Accepting Rachel’s Challenge: La Jolla High students explore compassion at special assembly

By Ashley Mackin

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That’s partly the basis for Rachel’s Challenge, an organization aimed at creating safer, kinder learning environments, and equipping people of all ages with knowledge on how to make the world a better place. Rachel’s Challenge is named for Rachel Joy Scott, the first student to die during the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.

La Jolla High School students, thanks to their new

Kindness Counts Club

, were able to attend a Rachel’s Challenge presentation by speaker Ali Nourbakhsh on Jan. 29. Over the course of two assemblies, a voluntary meeting and a parents’ meeting that evening, he explained the five elements of Rachel’s Challenge and little bit about her life and mission.

His presentation opened with information, including newscasts and videos, about the tragic Columbine shooting, at which 12 students, one teacher and the two shooters died in less than one hour. The shooters were Columbine students.

A week after Rachel died, her parents found an essay she wrote the month before for a class assignment. She called it, “My Ethics. My Codes of Life.” Therein, she urged everyone to start a chain reaction of compassion and listed five challenges.

“Rachel was a normal teenager. She made mistakes and didn’t get the best grades all the time and there were times she struggled,” Nourbakhsh said. “But look at the impact one person could make.”

Rachel’s five challenges

■ 1) Look for the best in others and remove prejudice.

“I’ve been guilty of prejudice. Prejudice just means judging someone before you get to know them. That’s all that means,” Nourbakhsh said.

He proceeded to ask if anyone, honestly, has judged someone before they got to know them, to which students reluctantly raised their hands (or raised them just a little bit).

He explained that Rachel believed everyone deserves three chances to show who they really are, and hoped that people will give others those three chances.

■ 2) Dream big and believe in yourself, and write down your goals.

“It doesn’t matter how physically small you are, the labels on your clothes or how much money you have, you have to believe in yourself. And write it down, because once it’s written down it’s not just a dream,” Nourbakhsh said.

Rachel kept many journals, including one that was in her backpack the day she died. A photo of the back cover shows there is a bullet hole in the corner of the journal.

■ 3) Choose to have positive influences and choose to be a positive influence.

“I’m not here to tell you what a positive influence is, I don’t want to do that, I have no right to do that,” Nourbakhsh said. “But those you surround yourself with will shape who you will become.” He added that Rachel said, in a letter to her cousin, “Don’t let your character change color with your environment.”

Rachel herself was a positive influence and proved it when she sat with a new student at lunch — what no one knew was that girl had lost her mother that year. For that student, Nourbakhsh said, “Her worst day became her best day because one person reached out to her. All around us, there are people with things going on. They are going on and nobody has any idea. They also have no idea how the decision to reach out to someone might brighten their day or their week ... or you might alter their life.”

■ 4) Speak with kindness.

“Sounds easy enough,” Nourbakhsh joked of the last challenge explained during the assembly. “But your words have power and every day you have the opportunity to make a decision about what to do with that power. You can break someone down or you can help him or her heal.”

He ended the meeting by asking students to sit with their eyes closed and think of their loved ones. “In the next three days, go to each of those people and tell them what they mean to you. Not in a joking way, but in your own way. When they are not here, you will be so happy you did, you won’t regret it for one second.”

■ 5) Following the presentation, there was a voluntary workshop to train those interested on how to

start a chain reaction of kindness

, the fifth of Rachel’s Challenges.

First, the group of about 100 discussed what needed to change in their school environment. Suggestions included: the pressure to meet the idea of “perfect” as created by social media, shaming each other for not coming from a wealthy family, and being exclusive with cliques.

They also covered the topic of bullying. Nourbakhsh offered some “secrets” as to why some children act like bullies, contending that no one is born a bully.

“Some kids act like a bully because they are afraid, they are going through a rough time, or nobody has ever reached out to them,” he said. “Imagine if you were the first person ever to reach out to that person.”

Next, they discussed strategies to use if they witness bullying. These ranged from removing the student being bullied, a la “Hey man, can I talk to you over here for a second?” to waiting until the situation is over to ask if the bullied student is OK.

They were also given ideas, such as welcoming a new student with a tour or sitting with them at lunch, or starting a social media project where students post positive notes on their friends’ public Facebook pages. Nourbakhsh emphasized, “We want some ‘likes’ on that thing.”

The students pledged to implement both random and targeted acts of kindness throughout the year.

Senior Allison Dowd was excited to get started. “One thing I took from the assembly that made me want to come to this meeting is that it wasn’t spitting information at us and saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that,’” she said. “This was more incorporating ideas into our life and the social environment of the school. (Nourbakhsh) was pulling us in and making us feel like a part of something bigger. It was inclusive and it made us feel needed.”

Dowd pointed out that her fellow students who participated in the meeting earned “major respect.”

As the students were dismissed to go out into the world with their new perspective, Nourbakhsh said, “It’s not called Rachel-makes-it- easy, it’s called Rachel’s Challenge. So it will be a challenge, but stick with it. You never know how far a little kindness can go.”