NEWBURYPORT — Before she was shot dead by two classmates during an indiscriminate killing rampage in 1999 at Columbine High School, 17-year-old Rachel Scott was poised to make the world a better place. Scott had a theory that small acts of kindness toward fellow human beings could create a chain reaction of subsequent kindnesses with the unlimited power to transform, and throughout her short life, she tested that theory continually by extending a helping hand to those who needed it.
Although Scott couldn't live to see the full effect of her good deeds, she might have been happy yesterday to see the same challenge she lived every day put to students of Newburyport elementary schools. As part of a PTO-sponsored initiative, students in the third, fourth and fifth grades all participated yesterday in the launch of Rachel's Challenge. They were spared the horrific reason Scott's life was cut short, but a representative from the organization started in Scott's name by her family urged students to begin creating the very chain of kindnesses that Scott dreamed about. And looking at pictures of the sweet, smiling girl whose philosophy might have proved the antidote for the kind of hate that prompted the Columbine killing, they were inspired to be more kind.
"It's really based on how we can perform one small act of kindness and compassion for somebody, and there's no telling where it could go," said Molin Principal Lori Gallivan. "It's about starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion."
Amber Smith, from the Rachel's Challenge organization, introduced students at two separate assemblies yesterday to a girl who loved to wear hats and kept her deepest thoughts in a journal her parents read after her death in 1999. It was among the private thoughts of a teenage girl that they laid the foundation of a program that might help improve the culture in schools across America in the wake of Columbine. And since they began Rachel's Challenge, which rewards good deeds by students with a construction paper "link" in the chain, it's become one of the most effective and influential anti-bully campaigns ever introduced.
"People who used to bully don't really bully as much," said one boy testifying on the video students viewed yesterday. "It's kind of nice."
Scott was the first victim of that shooting in Colorado in 1999, and her brother — a survivor — was in the library where most of the victims of the shooting lost their lives. But yesterday, students were told only of how Scott lived her life and how they could strive toward similar goals by following the edict she laid out in a high school term paper titled "My ethics, my codes of life." Later, after enthusiastically agreeing to take part in Rachel's Challenge, they were asked to do five things as part of the challenge.
First, they were asked to choose positive influences rather than negative ones, whether through groups of friends and role models, or through the movies they watch or books they read.
"You can have good influences or you can have bad influences," Smith said. "Your first kindness is to choose good influences."
Second, the kids were asked to keep a journal as Scott did, and third, to write down their goals in the journal. In that way, the goals stand a good chance of becoming a reality, she said. And fourth, she asked them to use kind words and display little acts of kindness that can make a big difference to the recipient.
Smith explained that after Scott's death a boy named Adam retold the story of how Scott had changed his life because of her kindness to him as a new student at Columbine. She did nothing more for Adam than step in when someone was bullying him and be his friend, Smith said.
"What she did for him is something that you or I could do," Smith said. "You don't have to do great big things."
The fifth challenge she put to students was to accept and include others as Scott did. And with that comes the challenge to be nice to others even when they're not being nice back, she said. You don't know what might be going on in a person's life that causes them to act rudely or say something mean, she said.
"You can bring out the good in people or bad in people," Smith said. "Rachel challenges us to give people several chances."
In explaining to students how to go about earning a link in the chain that will hopefully reach far enough to stretch from one end of the school to the other, Smith explained compassion is the seed of kindness, akin to that feeling inside when you see someone whose books have fallen out of their hands and onto the floor.
"You have a feeling like, ooh, I want to help, and that's compassion," Smith said. "But you going and helping pick up the books — that's kindness."
As the brightly colored links, which are currently being distributed to teachers, cafeteria staff and bus drivers, begin to form a chain at the school, it's Gallivan's hope that the culture of the school begins to transform as it has at other schools across the country that have signed on to the challenge.
"Teachers will be giving them out to kids caught doing something kind," Gallivan said. "We'll start linking the chains in the classroom."
It's up to the kids how far they want to take it, she said.
"I think that we will be able to build a really long chain, because we have some great students here at the Molin school," Gallivan said.