“Mom, would you like to volunteer for Challenge Day at Mandarin Middle School in a few weeks?” Joel asked.
“I probably would but I would need to know more about it,” I answered.
Then my son proceeded to tell me about an initiative at the school he helps sponsor, “Be the Change,” a movement to help students break down walls of isolation and loneliness and replace them with compassion, understanding and love.
My day of change came on a Tuesday, when student ambassadors greeted me at the door and pointed me to the gym, where I found my daughter Crista, also a volunteer.
Seventh and eighth grade students filed in under an arch of welcome, volunteers forming a path of entry with our bridge of arms. Later, we found out students thought doing this was hokey.
There were rules:
The facilitators, Chris (a guy) and Trish began with games: “Find 10 people you never met before and give them a high five.” All the students were strangers to me, so that was easy. The day proceeded with other forms of friendly physical contact: fist bumps and eventually hugs.
“Now, with your partners, slap the ball to the other side,” students stabbed at a super-sized beach ball to earn points. Music and dance underscored many of the day’s activities: Soul Train, Wildest Dream, Where are You Now? Time of Our Lives . . . .
Then the facilitators turned more serious, referring to parallel lines of blue tape they had previously attached to the gym floor.
“Cross the line if . . .”
- you have ever been hurt by what someone said about your skin color, religion, or how you dressed.
- you have been hit, beaten or abused in another way by a parent or other authority figure in your life.
- someone you know hurts the family because of alcohol or drugs.
- you have lost someone you loved recently or a long time ago.
Emotion was palpable as students and volunteers alike crossed blue lines. Viewing their somber faces, I intuitively felt students’ dawning awareness of similarities in the lives of their friends and classmates. One of the facilitators shared her challenging life story of abuse and neglect. Students sat agape, eyes transfixed as her startling story unfolded.
Before lunchtime we were assigned to family groups of 4 or 5, two boys and two girls. With guidance, each was ready to share something heartfelt in my group.
- My parents fight all the time and I think they might get divorced.
- I don’t know who my dad is and my mother left. I live with my aunt and cousins.
- My mom died last summer and then we had to put my dog to sleep.
Tears flowed. Each group leader doled out Kleenex tissues.
There was share time, with scenes similar to this photo clip from a Challenge Day video in Michigan, which appeared on Oprah’s website.
Most of the students who grabbed the microphone at Mandarin Middle confessed to prejudice or bullying and then publicly asked for forgiveness. More hugs and tears.
The day closed with students writing a thank you note to express gratitude to a special person in their lives. Most chose their mothers. One girl in my group wrote two notes!
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Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John are co-founders of the innovative Challenge Day program and the Be the Change Movement. Rich is a former high school teacher and championship wrestling coach. Yvonne is a gifted speaker, educator, and program designer.
Mark Twain joked, “When a child turns twelve you should put him in a barrel, nail down the lid and feed him through a knothole.” I’m suspicious of the quote because I couldn’t find the attribution on www.bartleby.com, a website I trust. Yet, these lines survive in pop culture as does its sequel: “When he turns sixteen, seal up the knothole.”
The leadership at Mandarin Middle School, including my son, doesn’t believe this quip. And neither do I.
- Have you heard of this program or one similar to it?
- How have you made a change, major or minor, in your life?
Coming next: Are You Too Big for Your Pot?