It was a name foreign to me until a few months ago when I heard my 12-year-old son’s school was looking to present a program called Rachel’s Challenge to students. Rachel was the first student killed in the horrific Columbine High School attack in Littleton, Colo. in 1999. She was just 17 years old and eating lunch outside when she was shot. In the days after her death, her family was provided with numerous stories about Rachel’s simple acts of kindness and approach to accepting and supporting all students no matter their background, skin color or even how they treated her. These interactions coupled with the family’s grief led to the creation of Rachel’s Challenge, which lists as its mission: “Making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect; and where learning and teaching are awakened to their fullest.”
Rachel’s Challenge offers its informative program to schools across the country, including at Worcester Prep this week where elementary, middle and upper schools heard about the effort and committing to signing “Rachel’s Challenge.” I had heard about this effort beforehand and gave Beckett a heads up there would be a special assembly today.
At pick-up the day the program was presented at Beckett’s school, I was anxious to gather his thoughts about it. I will never learn I guess. Asking him questions at pickup is never fruitful and can be frustrating. I should know better than to fire questions at him on the way home from school. At pickup, he is all about decompressing, which evidently is a process that does not involve his dear old dad asking him the same questions a few different ways. He’s a tough interview for this reporter.
Later, much later actually, I asked him about what “PE” class – usually a discussion point — was like followed by some casual talk about the origins of the frisbee. I thought I was in safe territory now with my pre-teen so I circled back to the Rachel’s Challenge program.
Maybe he was still processing it, but he didn’t have a lot to say about it. He said it was interesting, but didn’t seem to think the messaging really pertained to him. I questioned him about that in my best non-threatening way. His answer surprised me. He said he already has compassion and empathy because of his special needs brother. He said maybe other people need to hear about accepting people for their differences, but he has no problem with anyone. He said, “everyone should be themselves, they can’t help it.”
It was an interesting, but short conversation. Though I’m sure he learned some things, the presentation did not have an incredible impact as I hear it did with all other kids. It’s okay, but I later learned through my own research more. Along with the students who shared their personal recounts of Rachel’s empathy with her parents, an essay she wrote in high school was also a driving motivation behind the creation of the non-profit organization named after her.
Rachel’s essay, “My Ethics, My Codes of Life,” was quite poignant in this time we live in, though it was written 20 years ago and a teen. Here’s an excerpt:
“Compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer. According to Webster’s Dictionary compassion means a feeling of sympathy for another’s misfortune. My definition of compassion is forgiving, loving, helping, leading and showing mercy for others. 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.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned that the first and the second and the third impressions can be deceitful of what kind of person someone is. For example, imagine you had just met someone, and you speak with them three times on brief everyday conversations. They come off as a harsh, cruel, stubborn and ignorant person. You reach your judgment based on just these three encounters. Let me ask you something .. did you ever ask them what their goal in life is, what kind of past they came from, did they experience love, did they experience hurt, did you look into their soul and not just at their appearance? Until you know them and not just their “type,” you have no right to shun them. You have not looked for their beauty, their good. You have not seen the light in their eyes. Look hard enough and you will always find a light, and you can even help it grow, if you don’t walk away from those three impressions first.
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 this world a better place to be in 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. You may just start a chain reaction.”