Meet Jesse Lewis, 6 year old War Hero
When the news notification popped up on my phone, my heart sunk as the banner moved across the small screen. Another school shooting…26 dead.
A helpless feeling washed over me as I silently surrendered to the violence that I felt was beyond my control. As I further investigated the incident, I discovered that 20 of the victims were 1st graders. The same age as my little boy. My little boy who liked to dress up in costumes. My little boy who was learning his numbers and letters and who believed this world is a peaceful place. My little boy who had faith that when he went to school each day, he would be safe..
We can choose to focus on the anger and the hatred. We can place blame. We can throw our hands up and surrender to the violence that so many surrender to each day. Or we can choose to act.
I didn’t know what to do, I felt as if any action I took would not put a dent in the problem. A small opportunity presented itself to me, and as insignificant as it seemed at the time, I selfishly decided that I had to do something to ease my own guilt. I signed up for a local race, in which proceeds were being donated to the small Newtown, Connecticut community. This wasn’t any other race.
As I stood at the table waiting my turn to be registered, I felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. This time, I wasn’t worried about my pace or about my competition. Each runner was being assigned a young victim to run for. Mine was Jesse Lewis, War Hero. Upon further investigation, I discovered that I was assigned a true hero. A little boy with a mission. A boy who, if it weren’t for his brave action, 6 of his friends, who survived, would have fallen with him.
That night, I shared Jesse’s story with my loved ones. I couldn’t get him out of my head or my heart. I had this fear that I would soon forget his sweet little face. I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to keep him and all those little victims in my heart. At the same time, I selfishly didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to be reminded of the very harsh fact that in only moments, my own life could be suddenly turned upside down, just like the life of Jesse’s mom.
I wanted to reach out to his family, but rather than finding a way, I decided it would be better left alone. I wondered if she was bombarded with people constantly reminding her of the tragedy that stole her ordinary life, as she knew it.
What I discovered was the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Jesse’s mom, Scarlett Lewis, was not sitting in hatred and anger. She was turning the world upside down. Scarlett Lewis, was also a hero.
Each year, Jesse’s face popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and I was reminded of his act of bravery. I said a little prayer for him, swallowed my feelings and silently moved on.
Then, one day, as I was sitting in my office mindlessly scanning my inbox, an email popped up on my screen. One word in the title immediately caught my attention: “Sandy Hook”. I quickly and nervously opened the email and began reading about a mother of a victim of Sandy Hook, who would be speaking in a town near me.
As I scrolled further through my email, I immediately recognized the face smiling back at me on my computer screen, as none other than Jesse Lewis.
As I pulled open the heavy wooden doors of the big church, filled with teachers and school counselors, I scanned the front of the room for this woman who went through the unimaginable. I was expecting to see someone barely holding on. Someone taking deep breaths in the corner preparing to speak to the crowd about how this tragedy robbed her of her son.
What I found instead, was a woman with her head held high, comforting, and listening to other people. As she began to speak, and her story slowly unfolded, it became clear that she was a woman on a mission.
She explained that as she was preparing Jesse’s clothes for his funeral, she glanced at the chalkboard in the kitchen and discovered 3 powerful words that Jesse had written, in his scrawly 6-year-old handwriting, on the day he was murdered:
“Norturting Helinn Love”
Nurturing, Healing, Love, words that had somehow entered that little boy’s heart and made their way to the chalkboard the morning of his untimely death. She later discovered that these three words are the definition of Compassion across all cultures.
Scarlett did not focus on the tragedy that took her little boy, who loved rubber duckies and army costumes. Instead she focused on the solution. She took Jesse’s words and ran with them. This message was not one of grief and anger, but one of forgiveness and compassion.
While I was sitting on the hard pew, trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to escape my eyes and listening to her speak, I began considering the possibility that I was “assigned” Jesse for a reason, 5 years ago. Or was he assigned to me?
Scarlett could be holding onto the toxic resentment towards Jesse’s murderer, but instead she was asking questions, like: What if we could begin to teach children to shift their thinking to be more positive? What if we could incorporate lessons on gratitude and forgiveness into the classroom? What if we could show our children the sheer power of their thoughts? You see, because violence cannot occur without first an angry thought. If we have the power to choose our thoughts, then isn’t it true that we can change how we feel and behave?
If every child learns to give and receive compassion, no matter the circumstances, then they won’t have the desire to unleash their rage and violence onto others.
I wondered, how is it that while I find it difficult to forgive the person who cuts me off in traffic, Scarlett Lewis has made the choice to forgive the disturbed, young adult who murdered her son? While I’m complaining about being too tired to go grocery shopping, rude drivers and fighting children, this woman who lost her son, is pushing through her grief to create a comprehensive, free school violence prevention curriculum, which later finds it's way to thousands of schools around the world.
Following her presentation, I timidly waited my turn to speak to her. While I was waiting, I noticed other people confiding in her, sharing what they were doing in their schools and asking for advice. I decided that I didn’t want to burden her and almost considered walking away. I knew, however, if I walked away, I might never get the chance to speak to her again. I stayed and when it was my turn, I struggled to get my words out. I nervously thanked her and told her that I had the honor of running a race in memory of her heroic son. She looked at me and said, “Jesse chose you. I know this because you’re wearing a camo shirt.” With that, she gently pulled the rubber ducky pin off her lapel and placed it in my hand. She said, “Jesse would want you to have this.”
As I drove home that night, I considered that heroes come in many different forms, and they’re all around us.
Start making small shifts now. Change just one angry thought into a loving thought. You have the choice to hold onto anger and resentment or to focus on your happiness. You only get to pick one…