LINCOLN — As she readied herself for school Tuesday morning, Lincoln High junior Taylor Jutras argued vehemently with her mother, Tammy, about a mere two dollars. When “Ma” wouldn't budge on the request, she stormed out of the house “in a huff.”
About five hours later, Taylor admitted she had texted her mom several times, promising she was sorry for her behavior and understood Tammy's stance on the matter.
Jutras explained her 180-degree spin in attitude came about after she and approximately 1,000 other LHS students had spent an hour listening to Craig Scott's emotional, tear-evoking soliloquy/video presentation entitled “Rachel's Challenge” at the Community College of Rhode Island/Flanagan campus' fieldhouse.
During the assembly, Scott spoke about his sister, Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first student killed in the tragic Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. on April 20, 1999. Craig himself had been in the library that fateful day, when two students consumed by hatred gunned down 12 schoolmates and a teacher before committing suicide.
Immediately after the tragedy, Darrell Scott — the teens' dad — began speaking around the country, using Rachel's diaries and drawings to illustrate not only his daughter's love but also the need for everyone to create a kinder, gentler, more compassionate nation.
Pure and simple, Craig stated, the Rachel's Challenge mission is “to inspire, equip and empower every person to create a permanent positive culture change in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.”
“I cried this morning, and what Craig said hit me so hard, I wanted to come back (Tuesday night),” said Taylor Jutras, who joined her parents, John and Tammy, at the third and final session – for community members and parents – inside the packed high school auditorium. “I cried again here.
“It was so powerful, so moving, so uplifting. You notice a lot about yourself, and see how everything you say and do can impact someone, whether it's negative or positive … The fact Craig was there at Columbine that day, and now wants to carry Rachel's message, it's so real. I mean, anyone can come to a school and talk about things they know about but didn't experience, but he was there. I mean, his emotion gets into your head. You can't help but think about how to be a better person.
“I think if people (enact) what Craig said about being compassionate, I believe there's going to be a much better vibe within this school. I think people will be happier, and get along better … Honestly, when we took the bus back to (LHS) at noon, everyone was so cool! The kids were like a great big family. We all connected.
“People I didn't even know came up to me and said, 'Hi!' and people were hugging others. And you know what? I didn't see anyone sitting alone at lunch.”
Offered seventh-grader Taylor Meyerjack, who took in with her middle schoolmates Craig's second session Tuesday afternoon: “When we left (CCRI), everyone was going up to each other, crying and hugging. They were saying, 'I'm really sorry if I was ever mean to you. I won't do it anymore.' It was so nice. That's the way everyone should be – all the time.”
Last year, a friend of Superintendent of School Georgia Fortunato told her about Rachel's Challenge appearing at his school, Shepard Hill Regional High in Dudley, Mass. – so she researched the subject.
She became so enthralled with the message, she contacted Rachel's Challenge officials and asked if someone would deliver it in Lincoln. On Aug. 25, Craig Scott traveled to LHS to speak to teachers and support staff, and “there wasn't a dry eye in the house,” she said.
“We started the chain reaction here on Aug. 25, and now everyone from sixth grade and up have experienced this beautiful message,” Fortunato noted Tuesday night. “I attended all three today. In fact, I've had my calendar cleared for two months. As soon as I found out Craig had an opening on Oct. 19, we booked it.
“We're the first school system in Rhode Island to have Rachel's Challenge, and I think it's terrific. We need to be a kinder and gentler people, so I'm thrilled. It was so heart-warming to see this audience (of about 700) so enraptured by it. This is the best gift the parents and community could have given me, their support. Our chain reaction has begun.”
Since the program's inception, approximately 30 of Rachel's family and friends have visited approximately 3,300 schools, excluding events at large venues/stadiums in all 50 states and six countries. Over 11 million people worldwide have heard their message, and – because of it – seven documented school shootings or violence averted, not to mention hundreds of suicides.
Craig opened with his remembrances of Rachel, who lived with the notion she wouldn't live to be very old, but did believe she would have an impact on millions.
He also revealed, two weeks before her murder, she had written a two-page school paper she called “My Ethics, My Code of Life.” While the two killers had stated in a video they wanted to start a chain reaction of terror and violence, she wrote, “If one person will show kindness and compassion, it will start a chain reaction” and “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
“Those two young people used exactly the same phrase, but they were full of anger and hatred,” Craig said. “Why did they do what they did? In their video, they didn't want to get close to anyone, and chose to follow negative influences in their lives, through the media, movies and music. It was all the negatives that they dwelled upon.
“Rachel paid attention to positive things,” he continued. “I don't know who I'd be today without all of the positive influences in my life … She even wrote, 'I will have an impact on the world,' and – you know – she has.”
Craig, now 27 and living in Los Angeles to chase his dream of producing and directing motion pictures that inspire anything positive, then asked the audience to embrace five challenges dear to Rachel's heart.
At the top of the list, he exhibited via slide the phrase “Choose positive influences; input equals output.” He then caused thunderous laughter when he revealed a video depicting an unexpecting toddler being hugged by a monkey.
“I ask you to take off any negative labels you may have for others, and look for the positive,” he stated.
Second, he asked all to “Dare to dream – Set goals and keep a journal.” Craig noted his sister wanted someday to bungee-jump, and did for her 16th birthday. She wanted to sky dive at 18, “but she was killed at 17,” he said sadly.
Among the other challenges: “Use kind words; small acts of kindness equal huge impact;” “Eliminate prejudice;” and “Start a chain reaction – Tell people how much you love and appreciate them.”
Craig talked of his father meeting a man at her gravesite one day. Austin explained to Darrell Scott how Rachel approached him during one of the worst days of his life, but she listened to him, and asked him to ponder the amazing things in his life.
“Austin went home that night, took his wife out to dinner and they had a great time,” Craig said. “Two weeks later, he opened up the Denver Post and saw Rachel's name (as one of the victims).”
In short, Austin decided at her funeral he would make changes in his life, stop dwelling on the negatives.
“He now shovels out elderly people's driveways, and stops on the highway to help those with flat tires,” Craig offered. “Later, he and his wife had a baby, and they named her Rachel Joy … That little girl can grow up and have kids of her own, and she can tell them she was named after a girl who helped her father.”
Craig mentioned how Rachel impacted the life of a boy whose books had been knocked from his arms by some rather large individuals, but she stood up to them with both fists cocked, saying if they didn't stop, “You'll have to deal with me!”
“Those guys were huge, so I'm sure they were really scared of my tiny sister,” he grinned, evoking laughter. “The boy told her he didn't feel like he was a part of anything, and he thought about taking his own life. Rachel prevented him from doing that because she showed him kindness, gave him hope.”
He read a portion of an undated letter she had composed to her cousin. It stated, “Don't let your character change color with your environment. Find out who you are and let it stay its true color.”
That's when he exhibited a TV commercial created by The Foundation For a Better Life, and one fashioned after Rachel's beliefs. In it, a high school boy sees another one being bullied in a hallway, but helps them as his abusers laugh in the background.
The advertisement had been set to Bill Withers' 1970s' hit, “Lean On Me.”
Craig asked the LHS audience to stand, place their arms around their neighbors' shoulders and sway to the song. When it ended, he mentioned he heard some singing the lyrics, but not all, so “Let's try it again! And I want to hear you this time!”
The audience obliged, then applauded and cheered so loudly, it may have been heard by patrons of the nearby public library.
Craig informed the crowd of what April 20, 1999 was like for him.
“I haven't been the same since that day,” he said solemnly. “It changed my life. I was 16, and went to the school library. I was on the wrestling team, and I was one who would at times put people down. I heard some popping noises outside, but I thought it was a senior prank. A teacher frantically came in … screaming to kids outside the school. She was in such terror, but I couldn't understand what she was saying.”
He jumped under a desk with his buddy Matt, and – seconds later – a bullet-riddled student fell through the door. Another friend, an African-American boy named Isaiah, had crawled under the desk with them.
“A few minutes later, the gunshots got closer to the library, and (the gunmen) started firing,” he continued. “I heard them yelling to each other, and that's when we knew it was very serious. They walked up to Isaiah and began making fun of him for being black. The last thing Isaiah said was 'I want to see my mother.' They blew off Isaiah's face, then shot Matt.
“Because of Isaiah, I ask you to eliminate prejudice. I've never been racially prejudiced, but I have been prejudiced. If we knew each person's story, we'd have compassion for that person. We'd understand. Rachel said you can eliminate prejudice by looking for the best in people.
“I literally felt my heart stop beating under that table, and I thought all I could do was pray. I heard God tell me to get out of there. I was the first student to stand up, and I saw one girl had her shoulder blown off, and kids crying. I just said, 'Let's get outta here!'”
He picked up the injured girl and escaped with others. Soon after, someone pointed to a girl laying on the grass. It was Rachel.
Craig admitted he had fought with his sister over songs on the radio en route to school that morning, and had slammed the car door upon arrival.
“I had no idea that would be the last time I'd see her,” he stated. “The next time I did, it was in a casket. I was really angry with myself; sometimes I hated myself, but forgiving yourself is so important to pick up the pieces and move on. I was angry at the two boys, who had no right to kill my sister.
“I started taking the anger out on those closest to me, but I finally was able to forgive myself, and now I feel free.”
Doug Dame, a parent of two high schoolers, claimed afterward he understood Craig's feelings.
“I had a sister who passed away because of suicide, and I still hold anger toward her, which I shouldn't,” he said. “It still eats away at my insides. I consider what she did as selfish, but I'm not looking at it from her point of view. She needed to rid herself of that pain.
“I believe this Rachel's Challenge has helped me,” he added. “I'll look at things a little differently now.”
LHS senior Cody Phillips witnessed the event at CCRI that morning, but just had to see it again. Before it started, he asked his father, Scott, if he would go with him, and he happily obliged.
“It was so inspiring, so touching, I had to come back; I normally never cry, but did today, and did again tonight.”
Offered Scott: “It was awesome! The big thing I got out of it: When Craig mentioned building a person's character from the inside out. I agree with him 100 percent. Character comes from within, and everything else is secondary. What he was saying was Biblical in that there's a moral compass that people seem to have gotten away from.
“I call it original intent, which is getting back to morality and Biblical principles. The way I look at it, love and compassion trumps all.”
Afterward, Craig spent at least 45 minutes speaking with audience members who wanted to convey to him their thoughts. He even posed for pictures with students and parents. Taylor Jutras and Nicole Meyerjack promised they would become members of the new LHS' Friends of Rachel Club by signing the Rachel's Challenge banner hanging just outside the auditorium.
“As an adult, this makes you think of when you were that age, and if you teased people, or if you were teased and how you felt,” noted Tammy Jutras. “You also think about if you've reached that point where you've forgiven yourself, or others, for you or they did. As an adult, I'm now thinking, 'Am I the best person I can be?'
“When I spoke with Craig, I just told him, 'Thank you so much! I'm 48, but you've taught a semi-old lady a few things about myself, things I need to work on.'”
With that, Taylor and Tammy Jutras walked up the ramp toward the exit, both smiling.