“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.”
— Rachel Joy Scott's words in a term paper she entitled, “My Ethics, My Codes of Life”
LINCOLN – Last August, Central Elementary School teacher Erin Metivier cried when Rachel Joy Scott's brother, Craig, spoke before hundreds of teachers and students at an assembly called “Rachel's Challenge.”
He explained to his audience how his sister – the first student killed in the tragic Columbine High school massacre in Littleton, Colo. on April 20, 1999 – had lived her life, conveying kindness at every turn. He talked of how Rachel often stated she didn't think she'd live very long, but truly believed she would impact millions.
She wrote the above paragraph just two weeks before being murdered by two students consumed by hatred, and her family chose after the tragedy to develop “Rachel's Challenge” and take it to schools around the globe.
“When I saw him speak, he was unbelievable; there was so much emotion, it was amazing,” offered Lincoln Central Elementary School fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Erin Metivier in her Room 19 on Tuesday afternoon. “God, did we cry! I was completely overwhelmed by this girl and her message. It was so genuine – genuinely good.
“The point (Superintendent of Schools) Georgia Fortunato conveyed to us (as educators) was that our students are so consumed with academics, and we have so much stuff we need to teach them, we also needed to teach character.
“I firmly believe that, especially in this day and age,” she added. “One of my favorite quotes is 'Sports don't build character. They reveal it.' That's what I used to tell my players when I was coaching field hockey at Lincoln High.”
After seeing Craig Scott's presentation, one in which she took notes, Metivier introduced the message of Rachel's Challenge to her eight students last September.
“I talked to the kids about how we all can have a positive impact on the world; we also discussed how one small act of kindness can make a big difference,” she noted.
A trio of her fifth-graders took Metivier's talk to heart, so much so that the girls now are delivering Rachel's “My Codes of Life” to their entire school.
Meet 11-year-olds Gabriella Lefebvre, Rochelle Ledoux and Alexiana Penardo, all of whom are adamant about turning Central Elementary into a more friendly place for all.
They're the ones who told Metivier they wanted to adopt Rachel's character, and have their schoolmates do the same. They're the ones who painted a 10-foot x three-foot paper banner for each and every student to sign, pledging their loyalty to treat others not with jealousy or disdain, but tenderness and sympathy.
“Rachel's story touched us,” Rochelle said while sitting with her friends Tuesday. “We know the feeling of getting bullied, and we don't want anyone else to feel that kind of humiliation. I know, and it feels terrible.
“I think we can reduce the amount of bullies and rude people there are out there in the schools,” she added. “We're trying to show how important being nice is … When Mrs. Metivier began telling us about Rachel, I thought, 'What a sweetheart! It's amazing how she lived, how just one girl out of millions decided to go out of her way to show compassion.'”
The girls first investigated more about Rachel's life, delving into the Internet, and also – as part of Metivier's curriculum – began keeping a writer's journal.
“I have them do that not only to make them better writers, but also to write down their thoughts and feelings to be in touch with them,” the instructor said. “This has been part of my curriculum all year. I mean, fifth grade is a tough year; there's a lot of crazy stuff happening to them. They're right in between being a kid and a teen-ager, a young woman.
“The focus for many of them are on looks, being cool, being popular, who the best athletes are,” she continued. “That's why I wanted them to learn this. It's so important. Being nice shows what a person is truly made of, what defines one as a human being.”
Still, it wasn't until the threesome visited the Lincoln Middle School gymnasium on March 25 that their ideas really started to flow.
“We saw a banner during a 'Father-Daughter Dance' for Rachel's Challenge, and it was signed by all of the (middle school) students,” Alexiana grinned. “We told Mrs. Metivier about the banner, and Gabby said, 'Let's make one!' We also got a packet about making one from Mrs. Fortunato.
“The students signed it because they wanted to promise to be kind to other kids and to stop bullying, no matter what.”
When Metivier gave them a persuasive writing assignment in early April, Gabriella and Rochelle chose to pen a letter to Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Peter Nero. That idea, mentioned Gabriella, came from discussing her assignment with her mom, Leslie, who teaches science at Park View Middle School.
“We wanted Cranston to adopt Rachel's Challenge,” Gabriella said. “I found out that their students didn't have the presentation, and I figured they should. My mom asked some friends at school about it, but they said it cost too much money … I wasn't too happy about that because this was Rachel's Challenge. I mean, it changes lives.”
The trio discovered from Fortunato that the price tag for a Scott family member to fly in and conduct the assembly was $7,500. In their letter, which is about to be mailed, they explained to Nero how Challenge statistics exhibit a reduction of violence in schools, and that suicide attempts – as a result of bullying – have dropped.
They also expressed their ideas as to how the Cranston schools can create fundraisers to bring the presentation to their city. They don't know how the letter will be received, but they're sure – if students experience the assembly – it will improve overall attitude.
“We painted the banner during our lunchtimes and recesses,” Gabriella grinned. “My mom said she was
very proud of me.”
Over the last two weeks, Metivier and her girls trekked from classroom to classroom so fellow students could sign it. The banner reads “In memory of Rachel Joy Scott” on top, then “Rachel's Challenge” in mammoth letters of different colors.
“We painted it like a rainbow for Rachel,” Rochelle acknowledged.
Metivier revealed anyone who hasn't signed the banner, absentees and the like, will have the opportunity when it's posted in the school cafeteria sometime next week.
“I then proposed to the girls that we take it one step further to turn it into a full-fledged school challenge,” Metivier said. “We could do that by writing down one kind deed we had performed for someone on a piece of paper, and we could build our own chain to start our own chain reaction. If they did another good deed, they could write it on another link.
“We received hundreds of them within the first week,” she continued. “We went to Mrs. (Beth) Halliwell's fourth-grade class first, then to the second grade. Now we even have some from staff members and administrators.”
Gabriella mentioned she hugged her grandmother and gave her a card on her birthday, and Rochelle cited a couple of instances where she exhibited compassion.
“I helped someone pick up books that had fallen out of a desk, and I also found a $20 bill on the ground outside,” she indicated. “It had fallen out of a kid's backpack. I wasn't going to keep it because it wasn't mine. That would be rude and unacceptable. The only right thing to do was give it back, and it felt really good.”
On Thursday, June 9, at 2:30 p.m., Metivier has scheduled a ceremony to introduce the student body to “Central's Chain of Kindness,” and can't wait to see the reactions it draws. She's hoping the chain will stretch from one end of the school to the other.
“I'm so proud of these kids; they're so nice,” she chuckled. “It takes a lot of strength, courage, to take this message to the entire school. They don't have to do this; they choose to. This shows just how much Rachel has inspired them.
“You know, students find successes in many ways. Some shine academically, others shine athletically and some students may have special talents, like music. But not every student shines when it comes to treating others with compassion and kindness. When it comes to strong character, Rochelle, Gabriella and Alexiana have proven they've got it.
“We talked about this in theory, but now – because of these girls – it's got a life of its own,” she added. “This has nothing to do with me telling them, 'You have to do this.' This is them telling their schoolmates, 'This is how to act, and it's got to come from the heart.'”