Challenge Day Challenges You to “Be the Change” at Barnstable High School

barnstable high schoolBullying is a huge problem everywhere, in every school in America, and all over the world for that matter. Children are being bullied every single school day. Whether they are in elementary school, middle school, or high school, many young people today are being bullied for one reason or another by their peers. Due to what many describe as a “bullying epidemic” schools have been seeking workshops, seminars, interactive games, etc to help bring kids together and celebrate their differences rather than ridicule them.

Challenge Day is one of these programs and their mission, according to their website, is to “provide youth and their communities with experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression.” At this point you may be saying to yourself, okay I get it, it’s one big lovey dovey fest where we all try to stop hurting each other’s feelings for an hour or so but what do you actually DO at challenge day? Well my friend, I am here to tell you.

I attended my first ever Challenge Day recently, normally seniors don’t participate unless they are volunteering to be a group leader, however since I did not attend Barnstable my freshman year, I was an exception. The day begins with a very serious chat from Mr.Clark, the principal, and Mrs. Swindler, an English teacher who organizes Challenge day for the school. From there we were all ushered into the theater where we ran through a cheering line of teachers dancing to Bruno Mars, looking way too happy for 7:30AM on a Monday, and high-fiving us to death as we found seats in a circle of chairs spread out on the stage. As the students found their seats, and eventually the teachers, we are greeted by another pair of individuals wearing bright red shirts that say “Be the Change” on the back, whom are also dancing to Uptown Funk and are somehow fully functioning, awake, and cheerful on a Monday morning.

We begin by playing a few games, running into the circle and back out to find a new seat when something you like or did was mentioned, dancing with teachers and random kids, finding someone to introduce yourself to, and all those lovely “icebreaker” activities common in public schools. We take a quick bathroom break after two or so hours of silliness and then we return to the serious stuff. We are divided into small family groups of around six people where we are encouraged to “get real” with each other and share something extremely personal or difficult for us to talk about for two minutes, and then on to the next person.

A particularly emotional activity known as “Cross the Line” in which one of the administrators reads off questions such as, “If you have ever lost someone to suicide or know someone who has considered suicide, please cross the line” where those of us who didn’t cross the line would hold up a “love” signal in sign language to show our support for those who did cross the line (a literal line of duct tape on the stage floor). This activity along with others, like the two-minute activity, were the core of the six and a half hour program, allowing students to bond over common experiences, get “real” with one another, and see that after all maybe you aren’t facing the awful things in your life alone.

Enrique, one of the instructors from the Challenge Day program, expressed his love for the program saying, “I’ve been working with youth for a while and I really love sharing my story and using my past as something that can benefit people.” He went on to talk about the importance of having these programs in schools, expressing the urgency he feels towards correcting harmful behaviors and habits, stating  “I think we need to start with youth, I work with adults too but starting with youth is so important in order to start changing patterns and behaviors, and getting young people to see the reality of what’s happening, because we’re killing each other with the gossip and the bullying…”. While Enrique loves his job and is obviously passionate about it he admits that it isn’t all that, he says, “It’s hard to hear the sadness and the sorrow, it’s always hard to hear about pain. But I don’t hate that because I know that it’s normal, that it’s true for everybody but it is definitely the harder part of my job, doing that and then leaving.”

Of course Enrique is referring to the fact that after Challenge Day concludes that is simply it, everyone packs up, goes home for the day and back to normal. Of course the hope is that the secrets everyone shared with one another and the overall experience will stay in the kids hearts and minds so that we can all feel a little closer to each other, however the words of a senior tell another story. I asked Kaylena Donaldson, a senior at Barnstable, on her thoughts regarding challenge day, she responded with, “We should be required to do it both freshman and senior year in order to bring us together, because we change so much throughout high school. After Challenge Day freshman year I was just like ‘you just told me everything about yourself, I got you, I got you’. But now I think we are mature enough to keep those painful things confidential out of respect for one another.” While Kaylena brings up a good point, that perhaps a lot of students are not overwhelmingly mature their freshman year, she also mentions doing it senior year, a way to bring the experience full circle, ending our high school careers the way we began them, reminding ourselves that we are family and that we all experience pain and sadness.

Critics of Challenge Day are also quick to bring up the fact that once Challenge Day ends there is no transition back to the real world. After a six and half hour day of being emotionally vulnerable one would think it would be helpful to have some sort of program to help cushion the weight of reality. As a senior I didn’t have to go back to class the next day and look in the eyes of kids who told me some of the most painful things in their life, but I can only imagine the embarrassment freshman me would have felt in doing so. Even Enrique, who admitted that one of the hardest things about his job is having to leave after hearing everyone’s pain and sorrow, said, “It’s emotionally draining, it totally is.” So perhaps what we should be working on next is some sort of transition back to reality, some way to keep the love we felt for one another as human beings alive, a way to rekindle that connection every single day, keeping our community bond strong.

Young people can do amazing things when we work together instead of against each other, that is why I, personally, am in favor of Challenge Day. While I am weary of trusting others with my secrets, and I am just as scared as anyone else to be completely honest and open with others regarding my emotions and thoughts, the benefits far outweigh the negatives for me. Giving it your all, being all in, not reserving any judgments for others is a liberating experience, it’s something I think everyone, young or old, should experience in their lifetime. I have moved around more times than I can count on one hand and experiences like these can only have good results. School after school I have had heart to hearts with teachers and other students and I have only ever felt love for another human being after they shared their story with me, and I truly believe if we teach people from a young age that it is okay to be open, to be honest, to be vulnerable and “real” with one another that we won’t see the violence and cruelty we see all over the world today.

In the wake of the Oregon Community College shooting I can not stress enough how urgent I feel this is. We too often teach students to bottle their emotions and problems up. We too often teach boys to “be a man” and we too often tell young women to “stop being such a drama queen”. What I want young people to know is that their emotions are valid, that the problems they face, we all face, and that the sadness and hurt they may feel, will pass. My deepest condolences go out to the Umpqua Community College shooting victim’s families and anyone else who may have lost someone dear to them due to violence. However I ask you, what will you do to “Be the Change” you wish to see in the world?

By KAITLYN HOLZWORTH, Intern and Barnstable High School Student

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