Soft is stronger than hard, water than rock, love than violence.
In April 16, 2007, my friend Roger’s son Derek O’Dell was shot and injured by Seung-Hui Cho in what has become known as the Virginia Tech Massacre. Derek’s story has since been covered extensively on TV, on the radio, and in countless printed articles, both in the United States and abroad. GQ Magazine labeled Derek as one of 2007’s Men of the Year. In a GQ article, Derek recalls how the dean of the Veterinary School sent an e-mail to him and to his fellow survivors after the shootings, cautioning: "Don’t be defined by the tragedy; allow your response to the tragedy to define you."
Although 32 people were killed and 25 were injured, the dean encouraged everyone involved to reject the impulse of allowing hatred, vengeance, negativity, and counter-violence to dominate their hearts and inform their actions. Instead, he suggested that the high, non-vindictive road, though difficult to walk, would be the better, more solid path to follow.
Derek seems to have taken his dean’s suggestions to heart. He not only survived this gruesome event, but has also continued to attend to his and his classmates’ physical and psychological wounds with care, sensitivity, and tenderness. Derek clearly and calmly spoke to the intrusive international media with intelligence and candor as everyone in the country tried to make sense of the massacre. He has continued to work tirelessly to honor the memory of his slain classmates and instructors, and he continues to speak publicly about his ordeal, offering analyses that illuminate the senseless events of that horrible day.
The national reaction and dialogue that ensued immediately after the Virginia Tech tragedy troubled me because of its oversimplification. Some suggested that by arming security guards on campuses, or by allowing students to carry firearms to protect themselves, similar tragedies could be forestalled. "Shoot them before they shoot you," was the implicit message. Others seemed to imply that there was little that anyone could really do to prevent such violent acts from occurring, or that such attacks happened so randomly and infrequently that it was unlikely that one would ever occur in their local school or community.
My career as a public high school English teacher has taught me a more hopeful lesson: violence in schools can be prevented and conflicts can be resolved nonviolently when students are shown, taught, and drilled on how to make peace and how to become peacemakers. Violence does not need to result in surprise, anger, fear, hatred, and hopelessness. Twice I helped create and participated in programs that took away students’ opportunities for violent behavior through interaction, understanding, and compassion, creating a school that was safer, warmer, more inviting, more engaging, and more peaceful.
Columbine, the Amish School, Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech: whenever I hear about another school shooting, my mind overflows with questions.
Why did the assailant behave so cruelly and so violently? I continue to wonder about Seung-Hui Cho. What allowed him to inflict such mindless violence on so many innocent people? What kind of pain must he have been in? What did he not get in his life that enabled him to be pushed over the edge and commit such heinous acts? What kindnesses were not bestowed on him when he was younger? Was there no one who saw his pain, no one who could help him diffuse it and possibly stop the tragedy from ever happening? Could someone have listened to, counseled, and guided him? What if there had been a web of observant people who could recognize his behavioral aberrations and upon seeing his darkness, enabled others to provide him with the support and structure that he must have needed? Couldn’t his pain have been somewhat assuaged? Couldn’t the Virginia Tech tragedy have been avoided?
As a new teacher in the early ’70s, I was a founding member of a program called "Project 36" (so named because 36 weeks of school needed to be conquered and mastered by our students in order to be successfully promoted to the next grade). This project was an alterative program designed to help marginal students gain self-esteem through programmed success. Students were taught how to turn negative feelings about school and about themselves into positive academic achievements. When the program ended in 1980, 99 percent of our students had been graduated from our school, an unlikely prospect for many of them before joining the program. Early in our work, my Project 36 colleagues and I realized that the only way that we could create success for our students was to enhance their self-images and consequently eliminate their tendencies toward self-apathy, antisocial interaction, self-destructive behavior, and violence. We observed our students; recognized their pain; listened to, counseled and guided them; and compassionately taught them both academic and coping skills that helped make them good students and solid citizens.
In 1993, 15 years after Project 36 ended, and by then having taught English for 20 years, I realized that, although our school was doing its best to uncover hidden problems in students, it was overwhelmed and incapable of addressing all of the psychological, emotional, and undiagnosed issues that seemed to burden many students who, to many, did not appear troubled. But every day I saw teenagers who were alienated, depressed, aloof, ostracized, shunned, or ignored disappear into the background of the school’s corridors. When a guidance counselor invited interested staff to attend an organizational meeting to discuss the creation of a program that would train students to help peers solve their own problems, I went.
Our mission soon evolved into training student volunteers to become active peer listeners, peer helpers, and peer counselors. We would provide our students with high-quality monthly training; interaction with professional experts from the community; and a time, place and structure where they could provide their classmates with confidential support and guidance. The "Peer Mentorship" program was born. We trained students who wanted to make the school safer and take an active role in improving the school’s environment. In the back of my mind I understood that we would also more generally be teaching peace and making peacemakers.
We created an invisible safety web throughout the school where our Peer Mentors would listen for, watch, and recognize aberrations in their classmates, and through our training we also created a mechanism that informed professional staff when serious problems developed and professional intervention was required. Our Peer Mentors learned how to listen actively without judgment; to negotiate; to empathize; to be alert to the pain of others; to understand; and to be vested in helping their peers solve problems in a fair, meaningful, dignified, and honorable way. These caring volunteers dealt mostly with problems concerning parental miscommunication, boyfriend/ girlfriend friction, school troubles, alienation, gossip fallout, or conflicts with teachers. They also discovered and helped classmates address issues like eating disorders, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse, inappropriate sexual behavior, abortion, and racial conflict. Peer Mentors led discussions that challenged hatred and bigotry, confronted mis-understanding and prejudice, and often helped resolve problems between students before they blew up into major disputes or fights.
Some of the work that Peer Mentors did can be described as first-level peacemaking. One day a boy brought a knife to school, intending to attack another student. A Peer Mentor uncovered his intentions. Because I was alerted, we informed the appropriate administrators and, I believe, prevented a serious assault from occurring that afternoon.
After the Columbine shootings occurred on April 20, 1999, our school schizophrenically became both chaotic and depressed for about two weeks. During this period, the support that Peer Mentors provided for our student body was palpable. While some voices in the community-at-large seemed to exacerbate fear and add fuel to a frightening fire, the mentors offered a calm place where frightened students could seek refuge and interaction.
When a prank call was made to the school’s switchboard suggesting that someone was going to copycat Columbine, armed police officers were posted throughout the campus. Their presence was intended to make the school safer. But when a carload of students drove past the front of the school building and one student jokingly yelled, "We have a bomb," a full cafeteria witnessed the frenetic police chase that resulted. Pandemonium erupted and exploded into the school’s hallways. Police arrested the student who yelled the threat, and he was removed for the remainder of the school year. The overt police presence did nothing, however, to stop this one troubled student’s misbehavior. Yet our Peer Mentors calmly addressed the panic effectively, encouraging their peers to talk about their fears in a safe place, listening non-judgmentally, and showing compassion to those who likely had difficulty finding it elsewhere.
While programs like Peer Mentorship will never eliminate violence, they can provide a place for the troubled, dispossessed, frightened, and lost to be acknowledged and possibly helped to avoid becoming aimless. And perhaps the human connection can prevent some random, future violent acts from occurring. I felt that Peer Mentorship’s unstated goals were to make our high school a kinder, safer place, and consequently the world a more peaceful place, where everyone can be noticed, recognized, and treated with compassion.
Teaching peace and peacemaking must be more than marching in protest against a war, more than military or draft counseling, more than dialogues about peace with other Historic Peace Churches. Teaching peace and creating peacemakers is a positive, kinetic act that results in caring, empathetic, compassionate people. Our Peer Mentorship program taught peace and made peacemakers.
We can teach our children and one another peacemaking skills if we are patient, trusting, and confident that violence is never the answer. I believe that my Quaker obligation is to challenge those who advocate violence and to demonstrate how peacemaking can be taught. I believe that it compels me to stand up and challenge acts of recrimination, revenge, and reactive counter-violence, and to say loudly and clearly, "Let’s stop violence before it happens." And when violence does occur, I believe that we need to offer an alternative voice that tells society-at-large that falling back onto worn, failed, vindictive ways must end. We need to show better, creative, preventive, proactive ways to deal with and to eliminate violence.
When we are angry or afraid or despondent, finding peace and being peaceful can feel next to impossible. But our obligation is to remind everyone, including ourselves, that violence never adequately assuages past hurts and that revenge only fans the fire of pain, hatred, and emptiness. We Quakers need to let our response to violent indignities and assaults define who we are.
Derek seems to have found his way through his darkness by following the Light, by listening to and by following wise advice, and by responding to the Virginia Tech Massacre by becoming a peacemaker. May we all find similar Light in our own darkness, similar strength in our own struggles, and comfort in knowing that, "There is no way to peace; peace is the way."