CHATHAM — The story of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the tragic Columbine school shooting in 1999, would be moving to hear anytime. But delivered to students at Monomoy Middle School just two days after the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it was devastatingly poignant.
In a school-wide event booked long before the Parkland tragedy, presenter Deedee Cooper shared Rachel’s story with middle school students Friday as part of Rachel’s Challenge. The program, which teaches tolerance and kindness, was established by Rachel’s parents after her death. The 17-year-old’s diary, and a school essay she wrote weeks before she was gunned down, form the basis of the program.
“It’s not possible for you to be unmoved by what you’re about to see,” Principal Mark Wilson warned the crowded auditorium. Students had an opportunity later to discuss the presentation, and teachers were posted at the exits with boxes of tissues.
As the students watched video clips of the Columbine aftermath, Cooper told them that Rachel was outside eating lunch with a friend when the violence began.
“The first person to be shot and killed that day was Rachael Joy Scott,” she said. The video presentation included the 911 recordings of a teacher reporting the shooting, while urging students to get underneath tables for protection. Rachel’s brother, who survived the tragedy, was in the library at the time and heard the initial gunshots that killed his sister.
The presentation drew parallels between Rachel and one of the people she admired: Anne Frank. Both young women taught tolerance, both kept diaries that influenced later generations, and both were killed by followers of Adolf Hitler.
In her essay, Rachel talked about the dangers of prejudice.
“She said, ‘Look for the best in others,’” Cooper told the students. That’s the first of five tenets of Rachel’s Challenge, she said. The second is to dream big. Rachel told people that, though she knew she would die young, she would touch many lives. She achieved that goal, Cooper said.
The third challenge is to choose to be positive influence every day by reaching out to people in need. For students, that means being kind to peers who are bullied, who have special needs, or who might just be the new kid in class.
“You have a choice every single day about what kind of influence you’re going to be on the people around you,” Cooper said. In a letter to a friend, Rachel put it plainly.
“Don’t let your character change color with your environment,” she wrote.
The fourth pledge asks students to speak to each other with kindness. The power of a smile and a kind word is immeasurable, Cooper said. “Words matter,” she said. “Rachel treated people the way she hoped to be treated.”
Rachel’s final challenge is to start their own “chain reaction” of kindness, an expression she might have borrowed from another person she admired: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the conclusion of the 50-minute program, Cooper asked students and faculty members to close their eyes and picture their loved ones. In the next three days, Cooper said, they should tell their loved ones how they feel about them, knowing that someday it will be too late to do so. She asked people to raise their hands if they agreed to the pledge, and most in the audience did so. That would please Rachel’s parents, Cooper said.
“They see your hands as an extension of hers,” she said. “The chain reaction will continue.”
A number of students and faculty members wept openly during the presentation.
Later in the day Friday, students were invited to sign their names to a banner, pledging to accept Rachel’s challenge. A number of student leaders were also trained to help facilitate a new group, the Friends of Rachel Club. The club will consider activities and projects to further encourage tolerance, empathy and non-discrimination.
While the rawness of the school shooting in Florida made the Rachel’s Challenge presentation more poignant than it might otherwise have been, Cooper said it doesn’t change the subject matter.
“Our message stays the same,” she said. Rachel proved that one person can have a positive impact on tens of millions of lives. “We all have the exact same ability,” Cooper said.