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Published: Saturday, 10/8/2011

COMMENTARY

Out of the Columbine tragedy, a call for kindness

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Tears. Lots of tears. It was as if an emotional dam broke. I studied the middle school students, teachers, and administrators assembled in the high school gym.

Adults came prepared with crumpled tissues. A teacher behind me had a whole box of Kleenex on her lap. As the presentation progressed, girls wept openly and boys wiped wet faces on their sleeves.

The event called "Rachel's Challenge" was meant to move hearts. It was named in memory of 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott.

She was the first student killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 12 years ago. It was her bad luck to be eating lunch outside with a friend when two seniors, carrying 9mm weapons, approached a nearby school entrance.

She was shot four times and died instantly. Today, kids who weren't even born when America experienced one of its worst school massacres are learning about Rachel through her writing.

She kept diaries, inspired by another teenage diary writer, Anne Frank, who in a sense became immortal. Rachel wrote six diaries before her life was cut short. The cover of her last one, with the words, "I won't be labeled as average," is punctuated with a bullet hole.

Weeks before her death, Rachel wrote an essay challenging others to start a chain reaction of compassion. "People will never know how far a little kindness can go," she wrote.

Later, her grieving father vowed the challenge would not die with her. Darrell Scott created Rachel's Challenge, a worldwide program to reach generations of students, as well as their parents and communities. The ambitious mission hopes to end the type of peer behavior that preceded the Columbine shootings and precedes far too many teenage suicides.

It is conduct that shuns, harasses, bullies. It spreads false rumors and mean gossip. It texts or posts ridicule to belittle on a big scale.

Every student, bully or victim, can relate to some degree. The Columbine shooters were bullied. Spellbound middle school students watched a video of the pair methodically wreaking their vengeance in the school before shooting themselves.

It was ultra quiet in the bleachers as the audio of panicked voices hinted at the horror unfolding inside Columbine. Besides Rachel, 11 teenagers and one teacher would be gunned down. The two who did the shooting committed suicide.

In the clip, Rachel's brother recounted the terror of being under a table in the school library as the body of his fatally wounded buddy fell inches from him. He also regretted fighting with his sister the morning of the tragedy.

There was not a dry eye in the gym after the scenes from Rachel's funeral and testimony from friends. She also befriended misfits and bullies when no one else would.

The presenter surveyed his weepy audience. After four years with the program, Joseph Manning knows something of their pain.

"Kids come up to me with all sorts of stuff," he said. "They talk about killing themselves, making a hit list, dealing with things you can't imagine."

But the 27-year-old, who grew up next door to the Scott family, wanted more than to move the youngsters emotionally. He wanted to motivate them to change how they interact with each other.

He asked them if they ever judged people by how they look, what they wear, what side of town they come from. Impressions, first, second, third, or whatever, can be deceiving, said the presenter, who was born with deformed arms and hands.

Mr. Manning dared his young crowd to make him display his championship skills at Irish dancing and then flew across the gym floor with feet as nimble as a ballet dancer. Didn't see that one coming -- which was the point.

Afterward, he met with student volunteers, picked by teachers, to start a districtwide club dedicated to transforming school environments from hostile to healing.

Sixth graders through seasoned high school partners will be on the front line of implementing civil changes in their school.

With weekly projects, from something as simple as greeting a new kid, to pro-active strategies to diffuse confrontation, they will aim to replace cutting words and attitudes with kind ones.

Tender adolescent spirits are especially vulnerable to being singled out as social outcasts.

"People still call me faggot," confessed one of the new club leaders, "but I'm much more confident and nonchalant about it than before."

It's still hurtful and hateful. Accepting Rachel's ongoing challenge to make a hopeful difference might be the antidote that dries the tears.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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