Hope Blooms

Nurturing teens' characters as a response to Columbine

April 20, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, Carol Jean Young's side yard in Hunt Valley had what you'd expect in a cutting garden in this part of the country: mums and black-eyed Susans.

Last week, the first plants springing from the mulch were hardly native: columbines.

Their presence is just one small sign of all that has changed in her life since April 20, 1999, the day five years ago that 12 students and one teacher in far-off Littleton, Colo., were gunned down at Columbine Senior High School.

Since then, dust has collected on the piano in her home teaching studio.

She has traveled to Colorado so many times with her son, now 6, to meet Columbine families that she bought a house there.

She's dropped out of the Baltimore social scene.

Girlfriends have told her she is crazy; she could be cruising the Riviera.

But Young, 46, who runs her art-filled mansion in jeans and an apron, says she can no longer be complacent. She has found her passion: The next generation.

So, Saturday night in her home, she invited kids and parents and teachers from three local high schools to meet survivors of the Columbine school shootings. She wants the high schools - Dunbar, Woodlawn and her own alma mater Joppatowne - to be the flagship for a national citizenship scholarship program.

When LaSherea Cole, a junior at Dunbar, walked in, Young handed her an American flag. "You are going to lead the nation," she said.

"Oh," said the startled girl.

"OK."

On the day of the shootings, Carol Jean Young told her husband, Jay, chairman of Oles Envelope Corp., they had to do something. The former Peabody piano teacher at once designed a circle of 13 columbines, one for each student who died, and sought their parents' permission to advertise scholarships in their name. When one parent refused, she turned her design into 13 red stars, each representing a value or character trait associated with a student who died. Her husband thought the design looked like a colonial flag. It became a symbol of a new beginning, of a new American revolution.

Oh, yes, a lot has changed since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 classmates and wounded 10 others at Columbine five years ago. It was a defining moment for a generation, the Millennials, the kids born between 1982 and 2000.

And it brought Young together with four people intimately connected to those events. This weekend, they sat in a row in front of the grand piano in Young's Laurelford house, a thousand miles from their own homes. They'd promised to fly to Baltimore as often as necessary to help kids here develop a citizenship and character program, the American Students' Fund.

Craig Scott, whose sister died at Columbine, is 21 now. He took a year off after the shootings and graduated in 2002. He was at the center of the shootings and for years, national media attention. Even now he speaks to teens all over the country, spending much of the last year in Baltimore. Self-assured and headed to college, he hopes to be "a positive influence" in the film industry. He is slight, with a steady voice and a certain purpose. On Saturday night, he gathered kids downstairs to the pool table and comfy sofas to share his story and to talk about what they can do.

Kids connect when he shares his story, he says. They remember where they were that tragic day.

He was hiding under a table in the library with two friends. The last thing his friend Isaiah heard before he died were racial slurs. The other boy next to him was also shot and killed. He heard the shooters mocking people, laughing at them. Frozen with fear, Scott lay in a fetal position, pretending to be dead. His ears were ringing from the shotgun blasts, and he prayed to God to take away his fear. He thinks he heard the voice of God, and it said, get out of there. He stood up, the first student to do so, looked around and didn't see the shooters. "Come on, they're gone," he said, leading 30 kids through an emergency exit. They were outside, safe, when the killers returned to the library.

His sister, though, was among the first killed. She had been eating lunch with a friend and was asked about her Christian faith before her life was taken.

"It's not so important her last moments," her brother now says, "but how she lived her life."

Rachel Scott kept a journal in which she wrote down her rules: Being honest was big. Also, having compassion, which she said was the greatest form of love. She was always reaching out to kids who were different, kids in special programs, kids on the outside.

Maybe if her values were more commonly held, maybe if more people had shown compassion to those two shooters, Scott said, "maybe things would be different."

That is why he allowed himself to be drawn in by Young's compulsion, by her passion and determination. "Character education is important, especially where society is today," he said. "I believe this program is really going to make a difference because it has the right heart."

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