American culture as we knew it in the U.S. has never been the same after the Columbine school shooting that occurred in April of 1999. But there are valuable lessons to learn from that and the rash of school shootings that have occurred since then—close to 60+ incidences according to the FBI. Larry Scott, the uncle of 17 year-old Rachel Scott, the first student to perish in the Columbine High School shooting shared some of those lessons with our Rolla Middle School students.
(Editor’s note: I decided to write about this visit to Rolla Middle School in the form of a review as opposed to a simple reporting style. The program I eventually saw dealt with loss, bullying, kindness and victory through forgiveness. According to the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, most bullying happens in middle school. The most common types are verbal and social bullying. The Rolla Middle School administration is to be commended for their excellent programming to deal with this problem. As the speaker, Larry Scott, put it later in his presentation, “change happens in the heart, not the head.” I wanted to explain what I witnessed with the heart—it couldn’t be told any other way.)
The 5th graders filed in and took comfortable seats in the Rolla Middle School (RMS) auditorium on Thursday afternoon. They had assembled to listen to speaker Larry Scott, the uncle of 17 year-old Rachel Scott, the first student to perish in the horrible Columbine High School shooting in April of ’99. On the surface, this seemed like it could be a heavy topic for the Middle Schoolers. But as someone without children, what did I know?
Rolla Middle School Assistant Principal Sheri Norman said the assembly was part of a bigger, current year-round school initiative stressing the human qualities of respect and kindness.
“The 4th grade doesn’t hear about the Columbine shooting,” she said. “Their presentation is more about [practicing] kindness. The 5th and 6th graders get something more in-depth.”
After a short introduction from Mrs. Norman, Larry Scott approached his computer resting on the speaker’s podium. He had spoken to an audience of young people like this before, many times. He asked some questions (“how many here today have a pet at home?”), raising his hand to encourage open responses from the students.
He was dressed informally and looked like he could be anyone’s “Uncle Larry.” He spoke with a smooth, even tenor voice that was pleasant and full of understanding, but he didn’t mince his words. He explained why he was there.
He said he had a daughter, a son, and a niece named Rachel that were attending Columbine High School in Colorado, the day two shooters entered the building and killed 12 students and one teacher, injuring over 21 people in total.
“My niece Rachel was the first to be shot and killed that day,” said Larry. A photo of his niece was shown on the big screen behind him. She projected—full of life, like most happy teenagers of 17 years of age.
“How many of you have lost someone you loved?” he asked the student audience. Many hands went up. “I want you to think about the people you’ve lost during this presentation,” he said. He didn’t say it, but he wanted his young audience to know how precious life is, how those closest to us should never be taken for granted. Through the use of video that showed Rachel and her siblings interacting from a young age, through the age of the students and on to her years in high school, Rachel Joy Scott was brought back to life, for those that never knew her.
Larry added that after the incident, his brother Darrell was walking around Rachel’s room, silently grieving and just looking at her things—things sitting where she left them just weeks before the shooting tragedy. Here, time stood still. She was present, even though she physically wasn’t. Along with six diaries and journals, he found an essay she had written labeled “My Ethics, My Codes of Life.” Within the essay, she wrote she wanted to “start a chain reaction of kindness.”
“Look for the best in others so you can put prejudice out of your life,” wrote Rachel.
“She said, ‘Give them three chances—look into their eyes and you can see their heart.’”
Her father also found a drawing of her hands on the back of a bureau in the room, where she had traced around the fingers like young kids do with crayons and paper, making Thanksgiving turkeys. Rachel had written, “These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and I’m going to touch millions of people.”
Larry said even at a young age, Rachel was dreaming big. One of her idols, or influencers, was the author Anne Frank, whose diary documented her experiences as a young Jewish girl under Nazi occupation and who later perished in a Nazi concentration camp. This struck a chord with Rachel, who wanted, according to her writing, “to start a chain reaction of compassion and kindness that would ripple around the world.”
As Larry put it, the whole extended grieving Scott family could either become “victims” or “victors.” He explained that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two shooters at Columbine High School had been bullied and wanted to make people pay for it, innocent or not, according to written documents later found by the investigating police officers. They also planned the attack on Adolph Hitler’s birthday, April 20. Hitler became a role model for the two shooters.
The contrast in beliefs and how those beliefs were formed between what the shooters thought and what Rachel thought and practiced, was not lost on the Scott family.
Rachel wanted to reach out to students with special needs, new students and students being picked on. What if Klebold and Harris in their formative years had been around students that understood respect and kindness? What if they had been around better influences to shape a future of success and not one of despair and destruction?
Rachel’s family received thousands of e-mails from students about the kindness she showed them during times of struggle and stories began to emerge—the most striking, one about helping a young man who had seriously thought of committing suicide under the duress of bullying. He told his story in the video that was projected on the auditorium screen. The results of the beliefs and actions of Rachel Joy Scott were becoming evident to the young audience, who now were emotionally engaged, judging by the sniffles heard in various parts of the auditorium.
So the Scott family decided to let Rachel’s actions and her writings—in short—her example, start the ripples, the chain reaction of kindness she spoke so passionately about when she was alive. It would be started through a program called “Rachel’s Challenge,” and would be presented in schools throughout the world.
This program promoting kindness and respect was born out of Rachel’s diaries and journals.
1) Dream big and believe in yourself
Rachel wrote in one journal—the one she carried the day she was shot—“I won’t be labeled average.”
2) Look for the best in other people—eliminate prejudice.
3) Choose positive influences
“Those two boys that killed people—they weren’t born killers,” said Larry. “They chose bad things to be influenced by . . . the choices you make today, make the people you will be tomorrow.”
4) Speak with kindness. Words can hurt or heal.
Larry explained to the young audience that words are powerful. He says words will take you where you want to go in life.
“It matters how we talk to each other every day and no one—no one—can control your words like you can,” he said.
Larry Scott was coming full circle near his close. He reminded the young students of the loved ones they have lost and about the fragility of life itself. The deafening silence of regret. He said Rachel and her brother Scott, got into an argument the day of the shooting. Their last interaction was anger. A video showed Scott describing the conversation and his actions and how that was the last time he saw his sister. He spoke of his struggles having to live with that to this day. It was a powerful message.
“Wouldn’t our school be a better school if we could compliment one another every day?” asked Larry. “You’ve got to practice it—start today. Rachel understood the power of her words. They can hurt or heal—it is your choice.”
5) Start your own chain reaction
Rachel’s Challenge is not about a presentation, but about positive change in how we treat one another. The Scott family provides a banner for the kids to hang in school and if a student thinks they can meet Rachel’s challenge by living the five steps, they can sign the banner.
Referring back to the drawing Rachel made of her hands on the back of that piece of furniture, Larry ended by saying, “I see Rachel’s hands in your hands.”
“How many of you want a better school?” Amid sniffles, hands were enthusiastically raised.
“How many of you want to be a better person?” Again, hands were raised.
“Be nice to one another—it starts with you,” he said.
But Rachel got the last word, projected on the screen above her uncle.
“People will never know how far a little kindness can go” - Rachel Joy Scott
According to Rachel’s Challenge information, each year, over 1.5 million people are involved in Rachel’s Challenge programs, more than 1,200 schools and businesses are reached, over 150 suicides are averted, bullying and violence decrease and community service and acts of kindness increase. www.rachelschallenge.org