Lynn Ischay/ Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Be aware of other students. If you see someone playing alone on the playground, invite him or her to play with you.”
My mom sent me off to kindergarten with these words of advice, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized their importance.
One day in grade school, my mom was working the lunch shift and one of my classmates sat alone. My mom called me over and told me I needed to go sit with him.
“But Mom,” I pleaded. “He’s so weird. I want to sit with my friends.”
The look on my mom’s face told me I didn’t have a choice. I slowly grabbed my lunch tray and slumped into the seat across from my “weird” classmate, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible so no one else in my class would associate me with him.
I knew everyone in my class by name, but I had never had a conversation with this particular boy. He looked shocked that I decided to sit with him, but he also looked grateful to have someone to talk to. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that my “weird” classmate was in fact very kind and smart, that he loved sports and that he had a very strong faith. We became friends at lunch that day and I finally realized what my mom had meant all those years before.
Unfortunately, I was one of the only students who really ever got to know this particular classmate, and sadly, I only did so because I was forced to. A handful of other students took the time to get to know him, some even did so of their own accord. But the majority of my classmates spent their time making fun of him, hiding his books, putting the lock on his locker backwards, throwing pencils at him. I hope even if my mom hadn’t forced me to sit with him, that I wouldn’t have joined them, but peer pressure is a funny thing, so I will never be able to say for certain that I wouldn’t have joined in on the bullying. And even if I wasn’t the one throwing things at my classmate, I can’t say for certain that I would have spoken up to stop it. All of this went on in front of teachers who stayed silent, and all of this at a Catholic school that preached acceptance, respect and love.
It continued for years, until one day, the class “loser” reached his breaking point. The kind, smart boy that I knew snapped and threatened to bring a gun to school. He was suspended from school. And though he never followed through on his threat, thank goodness, he went from being a “loser” to being a psycho, a villain, a monster. And if my mom hadn’t forced me to “be aware,” that’s the only memory I would have of this boy — him as a monster. In reality, he was just lonely and lost. He just wanted the pain to stop.
Monday morning, tragedy struck at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio, when a shooting left three students dead and two other students injured. The alleged shooter, 17-year-old Thomas Lane, opened fire in the school cafeteria before a teacher chased him out of the school.
Daniel Parmertor, 16, died several hours after the shooting, according to multiple reports. Russell King Jr., 17, died Monday night and Demetrius Hewlin, a junior whose age has not been released, died Tuesday morning. The two injured students remain hospitalized, according to reports.
The heartbreaking story made international news. My heart hurts for the victims and their families, for the community of Chardon. They don’t deserve the pain that comes with Monday’s tragedy. Lane’s actions were in no way excusable or just. He killed three people, destroyed the lives of countless others, stole people’s innocence and forever changed an entire community. He has to face the consequences and take responsibility for his actions. The decision to bring a gun to school and shoot people was Lane’s choice and no one else’s.
But CHS was not the first school to experience such tragedy and likely will not be the last. And in many cases, the best method of prevention isn’t security guards or metal detectors. It’s as simple as being aware — being kind, smiling at someone, striking up a conversation with the “weird guy,” making a seemingly small or insignificant gesture to acknowledge the people around you.
Many early reports have mentioned Lane’s troubled past, including problems at home. Some students have said he was bullied and was seen as an outcast. To be sure, other students say Lane had friends and was not bullied by his peers. But it seems that each day, another teenager kills him or herself after being bullied. It has forced me to ask myself how people reach the point that they are so lost, lonely and broken that killing themselves or other people seems to be the only solution? And what can be done to prevent these tragedies in the future?
We’re all guilty of it — it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone, at some point in their lives, myself included, has said something mean about someone, has judged someone, has excluded someone.
Or maybe you just ignored it all, remaining silent, being so wrapped up in your own day-to-day problems that you failed to make yourself aware of the people around you. I’m guilty of that too. But while I’m busy studying for a big exam or picking out a dress for formal, what would happen if I could find two minutes to smile at someone in class? Could that smile change a life? What if I simply asked a stranger, “How are you?” or said, “Thank you,” to someone who held a door? Could that simple kind gesture help someone feel not so lonely? Or what if one student decided to defend a classmate when pencils went flying across the room at him? Could the refusal to be a bystander prevent tragedy?
Maybe tragedies like the one in Chardon, Ohio, could be prevented if we would all take the time to look at how our actions impact others, for better or worse. Perhaps the best way to honor Monday’s victims is to reach out to someone who is struggling, to be kind to friends, acquaintances and strangers, to simply be aware of the people around you rather than looking through people like they’re invisible. Maybe you’ll change a life, or maybe that stranger will change yours. Who knows? If we all took the time to look out for each other, to be aware, to include someone even when that’s not the popular thing to do, maybe, just maybe tragedies like Monday’s could be prevented in the future.