On Wednesday morning, May 10th, at a little after 8am in the morning, I was privileged to be among over four hundred high school students and faculty who gathered in the auditorium of Port Jefferson High School for a most moving and challenging assembly.
The presenter was a graying, middle-aged Dad from Littleton, Colorado. He was the principal speaker from "Rachel's Challenge." Until he was introduced, no one knew that our speaker was the father of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student murdered on that dreadful April day in 1999 at Columbine High School.
Rachel was sitting with friends, eating lunch on the lawn outside her high school when the two who masterminded and implemented the April 20th massacre came charging at them. They were firing their guns recklessly because the bombs they planted in the school cafeteria earlier had not detonated as planned.
Mr. Scott was introduced to the audience of high school coeds who remained spellbound for over an hour and a half. This Dad retold the painful events that took his middle child away before she could fully live.
In his dynamic presentation of talk, film, slides and music, he did not obsess over his daughter's death, but rather celebrated her gift of life. He spoke about how her philosophy and her writing since her death have touched millions of hearts, young and old alike around the world.
It was Rachel's philosophy and her desires that gave life to "Rachel's Challenge," which in simple terms urges people to engage in random acts of kindness and compassion. If practiced like she believed, it would set in motion a "chain reaction" that would change the world and make it a better place.
In a paper she wrote for school entitled "My Ethics, My Code of Life," she talks about her belief in compassion and random acts of kindness. She says, "I am sure that my code of life may be very different from yours, but how do you know that trust, compassion and beauty will not make the world a better place to be and this life a better one to live? My codes may seem like a fantasy that can never be reached, but test them for yourself, and see the kind of effect they have in the lives of people around. You may just notice a chain reaction."
Mr. Scott stood before the silenced audience and with such passion and belief, talked about how his tenth grade daughter died trying to make the world a better place.
He challenged all of us who had gathered that morning to eliminate prejudice of every kind from our hearts, to look for the best in every person we meet, and to try random acts of kindness and compassion. He urged us to review the influences in our lives, to build on the positive influences and to eliminate the negative ones.
He shared something that most in the audience did not know about the Columbine tragedy. The two boys who massacred twelve students and one teacher that day were consumed with negative influences. When their computers were checked and their rooms were searched, the police found countless material about the neo-Nazis and Adolf Hitler.
The boys were so tainted with prejudice and negativity and were so determined to cause harm that they purposely chose April 20 to inflict their mayhem on Columbine High School because that was the birthday of Adolf Hitler.
After sharing that disturbing information, he shared something else about positive influences. Mr. Scott knew Rachel was a loving child. He knew that she was well liked by her peers. Only after her death did he realize the breadth and depth of her love and influence among people.
Her diaries shed light on some of her influences. Her Dad and family did not realize the profound influence that Anne Frank and her writings had on Rachel. That was evidenced through her six diaries. In her diaries, Rachel stated that she hoped she could have the same kind of influence on the world that Anne Frank did in her brief life.
Mr. Scott kept everyone's undivided attention for well over an hour. You could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium (which is a rare occurrence these days among high school students). He continued to share remembrances of his daughter from his heartfelt experience and the experience of others.
Throughout his storytelling, he reminded the students and adults alike of "Rachel's Challenge" to bring positive, long-standing change to one's school environment and to create a climate where every student is treated with respect, dignity, compassion and love, no matter what their human circumstance. He consistently stressed the need for us to treat all people in a positive way.
The students left that assembly with the knowledge of "Rachel's Challenge." When asked if they were willing to accept the challenge, most in the auditorium raised their hands. To symbolize their commitment, they created an eight-foot long banner with the signatures of those students who were committed to changing their school environment in a positive way and were willing to work on starting a chain reaction of random acts of kindness and compassion.
As I sat in the back of that high school auditorium and saw groups of high school students hugging and others with tears in their eyes, I realized something very powerful had happened that morning among the student body. Their banner is a daily reminder of the challenge before them.
Later that day, at 7pm in that same auditorium, was the community presentation regarding "Rachel's Challenge." It was an invitation to parents, students and community members. I went in that evening as a surrogate parent and community member.
The nighttime presentation was somewhat different from the student presentation in the morning. Mr. Scott was the presenter. He was equally as passionate as he was earlier in the day. The film footage was graphic and heart wrenching. Parents were visibly moved by his words and the video-slide presentation.
His challenge that night was much like the challenge given to the students: eliminate all forms of prejudice, look for the best in others and engage in random acts of kindness and compassion. He stressed how we need to lead by example. We need to let our children and those close to us know that we love them. For tomorrow may not come, as he is reminded every day of his life.
I know Mr. Scott's presentation made a difference. The next day I received a note from a college student who was at the evening presentation. As a young person, he is as tough as nails. He has always resisted letting people in. He wrote "...to be honest, I really did not want to go to this presentation, but now I am glad I did. I never get moved by things, but this was so powerful. I know I need to do some soul searching and finally put my life in perspective. It took Rachel's Challenge to make me tell the five most important people in my life how I feel. Thank you."
My only disappointment was that those who needed to be there we re not there that evening. However, I am counting on the "Chain Reaction" to take hold of our community.