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Sandy Hook parent urges people to ‘Choose Love’ to overcome hate and anger

August 28, 2017 GMT

Norwich — Jesse Lewis would have started sixth grade in Newtown on Monday, but instead of getting her youngest son ready for the new school year, Scarlett Lewis was in Norwich telling hundreds of school staff how the death of her son on Dec. 14, 2012, launched a new chapter in her life, urging adults and youths alike to “choose love” over anger and despair.

“If Adam Lanza had been able to give nurturing, healing love, this tragedy would never have happened,” Lewis said of the shooter who invaded Sandy Hook School and murdered Jesse and 25 others that morning.

Lewis said she learned the message of love, compassion and courage from Jesse. That morning, he wrote in the front on her car window “I love you,” and surrounded the words with hearts. She took his picture, his “goofy teeth” and all. He had left another note for his older brother on a small piece of graph paper folded up: “Have a lot of fun.”

Later, Scarlett Lewis learned that Jesse’s courageous actions were credited for saving nine classmates.

Her new chapter started at Jesse’s funeral, when Lewis asked all attendees to change an angry thought into a positive thought. In the years since her son’s death, Lewis has worked with educators to develop a social-emotional curriculum based on teaching how to process thoughts of anger and negativity into compassion and love.

The ingredients in “Choose Love,” Lewis said, start with gratitude and include courage, forgiveness and compassion.

Norwich Public Schools will try the free “Choose Love” curriculum as a pilot program at Uncas School this year and will study this and other programs to address social and emotional issues before adopting a program districtwide, said Kara Levenduski, administrative specialist on culture, climate and family engagement in the school system.

Lewis, a single mother, said her older son, JT, then 12, was angry for a month after his brother was murdered. He punched a hole in his room wall. He didn’t want to go back to school. His mother said she didn’t want him to go either, and they both remained numb with grief.

Then came a Skype live video call for JT on the computer. Several Rwandans were on the screen expressing their sorrow in hearing about the Sandy Hook shooting. They shared their own harrowing experiences of how they had watched their families being slaughtered when they were just 8 years old in their country’s brutal civil war of genocide in 1994.

They described how they overcame their anger and hate first through the gratitude of aide groups providing food and shelter to survivors and then by the stark realization that if they didn’t end the cycle of hate, they would grow up wanting to do the same to other families.

JT Lewis went to school the next day, his mother said, and founded Newtown Helps Rwanda, raising money to help send his new Rwandan friends to college.

“What I have seen is more powerful than any drug any pharmacy could hand out,” Scarlett Lewis said Monday.

Citing scientific research — JT says she uses the phrase “scientific research shows” too much — Lewis displayed on a video screen at the front of the auditorium a long list of the benefits of what she called compassion in action. She invited the crowded auditorium of teachers, support staff and administrators to take a photo of the page and keep it for the entire school year. Compassion in action increases self-confidence, lowers blood pressure, promotes cooperation and even leads to longer life.

She did the same for her category called “connection is love.” By directly connecting to another person by making eye contact and listening, she said, you show love of that person. She said teachers can show that to students and colleagues by asking the usual throw-away greeting “how are you?” twice. With the second question and direct eye contact, she said, you convey the meaning that you’re not just expecting the usual “fine” in response.

Forgiveness is another way to connect, she said, and also has led her to forgive Lanza for his actions. The list of some of the same scientific benefits appeared on the screen.

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or condoning,” she said.

c.bessette@theday.com