Facing Fears: Fighting Back Against School Shootings

On a spring day in 1999, students filed into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado for their early morning classes. For most of them, it started off as just another ordinary Tuesday with the usual classes, tests, and kibitzing with friends. But as the first shift of teenagers prepared for lunch, two fellow students walked into the school and began shooting. For 49 minutes, students hid under their tables and desks watching and listening as the shooters walked up and down the rows, randomly picking off fellow students one by one. 12 students and one teacher died that day. 21 others were injured.

Fast forward to a raw day in January 2013. 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton and a few friends had just finished their mid-year exams and were trading gossip in a Chicago park near their high school when gang members approached and began shooting. As the girls fled, Hadiya was shot in the back and killed.

School shootings have come to seem painfully commonplace. Some are one-time killing sprees launched by loners; others are part of a larger pattern of killing by gangs. Either way, when students across the country slide on their backpacks and walk out their front doors every weekday morning, they know that, though unlikely, their school’s number could be up next.

It’s enough to paralyze even the best of us. So I am heartened that students are facing their fear and taking action.

Rachel’s Challenge

Rachel’s Challenge, named after the first student killed in the Columbine massacre, has built a movement based on Rachel’s belief (that she had written about shortly before her death) in small acts of kindness that can inspire a chain reaction. Exactly. She had it just right.

Rachel’s Challenge sends staff into schools around the country to de-escalate a wide range of school violence – not just school shootings but also bullying, discrimination and teen suicide. They have reached over 21 million people around the world, and have prevented at least eight school shootings and over 500 suicides. Check out videos interviews on their website: http://rachelschallenge.org. It’s interesting to me that kids particularly respond to this program as coming from one of their peers. It reminds me that kid-to-kid community-building is powerful.

Project Orange Tree

I have the same takeaway from another group called Project Orange Tree started by Hadiya Pendleton’s classmates after her death. They, too, felt that they had to do something. So they started Project Orange Tree named after the orange vests that hunters wear to make them visible and keep them from getting shot. And they inspired adults. This past June, the “Wear Orange” campaign brought together 50 anti-gun violence groups with Congressmen, mayors and community members of all ages to raise awareness and discussion.

You can learn more about the 2015 national day inspired by the student movement at wearorange.org. If you want to get involved, check out Hadiya’s Promise (hadiyaspromise.org).

You can get involved in Rachel’s Challenge or pass this along to someone you know (check it out at http://rachelschallenge.org).

Share your own inspiring stories about student-led movements to combat violence.
And…Happy Halloween!

Mummy Cat and The Witches

New and Fabulous

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Lisa Brown tells of a cat’s love for his owner who used to be a child-queen in ancient Egypt but now is a mummy buried in a pyramid. The cat, too, has been mummified for 100 years but now comes back to life as the book describes, “Deep within this maze of stone, a creature wakes up all alone…” The tone reminds me of Vincent Price’s monologue in the Thriller video I blogged about earlier this week. Shiver.

So there’s a spooky element to this story – a mummified cat coming to life. But it also has a sweet (though melancholy) side to it. The cat deeply loves and misses his mummified girl owner. And he carries around this undying hope that they will be reunited. There’s the Halloween yin/yang again.

An added bonus in Mummy Cat is the history lesson that’s baked in – as the cat walks around the tomb he sheds light on traditions of ancient Egypt.

Pegged for Grades 1-4. A good pick for Halloween reading.

Oldie but Goodie

What’s Halloween without a little Roald Dahl? And The Witches is perfect for the occasion. It’s a fantasy about a group of witches who are out to rid the world of children by turning them all into mice and letting mice-phobic humans take care of the rest.

The boy hero of the story is out to foil the witches. But first he has to figure out who’s who. You see, these witches disguise themselves to look like ordinary ladies – it might be enough to make you take a closer look at some of the (seemingly) innocents walking around your neighborhood (tee hee).

The author is a master at creating horrifying scenarios (like children being turned to stone). But it’s his sense of humor that sets him apart. For example, the witches in this tale are all wig-wearing baldies who are constantly scratching their scalp-itch.

Pegged for Grades 3-7. Great fun!

What did you think of these books? Do you have other Halloween books to recommend?

Halloween: Facing Your Demons

Back in the day, when I was just starting out on my own, one of my favorite music videos was Michael Jackson’s Thriller (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to check it out. Really.). I was not alone. Over 9 million people were transfixed by Michael morphing into a werewolf in the light of the full moon, then teasing the viewer – is he really a terrifying ghoul or is it all imaginary fun?

Halloween: The Yin and Yang

In my neighborhood, there was one block – the “it” place to be on Halloween. The homeowners worked for months to prepare their yards, their rooftops, their porches. Everyone just knew it was the scariest street in the USA. As the sun went down and we were enveloped in inky darkness, everyone – I mean everyone – trekked over to Harper Avenue. The street was crowded with princesses and superheroes and – on the other end of the spectrum – mummies and vampires. Black cats and witches crouched on lawns in the shadows of flickering pumpkins. At some houses (and you never know which ones until you get there) fiendish laughter startled the young ones or they got caught in sticky cobwebs as they started up the steps for a trick or treat. Some screeched with giddy excitement. Some screeched with fear.

That sums up Halloween for me. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to act out your most cherished fantasies. One of my daughters who has an insatiable sweet tooth once chose to dress up as a bag of M&Ms. On the other hand, it is a day when you come face to face (figuratively) with your demons.

Facing Your Demons

We are all scared of something. For grownups, it might be the specter of losing a job or a spouse, or even just the vulnerability of not being able to be there to protect our kids every moment of the day and night. For teenagers it might be anxiety about a test or getting into college or losing a boyfriend or coming out or staying away from gangs. For toddlers it might be fear of the dark or strangers or, in many cases, Halloween itself.

The question, then, is what can you do about it? As many child development specialists will tell you, there is a general guideline here: teach your children to face their fears, not to bury them. This means, for starters, take their fears seriously; don’t laugh it off if your four-year-old tells you there are tigers prowling outside their second floor bedroom window or if your teenager insists he can’t go out because he has an acne outbreak. Take it seriously. Then, help them to look their fears square in the face and teach them how to take action to overcome them. This can play out in lots of different ways.

If a child is scared of the dark you can provide a nightlight or you can talk about the magical things like fireflies that come out to dance in the dark. You can set a routine of nightly bedtime story: For some, a cheerful favorite overrides feelings of fear; For others, stories about other children working out their fear of the dark are more helpful. I used to tuck my girls in with music or a story on tape. One of their favorites was kind of a hybrid of scary and hilarity – a story about Bunnicula the vampire bunny who sucked juice out of vegetables.

As your children get older, they may fear the uncertainties of life out in the larger world. One thing that I have found to help is giving them a sense that they are not alone. My daughters were very young when September 11 happened. I think it was hard for them to feel the reality of the Towers coming down. But the aftermath was very real: Military planes flying very low over our Chicago house for several days, our family room rattling from the sound of the engines overhead. When a plane would come, the girls would drop to the floor with their hands over their ears. My youngest had nightmares of bombs falling out of the sky. Even now, more than a decade later, these nightmares revisit her sporadically. One Christmas, I gave her a book, IraqiGirl (Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq). Living in occupied Iraq with bombs falling all around her, the author says, “Do you ever feel that you are imprisoned in a cage and there is no one except you and a big lion in this cage and you can’t get out. You can’t get out and there is nowhere to run. No way to run. That is my feeling.” Toward the end of the book, the author is on her way to college. She says, “”I am on my way to the future and living what could possibly be a happy memory someday.” It gave my daughter perspective. And a window into someone dealing with the same fears on a much larger scale.

I notice, too, as my daughters have moved out into the world away from home, they often paper their rooms with quotes such as “she believed she could so she did” to serve as models of how to face their fears.

Be A Role Model

One last thought. Children are observant. They often take their cues from you. How you face your demons can impact how they face theirs. In the words of our great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as he prepared to do battle with devastating poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Do you have stories or suggestions about teaching children to face their demons?