We sat in class together, not talking to each other, recording notes from the board which had been scribbled in the bulky, curved writing of our sixth grade teacher. Homo habilis… follows the australopithecus… discovered in Africa…
We know the bell is minutes from ringing, but we’re all twisting in our seats out of the excitement that the crisp winter air is out there, waiting. The boy sitting next to me stands up, nods at the teacher, and clears his throat. Everyone turns to look at him.
“I’ll be going into surgery next week. For my heart. Hopefully this one will be my last… hopefully this one will work” he stammers. I can’t tell if he’s more nervous to be talking in front of the class or about his surgery. “I’ll be back in two months or so, once I’m out of recovery”.
No one really knows him well, so no one knows what to say.
The teacher jumps in. “Well, Riley, we’re not sending you off like this. You deserve a special party!” This new idea causes their grins to grow as they parade out the room after the bell.
That day, the party, the many long nights after he’d left for the hospital, all I remember thinking was:
‘We’re going to get past this.
‘We’re gonna get you through this surgery.
‘We’re gonna fix your heart’.
Riley didn’t make it through that surgery. He never came back to the wobbly desk stationed next to mine. I will never forget the boy with blond hair and piercing blue eyes. The boy whose lips were always, always purple. His name was Riley, and he was the strongest person I will ever know.
Now, nearly four years after he passed away, my classmates and I realize that we shouldn’t have ignored the chance to listen.
The most important lesson I learned from Riley’s passing was that even if you don’t know someone, don’t know them at all, you just have to listen.
Through listening, you feel their pain and their hardship, thus becoming connected to that stranger in a way you'd never have thought to be possible. This is what can us connect in a way to prevent conflict and unnecessary violence in the future.
We need to listen to youth like the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and listen to their families. We need to listen to first world countries in need of humanitarian aid, and to the women and girls coming out of the shadows as part of the #MeToo movement.
Above all individual issues in this society, we need to listen to our morals, putting aside political differences. To make our world a better place, we have to come together and fight for what is truly right. And we can’t get close to figuring out what is right if we don’t listen.