A Smile Can Save a Life

A Smile Can Save a Life

From Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul

A Smile Can Save a Life

The day that changed my life forever started out like any other day for me. I have been a professional speaker for the last four years, since I was eighteen. I travel around the country speaking to middle and high school students about self-esteem, goal setting and helping others. On that day in 1999, I was speaking to a group of students near Fort Worth, Texas. The auditorium was full of applause, hugs and smiles. Such a love-filled morning did not prepare me for the tragedy about to unfold.

After my speech that day, I went back to my hotel room. It was then that I received the emotional phone call that I will never forget.

“There was a tragedy at a youth event, right near where you spoke. Most of the victims were kids. I don’t know what their conditions are.”

For once, I was speechless. I was also afraid. Were any of the kids I spoke to today involved? I wondered. Even though I didn’t really know them, I felt a strong connection with the young people who had been in my audience only hours before.

I immediately hung up the phone and turned on the radio to find out more. A middle-aged man had walked into a youth rally at a local church and started shooting. In only minutes, he had ended the lives of several preteens from the church’s youth group.

I bought a map, and drove the few miles to the scene. When I got there, it was a horrible scene. Helicopters were circling overhead, and parents were screaming and calling the names of their children. Everyone was crying. I didn’t know how to help, or what to do. Then I noticed a group of young people sitting on the street corner and I walked up to them.

To this day, I don’t remember exactly what I said. I do remember that we hugged one another and did our best to comfort each other while the crying and screaming was going on all around us. I will never, for the rest of my life, forget sitting on that street corner with those kids—feeling their pain and confusion—and crying with them.

I knew from that moment on, that my life work would be about preventing youth violence.

I began asking questions during my speeches and listening to the students, tens of thousands of them from all over the country. I learned from them what they thought causes violence and especially what they thought could prevent it. Having the students sharing their opinions, and working with them to shape their schools has become a moving experience for me.

I will never forget the eighth-grade girl, Jenny, who told me she was more afraid of sitting alone at lunch than being physically hurt, and that no one ever smiled at her. Or looking into the teary eyes of Stephen, who had sat next to another boy for an entire year—a boy who later shattered his school and many lives. He hung his head as he told me, “I never once said hello to him. I never once asked him how his day was. I never once acknowledged him.” I started to realize that these kinds of behaviors are the seeds that can later create violence. My belief was confirmed when I got word about the man who had shot the kids at the event in Fort Worth. He had opened fire on those kids just to get attention, and because he had felt that this was a way to get back at people who had ignored him.

The most important thing that I have learned is that young people are amazing. I am always so frustrated that the media often depicts teenagers as lazy, unintelligent and violent. They rarely discuss the millions who work hard to get through school, hold steady jobs, support their families and stay clear of trouble. They overcome all kinds of obstacles, limitations and fears every day, in order to move forward with their lives. Such as Maria, the blind girl, who is a star on her school’s track team, or John, the school bully, who turned his life around to become one of my best volunteers. Thousands of students put forth an effort every day to help others, and they never even expect to be acknowledged.

Together we can work to respect all different types of people. We can learn what behaviors can hurt and what behaviors can help. Ignoring others or calling them names can create an atmosphere that fosters violence. And, something as simple as a smile can truly save a life.

Young people do have the potential to make their own schools and communities safer. Most of all, we can sincerely value ourselves and others for who they are. Together, we can connect and end the hurt.

Jason R. Dorsey

[EDITORS’ NOTE: With the help of mentors and young people across the country, Jason founded the nonprofit Institute to End School Violence, whose goal is to take student solutions for preventing violence and use them to build stronger school communities. Learn more at www.endschoolviolence.com.]

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