By Sue Botos
“I have this theory, that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” —Rachel Scott
The audience of residents, parents, city officials and school administrators initially hesitated to raise their hands when asked by Rachel’s Challenge presenter Frank Simmons, “Have you ever been guilty of judging people?” Slowly, practically every person in the Rocky River High School auditorium, including Simmons, acknowledged that they had prejudged someone without getting to know that person.
Getting rid of prejudice was the first of five goals presented by Simmons during a community meeting last week, which capped off Rachel’s Challenge, a daylong series of programs and workshops for middle school and high school students and adults with the objective of combating bullying. The event was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lakewood & Rocky River.
“This was one of my most enriching days,” commented high school principal Debra Bernard prior to the presentation. She added, “Everyone has heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but today (we) learned that it really takes a community.”
“The students were attentive and listened and really absorbed the information,” recalled school board member Jean Rounds looking back on the day’s events. Rounds said more related anti-bullying projects will take place throughout the school year.
Rachel’s Challenge is the legacy of Rachel Scott, who became the first student victim of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 as she sat outside the school eating lunch. Shortly after the 17-year-old was killed, her father, Darrell, and stepmother, Sandy, discovered an essay Rachel had written called “My Ethics, My Code of Life.” In it, she challenged the reader to “start a chain reaction” of kindness by showing compassion to others.
Motivated by the essay as well as writings in her six diaries, the Scotts began Rachel’s Challenge to share their daughter’s message of kindness and compassion. This legacy seemed to be foreshadowed, according to Simmons, by tracings of Scott’s hands, found on the back of her dresser, which she predicted would “touch millions of people’s hearts.” To date, the program has been presented to more than 8 million nationwide.
Simmons said Scott was inspired to keep journals after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in which a Jewish teenager writes of hiding from Nazis in World War II Europe. In an eerie coincidence, Simmons pointed out that both Anne Frank and Scott predicted, in their journals, that they would not live long. He added that, in another ironic twist, the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were said to idolize Adolph Hitler, and carried out their attacks on April 20, his birth date. Simmons began his presentation with news footage of the horrific event, which left 12 students and one teacher dead. Scott’s younger brother, Craig, barely escaped as he watched friends get shot while hiding in the school library.
Journaling, or writing down goals, was the second challenge Simmons said was posed by Scott, who wrote that this was a way to “inspire yourself and others.”
Scott’s last journal entry provided yet another thought-provoking coincidence, as Simmons described a phone call to the family from a man whom they or Rachel had never met. The man described dreaming of a drawing showing a pair of girl’s eyes and 13 teardrops (one for each victim) falling on a rose. When the family opened Rachel’s diary, they found the exact picture, which a teacher had seen her draw shortly before the shootings began.
Thirdly, Simmons said Scott urged choosing positive influences. “‘Don’t let your character change color with your environment. Find out who you are and let it stay its true color,’” Simmons quoted. He added Scott was known for reaching out to new students, special-needs students and those who were bullied. He said the Scott family heard from numerous individuls who had been touched by their daughter, including a special-needs student who said he had considered suicide before Rachel’s friendship.
“Speak with kindness,” Simmons said, was the fourth challenge posed. Referring to the old adage “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” Simmons said that words do hurt worse. “They leave a mark you can’t erase.”
Finally, Simmons asked the audience members to close their eyes, and think of the people who mean the most to them. “Your challenge within the next three days is to tell them how much they mean to you,” he said, adding “Start your own chain reaction.”