Students Accept Rachel's Challenge
By Caitlin Davis
Sep 28, 2012, 11:12
photo by Caitin Davis The banner that hangs outside the auditorium at Thomas Dale High School with signatures of students, teachers and community members who have accepted Rachel’s Challenge.
In 1999, the United States witnessed what was then described as the worst school shooting in history. Two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, shooting and killing 12 of their classmates and one teacher.
The first person shot in the massacre was Rachel Joy Scott; and even though she died that day, her life is still being used to share a message.
Rachel’s Challenge is a program that encourages parents, students and community members to replace acts of bullying, negativity or violence with acts of kindness, respect and compassion, three qualities people remember seeing in Rachel.
The challenge came to Thomas Dale on Tuesday night as students, parents and members of the community gathered in the auditorium to hear Rachel’s story.
Just outside the auditorium hung a large banner raeding “I accept Rachel’s Challenge,” covered in signatures from students, parents and community members who already agreed to the plan.
One person who has joined Rachel’s Challenge and is telling her story across the country is Torski Dobson-Arnold.
Arnold shared stories of Rachel’s life and her time at Columbine High School before the shooting. About six weeks before the tragedy, Rachel wrote an essay entitled “My Ethics, My Codes of Life.” In her paper, she said, “people will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
Those words and her six journals she left behind have inspired this challenge.
“We need to look for the best in others,” Arnold said. “All of us have heard it before and it is certainly nothing new...but how many of us actually practice that everyday?”
Arnold continued saying another challenge is to fight prejudice, among students and the community.
“As students, we have no clue what’s going on in the life of our fellow students,” Arnold said. “If you look hard enough ,you will always see the light.”
Arnold confessed that she sometimes judges others based on what they are wearing or the things she sees at first glance. As a messenger, she said she wanted those in the auditorium to accept the challenge of finding the best in everybody with whom they come in contact .
“We have got to look for the best in others,” Arnold said. “We have got to find that light.”
Rachel also believed in big dreams, Arnold said, and by continuing to dream big, the impossible suddenly can become possible.
“We’ve got to take those dreams and translate them into goals,” Arnold said.
On the screen was a picture of Rachel’s diary at the time of the shooting, the diary with a piece missing where one the bullets had hit. On her diary were the words “I won’t be labeled as average,” a statement Arnold encouraged the students to carry with them well past the presentation.
Arnold also told those there on Tuesday night that who students choose as friends and role models makes a difference in their life.
“As part of Rachel’s Challenge I did not come here to tell your sons and daughters who their friends should be or what type of music they should listen to or what books to read or what video games they should play,” Arnold said. “Here’s what we do understand...the individuals they choose to hang around, the information they bring into their hearts and minds, will a direct impact on how they’re remembered.”
Arnold said she had asked the students that day, before the presentation, before the community and parents arrived, “when you are gone what will they say about you?”
The next part of Rachel’s Challenge is to speak with kindness. Arnold said words are powerful tools and can hurt or heal.
“We have to be so conscious of our words,” Arnold said. “Have your words be the kind of words that will lift your sons and daughters up.”
As the presentation continued and pictures of Rachel came on the screen along with interviews with her family, friends and teachers depicting stories of Rachel and the impact she has left, Arnold spoke of her commitment to change the world.
“She encourages us that no matter how we fell, forwards or backwards, that we can always get up and keep moving,” Arnold said.
Before the close of the presentation Arnold had the audience close their eyes and bring to mind eight to ten people who have changed their lives.
“Here’s your challenge, over the next three days...you reach out and tell them just how much you love them and just how much you care,” Arnold said.
Arnold said one the biggest lessons to be taken from the presentation is that those people are not going to be a part of our lives forever. She said those meaningful connections need to be made, and not over a text message or post to Facebook.
“Tomorrow is not promised, five minutes from now is not promised,” Arnold said. “Remember those connections. That’s how you will be the answer, that’s how you start your chain reaction.”
As the audience opened their eyes, and some wiped back tears from their faces, Arnold asked them to raise their hands if they were going to be a part of Rachel’s Challenge. Every hand in the room went up as the audience joined 17 million who have accepted the challenge.
“You are now part of that chain reaction,” Arnold said. “You have committed to dream big despite responsibilities. You’ve committed to speaking with kindness. Thomas Dale is never going to be the same after hearing Rachel’s story today.”
As Arnold closed, she said she is passing the torch onto the students, the parents and the community to continue building that chain.
“Now you start your own chain reactions and change the world,” Arnold said.
A group of students have already taken that torch and made the commitment to bring change to Thomas Dale High School: junior Katherine Crusco, 16, Junior Courtney Hevener, 16, Junior Rachel McDaniel, 16, Senior Evan Fowler, 17, Junior Alisa Pratt,16, Senior Garrett Hedrick, 17, Senior Peter Koch, 17, Junior Matthew Peloquin,16, and Senior Vaughn Fowler, 17.
photo by Caitlin Davis The students of Thomas Dale, who are now in a club “Friends of Rachel’s,” that have committed to making Thomas Dale a better high school. Katherine Crusco, junior, 16, Courtney Hevener, junior, 16, Rachel McDaniel, junior 16, Evan Fowler, senior, 17, Alisa Pratt, junior 16, Garrett Hedrick, senior, 17, Peter Koch, senior 17, Matthew Peloquin, junior, 16, and Vaughn Fowler, senior, 17.
“It has impacted us all greatly as a group to have this come to our school,” Vaughn said.
Koch said one of the problems he sees at the school is not bullying, but students being ignored.
“It’s just an ignorance is bliss kind of thing,” Koch said. “That’s what I want to change.”
Pratt said all the great things Dale has to offer are being taken for granted.
“We complain about the smallest things, when really we have it good here,” Pratt said.
One by one, the students spoke about how they wanted to change Dale and change the community through Rachel.
“I sometimes make off the cuff comments that I didn’t mean for them to be hurtful,” Koch said. “You don’t even realize you’re hurting them.”
“When I see people sitting alone, I want to go over and sit with them,” Hevener said.
“Reaching out instead of seeing something and letting it pass,” Crusco said.
“If each of us does one thing for just one person maybe that person will pay it forward,” Vaughn said.
Evan Fowler spoke of a time in fifth grade he ended up in the hospital with a head injury, and beside him, in another bed, was a boy diagnosed with cancer.
“We don’t realize how lucky we are just to be alive with friends like this,” Evan said.
“This is just the start. This is just the beginning,” Vaughn said. We want to continue this one far past today.”
Samantha Brown, school counselor, said the group of kids has hit the ground running and wants to bring a change to Thomas Dale. A Friends of Rachel Club is in place for students to join.
Brown said while Dale has it’s successes, one of the challenges in being the largest high school in the county is that students can get lost in the crowd. She said Dale also sees a large number of transfer students, due to the proximity to Fort Lee.
“We need to do a better job of taking care of those kids,” Brown said.
Already the group has ideas such as monthly breakfasts for new students and welcome baskets.
As far as bullying, Brown said that is an issue that many schools face, a problem that will not be fixed overnight.
“[Rachel’s Challenge] is not really an anti-bullying program,” Brown said. “It is a feel positive program. If you feel better about yourself, you are less likely to bully other people.”
Brown said she was confident the Friends of Rachel would uphold their namesake’s legacy of kindness and compassion.
“I know these kids are going to take it and run with it,” Brown said. “It’s the heart of who these kids are. They are kind kids, they are compassionate kids.”
Arnold said she loves seeing the effect Rachel’s story has on the students. She said as the message changes the students, it changes the community.
“For those students that really resonate and really connect, parents see a change in their sons and daughters,” Arnold said. “That’s how it changes the community. It’s a trickle effect.”
For more information on Rachel’s Challenge visit www.rachelschallenge.org.