From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul


In this world we must help one another.

Jean de La Fontaine

In 1996, on a Friday in February, a fourteen-year-old boy walked into my son’s junior high school, took out the gun he had hidden in his coat, and killed two students and a teacher.

Our small community was shattered. The following Monday, school was in session for students who wanted to come, and I decided to go to the school, just to be there. There were a few more mothers, some policemen and others from the community who had the same idea. We hugged kids, let themtalk and cry—whatever we could do to comfort them. Theywere like little zombies, still in shock, full of fear and hurt.What I noticedmostwas an emptiness in their eyes. The innocence and enthusiasmthat normally radiated from the faces of those children were gone.

I continued volunteering at the junior high for the rest of the school year. In October, the school hired me as the community resources director so I could go on working with the children at the school. Lunchroom duty was part of my job, and I made it a point to smile at the students, talk to them and laugh with them. I wanted to be a positive force in a place that was threatening to sink under the weight of negative emotions.

Then right before Christmas break, only ten months after the first shooting, the unthinkable happened. Another boy from the junior high went home and shot his sister, his mother and himself. The community was utterly devastated. The fragile confidence we had worked so hard to build was destroyed. Our entire community was numb with grief. The emptiness I had seen in the children’s eyes spread to the adults as well. I didn’t know if we would be able to recover.

Over the holidays, I wept and prayed. I have always found comfort and inspiration in prayer, and during that dark time, an idea came to me. I wanted to do something to fill the emptiness I saw all around me. What if everyone, the whole town, focused on virtues? The idea was very specific and yet simple. First, get everyone thinking about virtues. Then, start encouraging everyone to look for the virtues in their lives—in others and in themselves. Next and most important, teach people to acknowledge the virtues they saw around them. I didn’t know if it would work, but I knew I had to try.

I decided to start with four virtues: compassion, respect, responsibility and tolerance. I had 150 signs made—the virtues and their definitions in bold black lettering on white sheets. My plan was to put up the signs at school and then have the children help me put more signs in all the local store windows. I wanted to flood the community with something positive, to raise community awareness of what was important—what was ultimately true—in life.

I was afire with my idea. The principal of the junior high was supportive of the plan, so I jumped into the program my son and I named “Virtuous Reality.” I immediately met with resistance from some of the students. There was one student named Andy who was the ringleader of the kids who were “too cool” for the virtues program. Andy definitely had an attitude: He was sullen, sarcastic and rude, the epitome of the defiant teenager. I knew I had to win him over if I was going to get anywhere with my plan. So I kept Andy in my prayers.

One weekend, I had an inspiration about Andy. Again, my idea was very clear and specific. I was so excited, I wasn’t sure that I could wait for Monday to try it out.

Monday morning, when I walked into the school office, Andy was sitting outside the principal’s office. He had been sent there to “discuss” the safety pin he was sporting through his ear. He was in a surly mood and almost snarled at me as I walked by him.

I sat down at my desk and called to him “Andy, come over here.”

He looked up and grimaced, but he got up and shuffled reluctantly over to my desk. “Yeah, what do you want?” he said sourly.

“I was thinking about you this weekend,” I told him.

He was astonished. “You were?” he said, the tough-guy mask slipping a little.

“Yes, I was,” I said. “Do you like animals?”

“Yeah,” he said cautiously.

“Especially dogs?”

“Yeah. How did you know that?” By now, he was simply a curious fourteen-year-old boy. It was working.

Ignoring his question, I continued, “Do you know what it takes to be an animal lover?” He shook his head no. “It takes compassion.”

Immediately, I saw his shoulders relax and his face soften. “Andy,” I continued, “you are a man of compassion. Did you know that?”

“No,” he said in a small voice. His face was so sweet, it was hard to believe he was the same child.

I kept going. “Do you let that side of you show to your friends?” When he shook his head no, I said, “People are really attracted to compassion, Andy. If you showed that side of you to people, they’d be attracted to you for all the right reasons.”

We ended our conversation with a pinky promise, which if you know teenage boys, is an indication of how melted this guy was. Imade himlink pinkies withme and promise to show his compassion to others for the coming week.

After that, Andy was on my side. We had connected deeply. He knew that I saw—and more important, acknowledged—the good in him.

Since then, the virtues program has flourished. The students love it, and it has become a community project as well. Every week, the students pick one virtue for the whole town to focus on. There are signs up in school and all over town. Students discuss the week’s virtue in classes, and even the radio stations feature “Virtuous Reality” spots throughout the week. Recently, in the local hospital, we’ve created a virtue wall. Students take one virtue, illustrate it quilt-block style, and then a local artist transposes it onto the wall at the hospital. Feelings of love and hope are steadily replacing our emptiness.

Certainly, the tragedies we experienced changed our little community forever. But some of those changes have been major transformations. Last week, while attending a pep rally at the high school, I was amazed to see Andy, now a sophomore, dancing in front of the whole student body with the drill team. Afterwards, as I was standing in the hall, Andy ran up to me, his face alight with joy. “Mrs. T!” he yelled. Then he gave me a big hug. “Compassion!” he whooped. Then he was off again down the hall.

Colleen Trefz

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