Sixteen-year-old Rachel Joy Scott challenged herself and others to start a chain reaction of kindness.
It’s a message that lives on to this day, despite the hate that took her life and the lives of 12 others in the school shooting massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
Students at Rush City High School learned all about Rachel and her writings at two separate presentations — one for seventh and eighth graders, another for grades 9-12 — on Wednesday, Oct. 3. Another was held for the community. From teenagers to adults, both groups walked away inspired and ready to incorporate Rachel’s Challenge into their lives.
Rachel was the first person killed in the school shooting at Columbine in the suburban town of Littleton, Colo. Shortly before her death, she wrote, “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.”
This prompted her father Darrell and stepmother Sandy to launch Rachel’s Challenge, an organization and message that has touched more than 18 million people around the world who have pledged to make their communities a safer, more positive place to live.
Also touched by Rachel’s message was Rush City High School senior Jennifer Tryon, who attended two of the three presentations last week.
“Rachel’s Challenge impacted me more than I expected,” said Tryon. “I thought it was just going to be another presentation, but it left me speechless. I even went back that evening with my dad, and he was impacted just as much, if not more, than I was.”
She added, “Usually during presentations, students talk or screw around. This time was different. As soon as it started, there was complete silence, and by the end there were tears being shed. People around school are still talking about the reaction they had and sharing stories.”
Each day, around 160,000 students don’t go to school because they are bullied, teased and harassed. The same is feared locally as Rush City students admit bullying is a concern at the high school, noted school counselor Heidi Larson, citing results of a spring 2012 survey.
Take the challenge
Rachel’s Challenge presenter Deedee Cooper tugged at the hearts of those in attendance at the community presentation Wednesday night in the high school auditorium.
She shared clips of the live news coverage of the Columbine shootings. She brought the audience there with another video, complete with real-time images from inside the school, which showed high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enacting their assault.
While most students survived and were reunited with their families, 12 students and a teacher did not go home that day.
One of those interviewed in the aftermath was Rachel’s brother Craig, who avoided certain death when ducked under a table in the school’s library. With him were two classmates who were shot and killed.
He also heard the shots that killed Rachel, who always claimed she would die young as was evident through her drawings and writings, while she sat outside a nearby entrance in the unusual warmth of the day.
Yet it was her ambition to make a difference that reflects her legacy, which so many people who never knew her have adopted as their own.
One by one, Cooper announced a list of Rachel-inspired challenges for the Rush City audience to practice in their own lives.
“The first challenge is to get rid of any prejudices in your heart,” said Cooper of people’s tendency to judge others. “This doesn’t just mean racially. Look for the best in others and eliminate prejudice.”
While Eric and Dylan’s role model was Hitler, Rachel’s was Ann Frank. As it turned out, both girls died as teenagers and believed their writings would impact the world. And they have.
After Rachel’s death, her parents found a tracing of her hands with a message written on the wall behind her bedroom dresser. The message: “These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of peoples’ hearts,” Cooper recited.
The second challenge: dream big, and write those dreams down.
“Keep a journal,” Cooper advised. “I don’t care how big or small you are, how poor or rich you are … the only thing that matters is that you believe in yourself in this world.”
Rachel once wrote on a notebook, “I won’t be labeled as average,” she continued.
The third challenge: choose positive influences.
“Don’t let your character change color with your environment. Find out who you are and let it stay its true color,” Rachel wrote.
She is talking about peer pressure with this challenge, Cooper continued. Without a concern of how others viewed it, she reached out to three groups: special needs students, new students and those who were often picked on by their peers.
“My worst day became my best day at school,” recalled Amber of meeting Rachel. You see, Amber lost her mother in a car wreck and was a new student with no friends until she was approached and befriended by Rachel, explained Cooper.
Another student, Adam, was brutally picked on at school due to his mental and physical challenges. One day two older boys began to shove him, until Rachel stepped in. “Fight me,” she pleaded.
Rachel did not know she saved his life that day,” noted Cooper. “He later told Rachel’s parents that he had been planning to take his own life.”
The next challenge: speak with kindness.
“Your words can hurt; your words can heal,” presented Cooper. “There are no small compliments, and there are no small insults. So use words that heal, not hurt.”
Before Cooper announced the final challenge, she asked the youths and adults in attendance to close their eyes and think about the people who mean more to them than anything.
“Go to those people and tell them how much you love them,” she emphasized, adding, “Let me see a show of hands from you who are willing to make this commitment. Rachel’s family sees your hands as an extension of hers.”
Seventh grade voices
Sitting together at the evening presentation were Rush City seventh-graders Katelynn Hilton, Nicole Meier, Sidney Granat and eighth grader Trent Miller.
With eyes glued on Cooper and the video clips, they were impacted by Rachel’s Challenge to say the least.
“It made me think, ‘What if this happened to you?’” said Hilton. “It kind of made me feel guilty of things I’ve done in the past, but it also made me think of what I can do now with more people and other kids.”
For Meier, she said the presentation helped changed her perspective of people. “I feel like I should be more open to people and what they are going through. Kids with divorced parents, for example. I want to be there for them.”
“I learned to bring out the good in people and not the worst,” said Granat. “I think it will have a longtime effect on me because it’s the real deal.”
Added Miller, “(Rachel) was always trying to bring out the best in everybody. For me, I need to be more aware of the words I use.”
Friends of Rachel Club
At the end of the presentation, high school principal Brent Stavig noted 75 Rush City students have been nominated to start a Friends of Rachel (FOR) Club at school.
The club is set up to include and be run by students of different walks of life to maintain a healthy, non-threatening atmosphere where issues like bullying will not be tolerated. Anyone can join and everyone will be encouraged along the way.
Tryon was one of the 75 nominated on the FOR Club, and she is eager to continue Rachel’s legacy by making a difference inside and out of the school community.
“We only have had a few meetings so far, but we have made a list of a few ideas to bring into the school,” she said. “Even though this is a student-driven organization, we encourage the community to get involved as much as possible. We have decided to start small at the high school, then expand to the elementary school and then to the community. With the help of the FOR Club and the rest of the students and the community, I think we can make this a great experience.”