October 2008

Challenged: A Day of Understanding and Change

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: photography by anne

Eighth grade. Ages, mostly 13 to 14. Do you remember what it was like? As I sat listening to the two leaders of “Challenge Day,” I had a flashback to almost five decades ago. St. Martin de Tours (now closed). Even back then there weren’t enough nuns. So we had Mrs. Skroggins, a retired teacher who should never, it now seems to me, have been one in the first place. At least not for eighth grade.

Her dyed red hair did not suit her. Nor did the thick, plastic frame glasses and the significant amount of jewelry she wore on her thin wrists. Multiple bracelets jangled when she came down with a ruler on our knuckles. Hard. Especially the boys’ knuckles.

That’s why two guys purposely tripped her. She fell back, ruler flying, and I caught her. My catching was not intentional. I was just there. But it seemed “everybody” (I was told) wanted her to fall. My “friends” avoided me. I couldn’t talk to my parents because they would have wanted me to name names. It was the first time in my childhood I felt very much alone.

It wasn’t until sometime later—years—that I realized the fall could have killed her, the frail little lady with the impossibly red hair, who probably only wanted to help in the only way she knew how.

But awareness of others, to say nothing of awareness of self, is tough to come by when you’ve just rolled into your teen years. “Challenge Day,” where I was a “facilitator,” showed me that aloneness, bullying, teasing, racism and hateful acts are still very much with us. Only now it seems these behaviors come at the children with alarming speed and ferocity.

The Challenge Day organization is attempting to change that. In fact, the group’s motto is “Be the Change!”

Now in its 21st year, Challenge Day, a non-profit group, was founded by Rich and Yvonne Dutra St. John. They defined their organization’s vision as “to create a world where every child feels safe, loved, and celebrated. That’s not just every young person, but the child that lives inside each and every one of our hearts.” The program has been, and will continue to be, featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It has won a number of national awards, and even an Emmy Award in 2000 for the documentary, The Teen Files: Surviving High School.

This “workshop” on self worth and the worth of others was brought to the school at the urging of science teacher, Kim Gartner, and school principal, Sherry DeSimone. Because eighth grade is tough.

The day began (7:30 a.m.) with the adult “facilitators” gathered in the Hilton Head Island High School auxiliary gym. Our Challenge Day leaders, Berenice and Randy, gave us the lowdown on what was to be expected of us. Bottom line: just be there for the kids. Oh, and learn to yell and scream on cue.

Yelling and screaming might not sound too tough, but the last time I yelled and screamed spontaneously was when I broke my toe, demonstrating the proper way to kick a soccer ball. I learned I needed practice.

While I had visited the website (www.challengeday.org) prior to Challenge Day, I wasn’t quite sure what was about to happen in the next seven hours. I was a bit cynical about change taking place in such a short period of time. I was hoping this wasn’t some pop-psychology, California kind of thing.

It was California—the organization is based there. But it wasn’t “pop.” It was the real deal.

And while the changes I witnessed—and experienced—might not last forever, they just might get some children through high school with a greater understanding of the human condition, with a greater sense of self, and a greater sense of others.

The first thing that astonished me was how quickly Berenice and Randy got control of 105 eighth graders. I’m not sure what their teachers told them before the students arrived at 8 a.m. There was the usual pushing and pulling and talk and laughter, but the leaders got the kids seated, went over a brief explanation of what was going to happen, and in minutes, Challenge Day began.

The first part of the workshop was just fun and games, literally. We whooped, we sat on laps, young and old, white, black, brown, it didn’t matter. We acted silly, though it was disconcerting to be silly with people we didn’t know. Which was the whole point.

When Berenice and Randy broke the students up into two teams for the beach ball-volleyball game, they made sure that the kids who usually hung out together were on opposite sides. A line of chairs separated the two groups, which acted as the “net.” The kids had to keep backsides on the floor and were scrunched together as close as possible.

Because of the artful culling by Berenice and Randy, the two teams were made up of virtual strangers. Yet the huge beach ball sailed high and back and forth across the chair net, each team wanting to rack up the points. The game ended in a tie.

Then began a more serious “game.” With the students gathered round, Berenice began: “If you really knew me, you would know…” and she began a passionate telling of her childhood, when she came to live in California from Mexico. How classmates teased her because of her poor English, her looks. The children listened. It was a compelling story. Randy followed with his “If you really knew me…” Both were intensely personal.

Then we broke up into groups of five or six students, each with an adult “facilitator.” We were talking about self image, identity. I thought those intellectual concepts might be a bit much for eighth graders. I was wrong.

Some identified themselves in terms of things owned, others in terms of family situations. We literally sat knee to knee, telling each other, “If you really knew me…” Yes, the facilitators became a part of Challenge Day; that was only fair.

Then came the real, extraordinary, bring-us-all-together moment. Berenice began the litany. “If you’ve ever felt bullied or picked on just for being you, for the way you walk, the way that you talk, for the clothes you wear, you may stand.” Almost every kid stood up. Every kid. The popular ones. The shy. The “unknowns.” And every kid looked at every other kid. A shared experience.

“Stand up if your parents are divorced,” Berenice said. Half the students stood.

“Stand up if you or your family have suffered a recent death.” A quarter of the students stood up. A grandparent or parent or sibling had recently died and classmates didn’t know?

The litany went on until everyone understood they all, in one way or another, shared a mutual bond, and they were not alone. Yes, there were tears. Eighth grade is tough.

As the Challenge Day organization has said, these eighth graders have more information pumping through their brains than our grandparents were exposed to in a lifetime, and few to tell it to. They were six or seven-years-old when 9/11 happened. Since late in 2001, the U.S. has been at war, half of their lives. Eighth grade is tough.

The Challenge Day formula for change is “notice” (Wake up! What’s happening around you and inside you?); “choose” (How do you want things to be?); and, “act” (Do what it takes to create the change you want to see!).

When the day ended and the students left the gym, no one seemed in a hurry. I didn’t see anybody get pushed. There was laughter, of course. And maybe, just maybe, eighth won’t be quite as tough anymore.

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