Weeks have passed since the presidential election and I am still reeling from the seismic shift in my understanding of our country’s core values. As the immediate future seems poised to dishonor what so many of my students have written about over the past two and a half decades. There was one class, a favorite of mine that graduated from Palisades High School in 2008, that I can’t help but think about.
So many of them seemed to share a quality that must have been embedded in their DNA, a quality I most admire: that was their commitment, even as teens, to look beyond themselves. They seemed determined to do good. To do things that matter.
This week, I needed to hear their voices again, so I called on several of them. I’ve stayed in touch. Why wouldn’t I? They were exceptional human beings.
When we spoke, many naturally mentioned Dillon Henry, poet/surfer/soccer player/scholar, a young man who would have graduated in that Palihi class, had he lived. Dillon died in a car accident in 2007.
Again and again, in our conversations, Dillon’s name was invoked. Amidst the confusion, disappointment, anger, fear, and the inevitable change to come, thinking about and talking about this lovely young man’s life gave me glimmers of hope and moments of solace. Memories of Dillon infused those who’d known him not to despair but to continue their activism.
One of Dillon’s classmates, Irvin Kintaudi said, “To be honest, I thought Dillon was black like me. He transcended all races at Palihi. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known him. He was even in the Black Student Union.”
In his senior year, the year after Dillon died, Irvin received one of the first Dillon Henry Scholarships which financed much of his college education. Today, in addition to working on his Master’s degree USC, Irvin sits on the board of The Dillon Henry Foundation and through the Foundation’s partnership with Jewish World Watch, he has traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo where he toured the Chambuca Rape and Crisis Center, which provides medical care for women and girls.
“I can’t tell you how good it felt to see pictures and murals of Dillon on the walls of that clinic. Before this facility was built, with donations from the Dillon Henry Foundation, women in the villages had to walk five miles for medical care. Now they can literally walk a few blocks for help.”
Davis Lau, who became friends with Dillon when they were in third grade, said, “Dillon touched everyone. He was quick to make his opinions known and he would stand up for justice. Even as a kid. To this day, every one of his friends is not only carrying the burden of his loss but continuing to stand up and say what must be said.”
Karlee Fomalont, an NYU graduate now working as a casting director in Manhattan, met Dillon in her freshman year at Palihi. Shortly thereafter, they acted together in The Laramie Project, a play about the death of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was brutally murdered because of his sexual identity.
One of their fellow actors was also openly gay, and as these 14-year-olds prepared for their roles, they all agreed that gay rights were human rights and that delivering that message to their community was critical.
“Dillon saw everyone as they wanted to be seen,” Karlee said. “And I’ve always remembered that he was accepting of everyone.”
Like Karlee, Diana Ruzova, a UCLA grad, shared theater and AP English classes with Dillon and remembers that he “fit into a lot of different groups because he loved so many things. Most of all, he loved writing.”
While a senior at Palihi, Diana was published in the Chicago Sun-Times and was recently in a UCLA Extension creative non-fiction class where she wrote a short piece about Dillon.
“I read it to the class. Everyone there had an experience of someone who passed away when they were way too young,” she said, and she marveled that sharing her thoughts about Dillon had opened up her classmates and helped them to form an instant and meaningful community.
Alison Longman, another friend from Palihi’s drama department, attends the Copa de Dillon soccer tournament at Palihi every year not only to remember Dillon but to continue “to feel connected to his family who I’ve known since pre-school. I love sharing the positive memories of Dillon with my friends. He was always fun and funny.”
Every year Tom Eisenberg, who met Dillon either in “AYSO or Hebrew school,” plays in the Copa de Dillon and is moved “by the legacy his family is building for him. How they are helping less fortunate Pali students to go to and graduate from college. They are taking the ideas and passions that Dillon started and carrying them on. It makes me want to be a good person.”
So, in this moment laced with uncertainty and gloom, I write this to remember Dillon’s life and to remind others to reconnect with this young generation whose instincts are to speak out against injustice, to form community, to reach out to those in the minority whose fears are real. Listening to Dillon’s peers and remembering that passionate, generous, beautiful young man reminds me to give to charities, to work for noble causes, to protect the ocean, and the oceans of humanity that Dillon loved and worked so hard to protect.
I’ll call it The Dillon Effect.
Photo credit: Getty Images