Requiem for a cheerleader

Friday, February 1, 2008

When you're a teenager, death is something that happens to people who are old or sick, not to someone you said goodbye to on Friday and expect to see again on Monday. But death struck a Cornersville High School student last weekend.

Jamie Elaine Drenkhahn, a junior at Cornersville High School, died Saturday afternoon. The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported that she lost control of her 2004 Pontiac Sunfire and overturned into a creek off Mt. Lebanon Road east of the Laws Hill Community in northern Marshall County.

Residents of Mt. Lebanon Road say that this is a notorious spot for accidents, with several wrecks and at least one other fatality there in the last two years.

Jamie has been at school in Cornersville since third grade. She was a cheerleader and worked at the Cornersville McDonalds. Assistant Principal Richie Brewer said, "I've always known her to be a really good kid." With 85 students in the junior class, Brewer added, "It's a small school where everybody knows everybody; it's just like losing a member of the family."

Jamie's brother, Sgt. Robert Bish, served two tours in Iraq and had hardly seen his sister for the last six years. They made up for that at Christmas time and were looking forward to their next meeting.

The evening before the funeral, Bish was helping to greet the mourners -- mostly fellow students -- who came out in the pouring rain to pay their respects to Jamie. They looked at Jamie, serene in her white coffin, and then at the floral arrangements, the stuffed animals and the collection of photos laid out on tables. Then they stood or sat in small groups, holding hands or hugging, crying and talking quietly.

The day of Jamie's funeral was a beautiful sunny winter day as students and parents packed into the Cornersville High School gym, entirely filling the bleachers on one side. It was the first funeral in the gym since 18-year-old Zach McCloskey's in December 2006.

Jamie was eulogized by Larry Chapman, who reminded the crowd of many special things about her.

"She was everybody's girl, a friend to everyone she met. She wanted to stand up and support you," Chapman said.

Jamie's name is up on the wall of the gym in the list of this year's Cheer Dawgs. After the service in the gym, the coffin was wheeled out to the hearse with her boyfriend, the last person to see her alive, walking alongside, just touching the casket with his fingertips.

A long line of vehicles followed the hearse to New Hope Cemetery on the Ostella Road. The cheerleading squad in their uniforms flanked the grave with the pallbearers while the final words were said and then they all hugged Jamie's family members who were sitting in the front row. The grieving girls and boys and their parents stood shivering in the chilly breeze as the sun set and the casket was lowered. No one left until the undertaker's men had packed the dirt back into the grave.

By now the funeral home's tents and folding chairs will have been removed and there will be nothing to see but a fresh grave with a lot of flowers and a temporary marker. The Angus cattle will be grazing again on the other side of the fence, not remembering the strange interruption to their afternoon routine. Jamie's fellow students will be back in class, but their lives will never be quite the same.