In the year that's passed since the horrific tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I've thought frequently of the children, families, and communities whose lives were turned upside down by one man's actions. I've also thought about President Obama's remarks, delivered in a profound address at the Sandy Hook interfaith vigil, when he reflected upon our primary responsibility as human beings and as a nation:
This is our first task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?
It was clear then, as Obama solemnly read the names of twenty young people taken from earth well before their time, that the answer was -- and that it still is -- no. I wrote about our responsibility as a nation then, and have continued to think about how we -- as individuals, as communities, as a nation -- can dig deeper and make our commitment to our children mean that the lives of 27 people were not lost in vain.
So what is the answer? What is the fix? As with so many things in life, there is no easy path. But, there is a path, and it requires one kind word at a time. Loving our children means living that love. Words mean nothing if they don't inspire actions. Saying we want to educate all children means nothing if we don't do it. Saying no child should live in poverty means nothing if we allow pockets of our nation to live through the daily trauma of poverty.
Where to even start? Well, a Kid President quote is a pretty good place: "This is life people. You got air coming through your nose... you got a heart beat... it's time to do something." And by "do something," of course, he means to "be more awesome".
And I think that being more awesome means one kind thought, one kind action, one moment at a time. And when we do that, we may not realize how far our influence goes. A friend of mine, Sarah, recently described a discussion she had with her young daughter's elementary school teacher (all names changed). The teacher, Ms. B., described a wonderful transformation she'd seen with Sarah's daughter Lucy over the past few weeks. Ms. B. wondered what had changed with Lucy, noting that Lucy's been more "talkative, helpful, motivated" than she'd ever seen from this sweet girl. Lucy's mom Sarah described her own reaction:
I thought back and couldn't think of anything at home that had changed, and then my mind went to a conversation I had with [Lucy] last week. She had come home from school beaming with pride. 'Mommy!' she said. 'Today I was very helpful. [Ms.B.] dropped a bucket of things all over the ground. I went over to help her and she was SO happy I was helping her ... She was so proud of me!'
I shared this story with [Ms.B.]. She looked at me in shock. She didn't say anything for a minute and then she said she'd never before heard of greater example of the power of words. She said she had no idea how much that encounter had meant to [Lucy] ... and said 'I can't believe all she needed was to know I cared and was proud of her.'
When I heard this compelling story from Sarah, my mind went back to Sandy Hook. To Obama. And to Kid President. And then a few days later, I heard the news of Nelson Mandela's passing, and I started to reflect on the power of one. The power of one person. The power of one word. The power of one smile. The power of one wink. The power of one high five.
It's an enormous responsibility, the power of one. But it's the only way.
There will be hurdles. We will falter -- as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. But if we do not start by taking responsibility for ourselves, and realizing how much what we say and do affects others, then we won't even start making the world a better place. Making the world a better place... a clichéd phrase, perhaps. But the thing is, I think we can actually do it.
As we remember the children and adults who lost their lives one year ago, we can start by gathering inspiration from Nelba Marquez-Green, who lost her daughter Ana Grace in the Sandy Hook tragedy. After enduring a loss that I cannot even imagine, she reminded teachers to "Walk with courage, with faith, and with love." She goes on to quote her daughter, and says, "And don't let them suck your fun circuits dry."
It does take courage to live with faith and conviction in a society where children lose their lives, where young people go hungry and live in poverty, where senseless violence plagues us. But it's the only answer. Our actions and our words are the only way to push back.
And, as Kid President says, "be on the road that leads to awesome."