People say that when you decide to run your first marathon you better do it for the right reason. My first marathon was 11 days ago in New York City. There were many moments when I wanted to give up, but Dylan Hockley kept me from quitting.
That Sunday morning, I proudly put on my Dylan’s Wings of Change tank top and prepared for the hotter-than-expected race conditions. I started out strong, but by mile 15 I was hurting. By mile 20, on Willis Avenue in the South Bronx, I was crying.
I stopped on the roadside to fix my sneakers. Glancing up, I saw a stranger watching me. I’m almost sure he could hear the voice in my head telling me I couldn’t go on. He looked me in the eye. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “You can do this.”
I kept those words with me for the next six miles. I thought of Sandy Hook Elementary School. And I thought of Dylan.
On Dec. 14, 2012, I was a high school social studies teacher in Brookfield, Conn., just one town to the northwest of Sandy Hook. I had a two-year-old and a one-year-old at home.
I vividly remember sitting in my classroom with my students, getting fragmented reports of what was happening a few miles down the road. At first, there was confusion. One of my students said she heard it was an angry parent who barged in on a meeting and started shooting. Some said the gunman was still on the loose. I thought of my children being cared for by my parents, who lived in Sandy Hook. I panicked.
Time stood still. It seemed like hours until we learned that 20 first-graders and six educators had been murdered. When I finally picked up my children, I hugged my dad tight, feeling his tears soak my shirt. I had never seen him like that. How could this happen in our town? How could there be such evil?
The days and weeks that followed changed me forever as a mother and a teacher. Little things didn’t matter as much anymore. I just wanted my children and students to feel safe and loved. To know people cared about them. I was inspired by psychiatrist Bruce Perry, an expert on child trauma who came to Sandy Hook with his workshop “Love Is the Antidote.” His message was simple: human beings seek love. Our brains seek connections with others made possible by empathy. If we can help children develop the ability to love, to feel compassion for others, and to express those feelings, perhaps we can prevent violence caused by social isolation and the absence of empathy.
Three years ago, I moved from Sandy Hook to Brewster. Now I teach at Sturgis Charter Public School, and I begin every year by telling my students why I believe learning about history is essential. We must study the past in order to develop empathy. We need to be aware of the horrors, the wars, the genocides and acts of racism. We need to listen to other people’s stories and amplify the voices that are often not heard.
Many benevolent foundations were created after that December day in Sandy Hook. Dylan’s Wings of Change, formed in memory of first-grader Dylan Hockley, has become particularly important to me. Its Wingman program teaches young people how to lead activities that foster a more inclusive environment in their schools. A group of eighth-graders might spend two days in team-building activities that require them to be vulnerable and trust others and teach them to accept failure and yet encourage each other not to give up. Then they go back to their middle schools and lead the same activities with younger students while bonding with their peers.
Wingman founder Ian Hockley asks the students in the program to consider how small changes can accumulate and have a massive effect. How would a school be transformed, he asks, if everyone came in one day saying to themselves, “Today I will pick someone up, not put anyone down”?
That stranger at mile 20 picked me up when I needed it the most. Thanks to the kindness of many, I crossed the finish line in Central Park in 5:39:10 and raised $3,000 for Dylan’s Wings of Change. That money, I believe, will help transform schools into places of joy where students learn that small acts of kindness can truly change the world.
History teacher Casey Mecca lives in Brewster where she serves on the school committee.