Being the Change

By Daniel Shaner

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” has become the one way that many younger people know about Mahatma Ghandi. As a public school teacher for the past thirty-one years, I seem to see those words every day, whether they be on signs, posters, or shirts. It is a really nice thought, but for most of us, it is only a thought, and thoughts are not enough.

This became an issue when I was speaking with one of my former students this week. She was one of a group of five young ladies, now in ninth grade, who created a large art installation in honor of the victims of the Tree of Life massacre. They built a tree, eight foot by eight foot, made of wood, paper, and clay. The tree, representing the Tree of Life, was made of hundreds of paper butterflies, and then covered with one hundred and thirty-three clay butterflies that they had painted themselves. Another eleven clay butterflies, one for each of the victims from that terrible day, were shown flying off of the tree – still present, but separated from the rest.

That tree is still in our school, waiting for the new Tree of Life to be completed so that it can be formally donated to the congregations. The students donated a smaller, polyester picture of the tree to the three congregations, and a copy of that decorates the fences outside the former building. The five young ladies, who jokingly refer to themselves as “The Loop,” have been honored by our school district and featured in newspaper articles, and even on the local news.

It is that last fact that caused my conversation with Grace, the President of “The Loop.” We were standing outside Baldwin High School waiting for her parents to pick her up. She had stayed after school with her peers, helping to plan and coordinate our upcoming vigil to honor the victims of Identity-Based Violence in conjunction with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the Together We Remember Foundation. I had told Grace that I was planning this article, and she wondered why their actions were newsworthy. It was, in her words, a small thing that they had done. I told her that that was precisely the point.

They had donated their time, their effort, their talent, and, most importantly, their hearts, to people they had never met, nor probably ever would meet. Their tree was not important; the hand that they reached out to strangers was. It showed love, it showed empathy, and it showed a shared humanity that we all could use. Five young ladies changed their world through a simple act of caring.

Grace was right and wrong at the same time. That Tree will not change the world. Five young ladies giving of themselves will cause minimal change, but if 320,000,000 Americans do as much as they did, the change would be truly Earth-shattering. If that could happen in 190 countries, we wouldn’t have to wait for or dream of paradise; we would be living it.

Five students lived up to Ghandi’s quote. Now, it is my turn. Then, I will have the right to ask you to join us.

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