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Plymouth Elementary students accept "Rachel's Challenge"

November 03, 2010
PLYMOUTH — It started as a simple class assignment.

When 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott was asked to set her thoughts on the subject of Ethics down on paper, she responded with a personal manifesto that would one day ignite a worldwide movement.

"Compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer," she wrote. "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."

Shortly after handing in the essay, which she titled "My Ethics, My Codes of Life," Scott became the first victim gunned down during the April 20, 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

While Scott herself may be gone, her vision of a "chain reaction" of kindness and compassion that would sweep the world lives on through the "Rachel's Challenge" program, an initiative started by her parents, who were compelled to spread her message after finding the essay in her room.

Her challenge was posed to members of the Plymouth community last Wednesday night during a special presentation for students and their families at Plymouth Elementary School.

In his opening remarks, presenter Sam Downing said the full impact of the tragedy at Columbine hit him when his son, who was six years old at the time of the shootings, began talking about what he wanted to be if — not when — he grew up.

When asked why he had chosen the word "if," Downing said, his son replied "Well, I might not grow up."

Hearing those chilling words from the mouth of his son, he said, inspired him to fight for a better world — a quest that ultimately brought him into contact with Scott's family, and with the "Rachel's Challenge" program.

Downing separated the overall "Challenge" into five separate components, the first of which was to follow Scott's example by being aware of, and fighting against, prejudice — not just overt racism, but prejudice based on how others look, dress, speak, and behave.

"Look for the best in others, because that will help eliminate prejudice," he said. "It's so important that we look for the best in other people."

As an example of the damage that prejudice can do, Downing related the story of Rachel Scott's brother, Craig, who saw two of his friends murdered in front of him the day of the Columbine shootings.

The last words that one of Craig's friends — an African American named Isaiah — heard before his death, Downing said, were racial slurs hurled at him by one of the shooters.

The second precept of "Rachel's Challenge" was to "Dare to Dream" — a process that Downing said began for Rachel when she decided to follow the example of her own hero, Anne Frank, by setting down her personal goals in a journal.

To illustrate what he called "the power of writing down goals for your life," Downing displayed the results of a recent Harvard University study during which students were asked a single question — "Do you have clear written goals?"

Only three percent of those taking part in the study answered "yes," he said, while the remaining 97 percent answered "no."

The most shocking revelation found by the researchers, however, was just how much more successful in life those three percent became than their counterparts — they ended up in jobs that paid 10 times the salary earned by those who had no clear goals.

Focusing in on the many similarities between Rachel Scott and Anne Frank — both of whom, he said, wrote down concrete goals for their lives, and were not afraid to pursue their ideals — Downing urged those in the audience to try their hand at keeping a journal for 30 days, and see what impact, if any, that might have on their lives.

"Every one of you has an amazing capacity to do great things in your lives if you just dream big," he said.

The third component of "Rachel's Challenge" was to "Choose positive influences" — a philosophy embodied by Craig Scott, who announced in the wake of Rachel's death that he wanted to become a producer of films that would bring positive messages to teens, and would counteract the dark, violent messages embraced by his sister's killers.

The fourth component of the "Challenge" was to "Practice kind words and little acts of kindness," a philosophy that Rachel herself exemplified by extending a kind hand toward the outsiders at Columbine, such as Adam — a mentally disabled student who she stood up for after seeing him bullied in the hallway one day — and Amber, a new student who moved to Littleton from Georgia after the death of her mother and found it difficult to meet new friends until Rachel insisted on sitting with her at lunch and introducing Amber to her own circle of friends.

"Little acts of kindness can produce huge results," Downing said.

The fifth and final precept of "Rachel's Challenge" was to start the "chain reaction" she envisioned and tried to start during her own all too brief lifetime.

If the number of signatures covering a banner on display in the school's cafeteria declaring "I accept Rachel's Challenge!" is any indication of the enthusiasm with which local students have embraced her message, that "chain reaction" is off to an impressive start.

Martin Lord Osman
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