Scarlett Lewis remembers a time when she thought she could never forgive.
It was long before Dec. 14, 2012, the day a 20-year-old gunman killed her 6-year-old son, Jesse, and 25 others at Sandy Hook Elementary in one of the worst mass murders in U.S history.
Three years before that day, Jesse slept next to her in bed as she read a book called “Left To Tell,” by a Rwandan genocide survivor who forgave the people who killed her family. With 3-year-old Jesse snuggled safely in the crook of her arm, she remembers thinking, “I would never forgive someone who hurt my family. NEVER.”
“And I meant it,” she adds now, in the house that will forever seem quiet to her.
So she understands when people can’t comprehend her forgiveness for Adam Lanza, her son’s murderer. For her, there was no other choice — her pain was an anchor dragging her down. Now she devotes her days to spreading a program she thinks could have saved her son, and Adam, from their intertwined fates: it's called social and emotional learning.
A message from Jesse: Nurturing, healing love
It started with three words Jesse wrote on her kitchen chalkboard before he left for school on Dec. 14. She almost never saw them. At first, Lewis thought she might not return to the Newtown, Connecticut farmhouse where she raised Jesse and his older brother, J.T., now 18. It was so full of memories of Jesse and his loud boy energy. Even now, she unearths his beloved little green Army men in the corners of closets and under rocks in her garden.
But she went home for the first time since the shooting to choose clothes for Jesse to wear at his funeral. She could have asked someone else to do it, but she wanted to pick them out herself because it was a frigid December. She didn’t want her little boy to be cold.
Carrying his warm clothes, she turned the corner to walk into her kitchen and she saw it.
“Nurturing Healing Love,” Jesse had scrawled on the chalkboard. She stopped short. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “Has anybody seen this?”
Jesse was a lovebug, Lewis says, but it’s not like that phrase was part of a 6-year-old's everyday vocabulary. She felt sure it meant something, and it was up to her to figure it out. A therapist referred her to a college professor who told her he’d do some research. He called back to tell her those three words showed up again and again in the definition of compassion across cultures. It was a formula for choosing love over hate.
“I knew immediately, if Adam Lanza had felt nurturing, healing love, this would not have happened,” Lewis says. She told the professor they had to get this message into schools — but how? “Well,” he said, “it’s called social and emotional learning.”
Social and emotional learning: 'These programs work'
Lewis dove into research. Social and emotional learning, or SEL, is making its way into schools across the country. Put simply, it’s teaching children how to understand and manage their emotions, cultivate empathy and develop positive relationships.
It can sound a bit soft-and-cuddly, especially when schools are under pressure to raise test scores. But here's the thing: SEL actually does raise test scores, according to research, by an average of 11 percentage points. Even 18 years later, studies have shown that students exposed to SEL training in school have better academics, score higher on skills like empathy and teamwork, have fewer emotional problems and lower rates of drug use.
"We’re not saying, 'Grab a guitar and come sing around the campfire,'" says Tim Shriver, board chair of CASEL, which provides research and policy support for social and emotional learning in schools. "We’re an evidence-based movement."
With help from friends, Lewis founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and combined the most effective elements of SEL school programs into one curriculum, and made it free.
About half of U.S. schools now have some sort of SEL component, says Shriver, who is also chairman of the Special Olympics. Lewis's program, he said, stands out because of Jesse's story, and also for its frank emphasis on love and forgiveness. The number of SEL programs in schools is steadily growing because principals and teachers demand them, he says: "The evidence shows how effective it is. These programs work. Schools get better."
A message from Rwanda
Another encounter after Jesse’s death put Lewis and her older son J.T. on the path to forgiveness. As the news of the Sandy Hook shooting circled the globe, a group of orphaned Rwandan genocide survivors heard about it. Through an aide worker who knew someone who knew someone in Newtown, they got on a Skype call with Lewis and J.T.
Their message: “You’re going to be OK, and you’re going to feel joy again."
Lewis finally got an answer to the question that haunted her years ago, when everyone she loved was safe and she couldn’t imagine forgiving someone who hurt her kids.
“We realized we had to forgive the killers,” one of the Rwandan survivors told them, “or we would go down the same path.”
“All right, God,” Lewis remembers thinking. “I’m listening.”
It has been nine years since Jesse’s murder. J.T. started an organization called Newtown Helps Rwanda and raises money to send orphaned Rwandan genocide survivors to college. The Jesse Lewis Choose Love program on social and emotional learning has reached more than two million students in more than 100 countries.
Since Sandy Hook, the record for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history has been surpassed several times over. Orlando. Las Vegas. Every time there’s a mass shooting, Lewis knows, people will feel sad and powerless. Her message: You have power; use it.
“I have realized how incredibly powerful we are,” she says. When Adam Lanza stepped into her son’s classroom, his gun jammed or he briefly ran out of bullets, and Jesse shouted at his friends to run. Nine did, and survived.
“If Jesse could use the last moments of his life to save his friends, I certainly can get up every morning and do everything in my power to ensure we have a safer, more peaceful, loving world.... You don’t think you have that courage, but you do. We all have that courage Jesse showed on that day. It’s the courage to be kind and gentle, to do the right thing, to forgive, to step outside of our own pain. That’s the courage to choose love.”
To lean more about the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and its free SEL program, click here.
This story was first published on December 10, 2017 and has been updated.