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Honoring life: An interview with Elaine Lane

Photo of David and his shoe
A photograph of David, the son of Elaine Lane and the inspiration for David's Shoes, next to a shoe from the exhibit. Photo: AFSC

Note: Elaine Lane is the founder of David’s Shoes, an organization based out of Irvington, New Jersey, that is “Helping Children and Teens Honor Life.” Inspired by AFSC’s “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, Elaine is collecting 3792 shoes to start her own exhibit, commemorating the number of children killed by gun violence in the United States in 1998, the year her own son was killed. I met up with her in AFSC’s Newark office, where she was meeting with AFSC staff to talk about her work against teen violence. We spoke about the mission of her work and how it has changed her life.

Madeline Schaefer (MS): Could you start by telling me the story of David’s shoes?

Elaine Lane (EL): In 1998, David was killed as a result of teen violence. The young man who killed him was a year younger than he was— David was 18, the young man who killed him was 17. At least, the young man who I believe killed him, because he was found not-guilty.

As a result of all of this I went into a deep depression for many years and really had to seek counseling. After years of counseling that cloud of grief began to lift and I began to see what was happening in our society, and it seemed like every other day a child had been killed, and this was going on and on and on.

I am a teacher and an educator and love being around kids and I just knew that I had to do something about this. Not knowing what to do, I was looking for some space to work in, trying already organized organizations that just didn’t seem to fit. I tried Million Mom’s March and still am a member of Million Mom’s March but knew that was not enough for me.

I went to see this exhibit of these shoes by the American Friends Service Committee. I saw the boots—that didn’t bother me too much. But I saw the shoes of these innocent human beings. I saw the shoes of little kids and what seemed to be older adults, all different sizes, male and female. We were invited to walk that path.

I tried, I honestly did try. And I realized that I couldn’t. I just felt the energy in those shoes was just too strong for me to walk through that path. I went around the side to look at it.

When I went home, I said you know, wow, if those shoes affected me that way, then maybe, just maybe the shoes of young people who have been killed as a result of teen violence would affect other teens. And that gave me the idea of starting.

I remembered that I had my son’s shoes, that the police department had sent the clothes that he had on when he was killed. I said, okay, I still have his shoes.

Then it just dawned on me that I could go to schools. Because I do love kids, I do love being around them, I do respect them. And I could go to schools and talk to students about honoring their lives.

I honestly feel that many kids, though they’ve heard of violence and everything else, they don’t know, they haven’t seen someone who’s been impacted by it. Some have, many have, but there are others who haven’t. So I’m this visual representation. I’ve been impacted by it but I don’t call myself a victim of it.

My goal is to get them to honor their lives. So we talk about what happened to me, I talk about the day that I heard about his death and then I go into talking about the importance of honoring your life. My tag is “David’s shoes: Helping children and teens honor life.” And that’s all I want them to do. I want them to understand how important they are. I want them to understand that they are a gift. And I want them to treat themselves as such. If they treat themselves as such, others will treat them as such. 

One of the things that I say when I talk, I ask the students, “Who is the most important person in your life?” And the kids say, “My mother, my father, my sister, my brother,”…now kids are beginning to understand and I get a few who know the answer: You are the most important person in your life. And if you treat yourself as that, you can treat mother, father, sister, brother as an important person. But if you can’t treat yourself as the most important person, you can’t treat anybody else. 

I ask them, “Why won’t I give you a million dollars?” And that’s a really funny part of the conversation. Kids come up with all different kinds of answers and sometimes, every once in a while, kids say “’cause you don’t have it.” And I say “You’re right, I don’t have it. Even if I wanted to give it to you, I don’t have it. I cannot give something away that I do not have. It’s the same thing with love; it’s the same thing with respect. If you do not have love for yourself, you cannot give it to anybody else. So I’m here asking you to develop, to work on this love and respect for yourself, so that you are able to share it with someone else.” 

MS: When did you learn the meaning of honoring your life? 

EL: I think I’m still learning. We have a pledge, we have an honor life pledge, and at the end of each presentation we say the pledge. I got to the point where I said to myself, “You know what, you gotta look at your life and you gotta make sure that you are at least attempting to do these things because if not, then you are being false, you’re not being honest with these kids.” And that’s the last thing I want to do with kids; I want to be as honest as I possibly can. So I try to live by that pledge as well.

I think to a certain extent it was a part of me. But as I look at the pledge I know there are still areas in my life that I need to work on and I will continue to work on them for the rest of my life. And I think that’s almost true for everybody. We don’t all have it all and so it gives us an opportunity to work towards it.

MS: Violence seems to be something you’re passionately against.

EL:  Absolutely, absolutely. Life is so precious and I think that it’s our responsibility to treat it as such. It’s our responsibility to respect it; to respect ourselves as well as respecting other people.

I remember a week before [my son’s] funeral, my mother came up from South Carolina with one of my sisters, and one sister came down from New York, another from California— everybody was at the house. 

And the conversation in the living room was about people burglarizing or coming into the house or stealing from them, and it went on to “If you have to shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em”… Wait a minute people, my son was just killed as a result of that kind of attitude, you know? It was just scary, I just left them, I had to leave them, and I went upstairs. 

I know they weren’t trying to be mean, they just forgot about where they were and what was going on. But there are too many of us who take that kind of attitude too casually. Material stuff is material stuff, people replace it. You cannot replace a life. You cannot.

MS: A lot of the work that you do involves telling your story about your son and your experience. What has that been like, sharing your story again and again?

EL: The story has not changed, basically. For the first four or five years, I wouldn’t mention my son’s name— I did not mention his name. If you did not know I had a kid, then you did not know I had a kid that’s all there is to it.

So when I got to the point where I was able to tell the story, it began to open up the relationship that I have with my son even now in his death. It began to help me to accept it. There are so many different factors, I think, between you and your child. And when all those issues haven’t had the opportunity to be worked out, then you’ve got all this mess in your lap and you say “Well what do I do.” 

Well I think that I’ve been able to, one by one, begin to make some headway with that. It seems to me there are some people whose grief didn’t paralyze them as much as mine paralyzed me. I say it seems because I’m not too sure, because I know I’ve  put on a front, so maybe some of them are doing the same thing. 

It’s beginning to open me up; what I’m doing is beginning to open me up. It’s beginning to be a healing for me and hopefully is an inspiration or a healing for somebody else.

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