4 October 2006: Emily Keyes

Emily Keyes leaves legacy of kindness

I didn’t know Emily Keyes, the Platte Canyon High School student murdered in her English classroom, but I feel as though I did. Over the years, I have been honored with the privilege of teaching hundreds of students like Emily Keyes.

Of course, young people like Emily meet death each day, some by accident and some by intention. I know that. Nevertheless, there is something about this deed so horrific that it has ripped the heart right out of me.

Emily and the one who murdered her personified opposite ends of a bi-polar world: she, the world of innocence; he, the world of violence. She, the world of hope and joy and compassion; he, the world of anger and ego and despair. As a member of the speech and debate team, she was learning to settle differences through reason and rational discourse; he found recourse through the power of a gun.

What separates this monstrous act from other causes of premature death is that it happened in a school, in a classroom, in a sacred place that should be as safe and secure as a baby’s crib. Teachers understand their first responsibility is to provide as safe and nurturing an environment possible for all their students. As we have come to experience, that does not mean someone somewhere won’t get hurt.

Providing an environment in which all students feel welcome pays dividends when it comes to teaching the complexities of the writing process and the richness of our literature that holds the keys to understanding the mysteries of this life.

But it’s more than that—it’s the understanding that as a teacher you are in loco parentis, a special trust given you for the guidance and protection of others’ children, and the awareness that trust is a cornerstone in the building of our democratic society. That social interconnectedness is the fabric of our society that which makes us one culture, one people, one America—the old “it takes a village” philosophy.

Our public schools are our secular temples. Educating our young is both a democratic ideal and a tribute to our human development and nature. One of our culture’s sacred rituals is the search for knowledge. We idolize the outcome of that search, for in it we can find truth. We revere wisdom. We stand in awe of the nobility that emanates from the human mind, the intellect, the conscience.

When a young person dies, it is sad and tragic no matter the circumstance. But where Emily died and how she died violated that which should have remained inviolate. And that ought to give pause to each of us.

To be sure, a debate will be held about the security of the school and the strategy of the SWAT team, as it should if we are to do better in protecting our vulnerable and innocent—our young. But beyond that, this can give us the opportunity to once again reflect on the sacredness of our schools, those buildings in our communities whose doors are open to all regardless a child’s ethnicity, social and economic status, or intellectual acumen.

I didn’t know Emily, but I did. I don’t know her family or folks in her community, but I do and I grieve for them.

I led a discussion with my classes the day after. After covering the facts of the story, we talked about the meaning, what we can learn from this. Two points seem to rise: the fragility of life and, consequently, the need to hold each moment precious for one never knows when it will be the last. When Emily left for school, she did not think it would be the last time. Or that it would be her last class. Etc.

Emily’s family has been touched in a way that can never be undone. So too have been her friends, her school, and her community.

The time for grieving is giving rise to the time for healing. That is the natural order of things as we have learned, but the scar will remain at Platte Canyon as it has at Columbine and at every school where a senseless, brutal, horrific, and sacrilegious act altered the very fabric of the school’s cosmos.

We cannot change the past, but as Gandhi urged us, we can be change agents for the future. Through a family friend, Emily’s father has asked that everyone perform “random acts of kindness” in her memory. Imagine a world in which people did just that rather than the world symbolized by her murderer, a world of anger, violence, and the resolution of conflict with a gun.

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