One group of students demonstrated how to recognize the Parkland shooting without politicizing it in a special kind of tribute last week, in lieu of the school walkout for gun control.
Many students across the nation decided to walk out of class for 17 minutes on Wednesday, in a call for more gun control on the one-month anniversary of 17 people being murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by a shooter. The walkouts were controversial. Critics said it only focused on one dubious solution (more gun control), as if we’ve all come to a consensus as a society on how to stop these atrocious acts (we haven’t).
Proponents of the walkouts said it was youth “speaking truth to power.” In other words, adults aren’t enacting the solution we think will fix this (more gun control) so we’re going to exit the premises of the places we’re all supposed to be, our classrooms, to provoke you to act.
American schools everywhere had two choices: either participate in the walk outs or ignore them altogether. But Rochelle Township High School in the small Northern Illinois town of Rochelle (population 9,574, two of which are my wife and me) did neither. They didn’t walk out, but they also didn’t ignore the moment — they did their own thing entirely. Students at RTHS (the ”Hubs”) in fact devoted the whole week, not just Wednesday, to something called “The Week of Us.” And it had nothing to do with guns, mental health funding, school security or politics.
A peer-to-peer student assistance club called Natural Helpers held some brainstorming sessions the day after the Parkland shooting and invited anyone and everyone at the high school to participate. Co-organizer and senior Teddi Hacaga explains what they came up with: “The ‘Week of Us’ is a week filled with activities that would not only recognize the 17 innocent lives that were lost but also a way to bring [our] student body together. To show unity.”
Each day of the week was devoted to a different act. Monday they put positive post-it notes on random student lockers; Tuesday they handed out bracelets; Wednesday they recognized the individual 17 victims murdered in Parkland; Thursday they made posters; and Friday they all wore the school colors, purple and white, to show “Hub Pride.”
The most intriguing and outside-the-box idea they had though for the week was this: For all five days, students were encouraged to reach out and interact with 17 individual RTHS “strangers” whom they didn’t really know well. Fellow organizer and senior Serena Abdallah explained on my radio show Friday that this particular idea was a big hit:
It was really cool to see all the bright faces, when you just go up to someone and say ‘hi, how are you?’ It could possibly change someone’s life around. We don’t see what happens behind closed doors. Something like that could easily change how someone views someone, and it could just make their day better. It was just cool to interact with different people…Kindness is everywhere. We can easily spread it amongst one another, just by having the will and the encouragement to do it.
Such a simple concept, spreading kindness.
Many of us look back at our high school years as ephemeral blips in our lives. Once you hit your 40s it can be a distant memory. When you’re actually in high school though, your peers can seem like your entire world. Who are your buds? (or as the kids say these days, “who’s in your squad?”) Who are your adversaries? Do you even have friends or enemies?
Those that have neither are likely off the radar of everyone else, and that can often lead to feelings of severe isolation and depression that can carry over into adulthood. And that isolation can be self-perpetuating. If (you think that) no one likes you, why bother interacting with anyone else? And that lack of interaction leads your peers to not even realize that you do actually exist. And you essentially do become invisible.
You don’t need to be in high school anymore to appreciate what the students in Rochelle hit on this week. Just as there are few things worse than feeling alone or left out, there are few things greater than being included and feeling like you belong, particularly with your peers. And it can be hard to reach out. You might get rejected. You might get mocked or made fun of. But you also might have that kindness reciprocated, and before you know it that kindness gets spread around to others, almost like a virus.
If we all attempted to spread kindness by reaching out to 17 strangers in our own daily lives — even those of us for whom high school is a distant memory — would that stop the next random mass shooter from deciding to murder innocent fellow human beings? God only knows.
As sappy as it might sound though, maybe a kindness virus is the sort of thing that has the best likelihood of eventually reaching and infecting those among us who seem hardest to love.