The letters weren’t written to anyone in particular. The only requirement was that they be addressed to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And although the idea wasn’t his, Charles Rizzuto, a health and phys. ed. teacher at Oyster Bay High School, said he believed the letters might help the survivors at the school.
Seventeen people died there on Feb. 14, most of them students, shot by a former student. Rizzuto, who has worked for the Oyster Bay district since 2010, hoped that writing the letters would give his own students some comfort.
The letters were intended for whichever students at Stoneman Douglas happened to open them, he said, adding. “Our students wrote from a place of empathy and compassion.”
Rizzuto first learned of the idea during the February break, on social media. Diane Wolk-Rogers, a teacher at Stoneman Douglas, sent out a message requesting that teachers ask their students to hand-write letters to students at her school to help them as they recovered from the tragedy.
“I didn’t ask my students to write the letters in response to some of them having a hard time with what had happened,” Rizzuto said. “I asked because Wolk-Rogers had asked for support, and we wanted to provide some of that support.”
Christine Ford, who moved to Oyster Bay 17 years ago, has three children who attend OBHS. She said that her two girls, ages 16 and 12, and her son, 14, were affected differently by the tragedy. None has had nightmares or been hesitant to return to school, she said, and they did share a common experience: “They imagined themselves at the scene — the confusion at seeing a former student devastate a community, the awe for the staff that protected students,” she said. “And also the terror of losing each other, as well as the unfathomable and unshakeable sadness of moving forward.”
Rizzuto said that his decision to ask students about writing the letters wasn’t based on seeing them experiencing emotional trauma. And he wasn’t even certain how to ask. “I started thinking of the conversations I had already had with some of the students in my classes,” he said, “and concluded that writing the letters was something a lot of them would not only want to do, but could benefit from.”
He did not require the students to participate. But the great majority did. “I understood that asking students to write a letter to other kids they’ve never met, that have just experienced something they could never imagine, and also to show compassion and empathy while writing it may be one of the tougher tasks I had ever asked of them,” Rizzuto said. “That it may have been something that they were just not ready to do yet, even if they wanted to.”
Susan Wiesenfeld, who has lived in East Norwich for 25 years, said she was pleased when one of her daughters brought up Rizzuto’s idea. She has three children attending OBHS, a son who is a senior and two daughters who are juniors.
Wiesenfeld said she had seen the letter- writing idea on social media, too. “I liked that Mr. Rizzuto took the initiative and offered the students something positive to do,” she said. “I think it helped give them a sense of control and purpose.”
Ford said she tried to imagine what she would write if the assignment had been given to her. “I could not come up with one thoughtful, meaningful, legible sentence,” she admitted. “I find that it’s easier to say nothing when I don’t know what to say. But to be able to say something, to write something, even when you don’t know what to say? I find that inspiring.”
Then she added, “You don’t need to be Shakespeare to offer comfort.”
Superinten-dent Dr. Laura Seinfeld said she has continued to be proud of the students in her district. “Especially for the compassion they demonstrate to others,” she said, “which was exemplified recently in the letters the high school students wrote to their peers in Parkland. We are deeply committed to supporting our students, including through initiatives focused on social-emotional learning.”
Rizzuto said that the letter-writing ended up inadvertently being a learning experience.
“Health education isn’t about memorizing facts, figures or date,” he said. “It’s about acquiring skills. While writing the letters, the students utilized a variety of the health skills to deliver their messages.”
They worked on being effective communicators, he said, and their self-management skills by way of mentioning positive coping mechanisms.
“Others described how they felt in regard to the cause that the students in Florida were taking on — their advocacy — and some explained what they do when they’re feeling overwhelmed — stress management,” he said. And they employed their relationship- management skills when they “reminded the Florida students to lean on their support systems.”
Ford said she believed the experience benefited her children. “Maggie hopes her letter was comforting,” she said. “She didn’t write it to make herself feel better. She wrote it in the hope that it offered consolation, conveyed solidarity and rewarded the reader with one tiny moment of peace.”