate what you have. “I wish I had the advantage of a school like this,” he said about Everest. “This is a wonderful place to be. My grade alone had 1,000 kids, with 30-45 in a class.”
- Love your parents, and listen to them. “It tears my heart out how I hurt my parents forever,” he said. He suggests, rather than ignoring the things parents say, young people should share what their parents tell them with their friends. “Then you can find out that their [your friends’] parents are saying the same things,” he said.
- Regarding drugs and alcohol — “Just stay away from it. It’s not that tough.”
- Concentrate on self control. “Remember, when you are driving a car, it may be convenient, but you are driving a lethal weapon.”