When was the last time you saved a life? If you’re a member of the Chattanooga Bar Association, then the answer to my question might surprise you. Last week, as you zealously represented clients and labored to complete the many tasks attorneys handle, you helped save a life.
I’m addressing the members of the Bar. But I’m hoping everyone who’s read this far will continue reading. Because something remarkable happened this month. At a time when it seems all we hear is bad news, often about a life ending, I have a story to tell about a life saved.
During the week of Sept. 12, the Bar hosted country music star Billy Dawson as he visited several Hamilton County middle schools to talk about bullying. Billy has written a children’s book about bullying called “You Never Know,” and he came to Chattanooga to share its messages of understanding and forgiveness with our young people.
Billy drew from his own experiences with bullying when he wrote the book. And he was starkly honest. He’s been on both sides of the bullying equation at one time or another, and he’s learned valuable lessons from which all young people can benefit.
Billy visited two schools a day, and he gave each group of kids everything he had. He not only read his book, he also played his guitar and sang, signed autographs, posed for selfies, answered questions, chatted, and stayed well past the time he was scheduled to fill at each school. Overall, Billy did an incredible job of engaging the youth.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. According to the principals and teachers of each school, Billy earned an A+ for his efforts.
“This was incredible! I have a population of students who are typically disconnected from events and activities, and seeing their faces light up was powerful,” said one principal. “Billy actually sat and read his book out loud to an entire student body. That’s difficult for middle school students. But you could have heard a pin drop!”
That particular school made Billy their Hero of the Week.
Another educator appreciated Billy’s kindness to everyone, while others complimented the message he brought to the schools, expressed appreciation for the tips he provided, and praised the program for being inspiring and entertaining. When each morning or afternoon was over, the kids felt encouraged, and were carrying tools that would help them deal with situations in which they previously felt powerless.
While I love the comments from the principals and teachers, I treasure what the kids said. Some admitted to having bullied others in the past, and said they were changing their behavior after hearing what Billy said.
“I learned bullies have a story, too,” wrote one student.
“Billy totally changed my perspective on me and everyone else. From now on, I’m going to think before I make a statement about someone different than me,” wrote another. “I wish I could go back and apologize to everyone I’ve offended because they could have just lost a loved one, or had a bad day. Billy really reached me.”
Yet another student wrote a letter directly to Billy. “Hey, Billy, I know you probably won’t see this, but thank you,” this kid wrote. “Your speech helped me realize bullying is a bigger no-no than I thought.”
Billy didn’t just open the eyes of kids who have bullied others in the past, he also touched the hearts of those who have been on the receiving end of bullying, too.
“I was bullied in kindergarten and then first grade,” wrote one young person. “But you made me realize I’m worthwhile and need to stay strong.”
“It was kind of you to speak to us about bullying,” wrote another. “Back in elementary school, I was bullied pretty badly, and I love that there are people who understand what that’s like.”
The week was filled was memorable moments. But one stood out from all the others. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I hope you’ll remember it, too, because as member of the Bar, you had a hand in this happening.
At one school, a young person approached Billy after the presentation and handed him a note. Billy thought it was for an autograph, but the student asked him to read it.
It was a suicide note.
The young person was ready to end his life because of the bullying he had suffered through at school - and nobody would listen to his cries for help! The student said Billy had given him hope and the strength to seek help.
We were all in tears! The principal has since placed the student in counseling, and Billy gave him his mobile phone number and email address, and encouraged him to reach out whenever he wants to talk. The student told Billy, “You are my hero. Thank you for everything you said today, and for giving me hope. I want to live.”
I want to live! Could there have been a better outcome to Billy’s visit?
While Billy made great progress during his visit, our work is not done. The National Education Association reports that six out of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school every day, and an estimated 160,000 students stay home each day out of fear of being bullied. In addition, about 71 percent of students report bullying as an ongoing problem. Whenever and wherever you have the opportunity to generate awareness and encourage someone to forgive the wrongs of the past and learn to respect others, please take advantage of it.
Many people worked hard and made sacrifices of time to make Billy’s visit happen. On behalf of the Bar, I would like to thank Jill Levine, chief academic officer for the Hamilton County Department of Education, for helping me coordinate with the principals of the middle schools. I also want to thank Hiren Desai and Springhill Suites Marriott on Riverside Parkway for putting Billy up all week. And thank you to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce for the passes and gift certificates to area attractions and establishments during his stay.
Most of all, I want to say a special thank you to my friend, Billy Dawson, for coming to Chattanooga and giving so much to everyone at the middle schools!
People want to make a difference. They want to use their experience, expertise, and skills to make a contribution to their community. That’s what Billy is doing with his book and through speaking with young people about bullying. In the same manner, attorneys who serve on the boards of nonprofits, work legal clinics, contribute to fundraisers, and give back in other ways are doing their part to make the world a better place. Please take a few moments today to think about the ways you can improve the lives of others.