With the cold, metal barrel of a revolver pressed firmly against his head, his finger wrapped steadily around the trigger, one local high school student closed his eyes and was ready to try and end it all.
And try he did.
His eyes opened in disbelief, as no shot had fired.
Defiant in his decision, he tried again.
But the gun had failed a second time.
After attempting to fire all six rounds in the gun’s chamber with the same result, it became clear that the gun was faulty.
This local student had tried to end his life, but it would not be that day.
This unsettling, dark tale is not a work of fiction, but rather a very real story that was uttered through the broken voice of a male student, tears rolling down his cheeks, at Carson City-Crystal High School during a mid-December assembly.
And he wasn’t alone.
There were students who admitted to feeling like outcasts, who had been thrown into trash cans, had Bibles hurled at them, and others, who had also tried to take their own life.
Each student recited their troubling yet real stories as hundreds of their peers seated on the gymnasium bleachers listened intently, many brought to tears themselves.
But the results of these stories nearly all ended the same.
“You helped me out, a lot, and I just want to thank you,” said one student.
“It all changed when I met a few people who wanted to help me,” said another.
“I want to thank all of you who have encouraged me to keep going, especially through my darkest times,” said a third.
These students, who had been bullied, beaten, abused, labeled outcasts, come from broken homes, or simply misread, all were lucky enough to have someone reach out to them.
A gesture of kindness, a feeling of respect.
These testimonials from students who attend school today are a harsh reminder of the harm that can come from a few sharp words or a punch to the stomach.
But they also shine a light on what can be done to help a student before it becomes too late.
And that notion, creating a culture of kindness and respect, is the mission that the Making It Cool to Be Kind program continues to preach in Montcalm County.
Changing the culture
The Making it Cool to Be Kind program began with a behind-the-scenes approach in the spring of this year.
Students from all seven public school districts in Montcalm County gathered at Greenville High School for a training session to gear students in the direction of creating a new, friendlier climate for their schools.
The kick-off assembly at Carson City-Crystal High School, led by professional speaker Laurie Stewart, was identical in format to assemblies held at the other districts throughout the county.
Stewart has helped in creating a group of Climate Team members at each school, with a goal that those students will eventually be running the Making it Cool to be Kind Program for their individual schools.
“We have to work on making this sustainable,” Stewart said. “Positive peer influence, healthy risk taking, creating a good atmosphere where kids have each others’ back — I feel like we’ve had a great kickoff stressing these points.”
Stewart said the reactions she’s received at each assembly, of students coming together and thanking one another after the telling of powerful, sobering stories from troubled students, has shown her that the program is moving in the right direction.
“I feel very, very hopeful,” she said. “I’ve loved every assembly and our goal to keep this momentum going, to keep it sustainable, it’s moving forward. We’ve got a lot of training, but now we’ve got to implement it.”
Carson City-Crystal social worker Jennifer Geiger was brought to tears during the assembly as she listened to story after story from her students, but she said those stories were evidence that there is need for a change in culture at the high school level.
“To be able to make a difference, it’s very hard,” Geiger said. “We’ve tried so many little things, but we want something that will keep going, that will change the culture. Today’s assembly gave them a safe platform to say thank you to those who are important to them and provide that safe platform to speak their mind.”
Carson City-Crystal High School Climate Team member and senior Adeline Hummel, 17, said the assembly only marks the beginning of a process that she firmly believes will lead to a change in attitude for the majority of her peers.
“We’re going to continue reaching out to kids,” Hummel said. “We just want kids to be happier, more involved. We feel like half the group is the group that participates, the other half doesn’t feel like they belong. We want to increase involvement between those two groups.”
Fellow Climate Team member and junior Keifer McCrackin, 17, said though he was surprised by many of the stories told Thursday by his classmates, the push to move forward cannot slow down.
“I’m hoping our follow up assemblies keep this going. I don’t want this to die out, I want the momentum to keep building,” McCrackin said. “This year was a big step forward. I’m going to go out and try every day to put a smile on everybody’s face. I’m going to try to interact with more groups.”
According to Montcalm Area Intermediate School District Executive Assistant Penny Dora, a few more training sessions is all that is needed before students begin running their own assemblies without the assistance of Stewart, as Greenville High School plans to do in the upcoming school semester.
“The student climate teams from all seven high schools have invested over a year in learning how to build their leadership skills, design work plans, and create their commitment statements,” Dora said. “This work will lay the foundation for them as they begin to understand how to create a standard of behavior among their peers whereby students treat one another with respect.”
Dora said two training sessions in January will focus on strategies to interrupt negativity, cast a vision for their school environment, transition that vision to student ownership, and create perpetual sustainability.
“Many students have said that being involved in the Cool to be Kind movement has been one of the best experiences they have had in high school,” she said. “Parents have complimented the program and stated it has positively affected their son or daughter.”
The program is funded through donations from area groups and individuals, including Spectrum Health United & Kelsey Hospital, Chemical Bank, Isabella Bank. Central Montcalm Community Foundation, Vestaburg Community School Foundation. Lakeview Area Community Fund, Carson City-Crystal Area Education Foundation, Mike and Jan McCrackin, Linda Stafford and Julie Stafford.
According to Stewart, each district will now evaluate and begin to implement a new infrastructure through the Climate Team members.
After a few follow-up assemblies and training sessions, Stewart will eventually step aside, and the fate of the program will rest with the very students who want to make a difference.
“A student’s greatest fear is never being loved and never being able to love,” Stewart said. “But you could feel the love today.”
Editor’s Note: The names of several high school students were withheld out of respect to their privacy.