Yesterday and today we had a visitor to our school that, I hope, has made a unique impact on our school. From what I can tell so far the students have responded in a positive way, as has the faculty. The visitor was Craig Scott who was present at the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado. When Dylan and Erick entered the Library he and two of his friends were sitting under a table, trying to hide or protect themselves from gunfire. There is a 911 voice recording you've probably heard of a teacher yelling at kids to get under the table. He was one of the kids. Right there in the library Craig saw 10 of his fellow students shot dead including his two friends sitting with him underneath the table. For some reason he was spared.
The reason he was there to speak to us wasn't simply to give the students a history lesson or to teach them a little lesson about bullying. It was much more than that. Craig's sister, Rachel, was the first student shot and killed in the tragedy. She was sitting outside on the lawn eating lunch as the shooters entered the school. Rachel's story prior to the shootings, though, are really the focal point of Craig's speech. The program is called Rachel's Challenge
Rachel wasn't a popular girl or a cheerleader or anything like that. In fact, if I know high school kids, the popular crowd probably didn't pay her much attention. But, according to her story, she wasn't one to be bothered by something like this. Rachel was the type of person who sought out friends in other areas. She was a person who made it a point to make friends with those who needed a friend. Numerous stories were told about her welcoming a lonely new student, or standing up to big football players who were bullying a handicapped kid, or anything like that. Her friends called her "idealistic" and said she lived in a "fantasy world" because she had the crazy notion in high school that being nice to people would eventually make everyone nice. She was exactly the kind of person that Dylan and Erick needed to meet during their time at Columbine, but, unfortunately, they did not.
Just months before her death Rachel wrote an essay titled "My Ethics, My Codes of Life." If you know high school students then you know that a student who would even title a school paper like this is out of the norm. The paper went on to say that people have the capacity to start "chain reactions" simply by showing compassion for people and "looking for the best and beauty in everyone."
The assembly, led by her brother, showed clips of Rachel, photos, as well as news footage from that day and recreated scenes from different times in Rachels life. The assembly took Rachel's essay and formed it into a challenge to students and teachers to treat others as Rachel had: with respect, compassion, and honesty. The message was certainly powerful and it was evidenced by how many students were affected by the time. Since every student was required to see the presentation I was lucky enough, today and yesterday, to have some great conversations with my students about the message being presented.
Now it's not easy for a big, tough high school boy to tell anyone that they have been emotionally moved by something. But, I could not believe the amount of outpouring that happened at our school. Everyone was comparing their "cry" story. Some people wept. Others just kind of teared up, or got choked up. One of my students asked me, "Mr. Martin, did you cry?"
Now, as of July 20, 2002 I have cried a total of 4 times. That's roughly once a year. That beats out the previous 8 years by 3. So the last 4 years have seen a much softer, emotional Kyle. If you don't know, July 20, 2002 was the day I got married to Amanda. An event I attribute to my conversion to the moist side.
I have also come to the conclusion that I have allowed myself to be open to crying if the need arises. I feel, as laughing, that crying is simply an expression of emotion. We have no problem laughing when we want, so why should we resist crying? With that said I sat through the "Rachel's Challenge" assembly fighting back getting choked up and wiping a couple of tears from my eyes occasionally. However, nearing the end of the assembly the video played "Hands" by Jewel, a singer that, while possibly pretentious and melodramatic, sure, if placed within a certain context can be that special ingredient that makes something jump from "tear-jerker" to "sob-fest." To say that I cried would have been an understatement. It caught me totally by surprise, but I was certainly thankful for it.
I was not surprised to be the only one who cried, but, after outing myself as a sobber to my students, I was astonished at the rate the admissions flowed in after that. "Me too, Mr. Martin. I couldn't help it." and things like that. Most important, kids were opening up in a way I had never seen outside of church camp. Kids want and need to share this stuff, but it's too hard, because at the same time they are constantly being judged, so as soon as one kid realized that the area was safe, all bets were off. I really couldn't believe it.
I'm not sure if this was something happening all over campus or just in my class because I made them write one hundred words about a time someone was kind to them and the impact it made on them, but the sense in the school over the last two days has gone from self-conscious students back from the summer sporting their new trendy clothes to a happy, open, and friendly campus. That's something that just doesn't exist in a culture where the number one worry in a kids head is who is going to make them feel ostracized today for doing the wrong thing or saying something stupid or having the wrong accessory.
All I can say is thank you to the Scott family for sharing the life of your beautiful sister/daughter/friend's life with the world. Thank you to our administration for essentially throwing away two whole days of instruction to focus on the happiness and spirit of our school rather than worry about TAKS scores. That may be the greatest accomplishment of them all. Our principal pushed so hard for this because he realizes that the emotional well-being of our kids is more important than the freaking TAKS test and two days of instruction. He's talked about it for two years now and this isn't the first time I felt he more than proved his stance. So, thanks to Trey Kraemer.
Finally, thank you to Rachel Scott for having so much strength and courage. I remember high school and without my knowledge and will, teaching at the same high school that I attended, I remember very vividly how tough it can be to go against the grain. I remember how cruel kids could be and how isolated someone could feel. I was one of the lucky ones, I suppose, because I had friends, but I certainly remember thinking about how difficult it would be to just decide to make friends with someone who might be considered an outcast. You make me a little ashamed of myself for not doing more and for caring too much about what others might think instead of doing what I knew was right. Old and young alike can learn from you, and I'm glad to have heard your challenge. I'll accept it.
Rachel kept a journal about her goals and dreams. She felt like it was important to proclaim her goals loudly and unabashed as a reminder what she was here for. She made no qualms about the fact that she believed that she would die young and that her life would touch the hearts of millions. I'm not a firm believer in premonitions or anything, but she called this one right. I also think that she wanted to remember what life was like "back then."
I suppose that's one reason I blog, now. And, while I never really bound them up, per se, I've always kept kind of a journal in the form of poems and stories and letters. That's why I've never been able to throw them away, despite having left behind much of those thoughts and feelings. They represent what I've been through and are, in a sense, still part of who I am now. Or at least, I am the evolution of those letter and poems and stories. It seems pathetic to dwell on a time of your life when people were petty and ignorant and immature, but we certainly don't forget that they existed so why should we pretend that they didn't.
I hope that our students really do take Rachel up on her challenge. I hope they don't just see this as a "good cry" or "that time we all had a nice, warm, fuzzy." I hope that our students do start journaling, caring, and treating each other better. I think that if anything can move us along to that end, this program can. The weeks following Columbine for me were a personal low of depression and a feeling that the world was hateful and pointlessly doomed. About the same time I heard that a boy I'd grown up with committed suicide. An epidemic like this one is certainly one of those instances where God truly seems to bring out of the ashes a much stronger cause. I sometimes worry about the generation that I'm teaching, which can easily be lumped in with my own. Maybe, though, they just need the example. May we all strive to continue that example.