ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The kids at Tony Hillerman Middle School were too young to know Hailey Nicole Ratliff when she walked the hallways here as a sixth grader, the only year she attended the school on Albuquerque’s West Side.
But every kid here knows her name. They see it painted in black on the white frame of a flower-decorated ghost bike in front of their school since 2012. They see it on a sign at a nearby park named for her in 2013.
Though they are murky on the details, they know her story – how she died in September 2012 after she was struck head-on by a GMC Yukon as she rode her bike home from school, not long after she and her family moved to Novato, Calif.
How her death had devastated the Hillerman students who had known her so much that they cried in the hallways, their tear-stained tissues covering the floors.
How the ghost bike and the park were a reminder of how tenuous life is and how dangerous the roads can be when they are not shared.
This spring, Hailey became the inspiration for an art project that honors her and others who lost their lives while riding bikes.
The project, which coincides with National Bike Month, was the idea of art teacher Noël Chilton, who wanted to build upon her students’ curiosity about Hailey’s story and increase awareness of bicycle safety.
Each of her seventh and eighth grade students created small dioramas dedicated to a fallen cyclist. Students were given small box lids, tiny bicycles found at a model train store and spray-painted white, bendable wire with which to create the name of the cyclist and paint to design their diorama backdrops.
The students were also given a list of cyclists with information on the crashes that took their lives. But Chilton said she also wanted the students to do their own research.
“They really got deep into the research,” she said. “I think they really took to heart the need for safety on the streets.”
Not surprisingly, many of the students chose Hailey for their dioramas, though each one had a different take on how to paint the backdrop.
Caitlynn Offard, 14 and an eighth grader, chose a road through a froth of pink flowers.
“I just figured if she was here now, she would like something feminine, something pretty,” she said.
Destinee Martinez, 13 and a seventh grader, also chose Hailey and flowers. Hers was a personal choice: Hailey was her cousin.
“I was in first grade when she died,” Martinez said. “She was a role model. She was fun. She liked to make videos of herself singing.”
Elle Staszewski, 14 and an eighth-grader, chose a tranquil beach scene, a departure from the mountainous Tijeras Canyon where her subject, James Quinn, was struck and killed in 2007 by a vehicle that swerved onto the shoulder of Route 66 where he and his wife had been riding.
“I chose the beach because of how peaceful it is,” she said.
Jayden Romero, 13 and a seventh grader, wanted his subject, Dan Montoya, to ride off into the sunset he painted. Montoya was killed in 2011 on Tramway near Sandia Resort and Casino when an older driver blacked out, causing his vehicle to cross the median and hit Montoya’s bike head-on.
Trinity Cooper, 14 and an eighth grader, chose Scott “Dwane” Lane, a businessman and father of four who was fatally struck in 2012 by an SUV that police said ran a red light at Osuna and Academy Parkway NE.
Instead of bright, cheery scenes, Cooper chose a dark night sky filled with stars.
“Everyone was doing sunshine and rainbows, and I wanted something not super sad but also not happy, because this happened,” she said.
Not many of the kids said they ride their bikes far beyond their own neighborhoods, if they ride at all. Albuquerque drivers, they agreed, are crazy.
“I don’t even touch my bike,” Cooper said. “I’m 100 percent sure it can be dangerous, not just riding a bike but riding in a car. I’m very, very nervous in a car. I don’t take chances.”
Several students said that although they learned a lot from the art project, bike safety awareness is not spoken of enough among their peers.
“People don’t understand how many bike crashes there are, how unsafe the bike lanes feel,” said Sydney Griego, 14 and an eighth grader. “There are all these bad drivers and creepy people honking and saying stuff.”
Yet few of the kids say they wear a bike helmet – a disappointment.
“Your hair, you know?” Offard said. “Your hair.”
Which is to say that it may take more than an art project and a ghost bike for the lesson to sink in completely.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.