Breaking down barriers
At the beginning of the day, a little past 8 a.m. at the Super 8 Motel, strangers were strangers. At the end of the school day, a little past 2 in the afternoon, students at South Tahoe Middle School were all friends.
The difference was Challenge Day, a nonprofit program designed to melt away differences, build friendships and show that the hardships of being a young teenager are shared.
“It is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing and successful programs that we’ve ever brought into the school,” said Holly Greenough, a teacher at the middle school who organized the event. “Several kids talked to me after attending. We had some kids that are your typical bullies and don’t think twice about doing something mean. Some came to me in tears and said ‘I’ll never tease anybody again.'”
Students from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades were involved. In determining who should go, Greenough received recommendations from teachers and got the brightest students, the high-risk juveniles and everyone in between.
The event took place last week at the Super 8 Motel’s conference center. Morning games broke the ice between students who didn’t know each other. Shortly before noon, more than 100 students broke off into about 20 groups of six. The groups, so tight-knit their knees were touching, had a main rule that friends couldn’t be with each other.
Two facilitators, Ken Scheible and Kristy Brodeur, encouraged the students to share private information in order to dispel rumors that other students might have heard and spread about them.
To grease the wheels, Scheible shared that he was born in South Korea but raised in Detroit. His mother died when he was an infant. His father didn’t want him. Scheible said he was put up for adoption and subsequently raised in Detroit.
At first, family life was discussed between the students. Some students spoke about being teased. One was overheard saying he used to fight frequently. Others divulged problems with parents, or problems their parents have with each other.
Scheible said the goal of Challenge Day was to show students they have more similarities than previously believed. The result should be less violence, teasing and bullying in school.
“It’s not a prevention program but it lets people see there are more similarities on the inside,” he said.
The Challenge Day organization is becoming international and more influential. For example, when the massacre at Columbine High School occurred, Challenge Day workers went to the school to help counsel students.
Lunch followed the group discussions. “Lunchables,” a meal in a box, was the favorite. After the food break, a long line of masking tape symbolically divided the room. It was the sole preparation needed for an activity called “crossing-the-line.”
Students, community volunteers and a handful of school staff stood on one side of the room while other students and adults moved to the opposite side. Brodeur asked people to “cross the line” if they’d ever been teased, had a family member killed by a drunken driver, knew of somebody with a learning disability or had been put down for being smart.
Boys crossed the line if they had been told to act like a man, not to cry, to be tough; girls crossed the line if they had been shown disrespect by males. A slim minority didn’t move when Brodeur asked them to cross the line if they’d been called a bad child.
The groups then reconvened, but this time more intimately. One student was heard talking about growing up in a foster home. Another discussed the pain felt when parents would fight. One student, tormented from endless teasing, spoke about considering suicide.
Others just sat silent, heads in their hands, and cried while group members offered whispers of support and hugs.
The box of tissues sitting in the middle of each group was well used.
As the final exercise, students were able to use the microphone and address the room with gratitude, apologies and appreciation.
Krystal Nash thought Challenge Day was a day well spent.
“I learned that it’s OK to show your feelings and appreciate everyone and everything around you,” Nash said.
Kyle Haler shared the same sentiments.
“I thought it was really emotional and I think it will help the school with less teasing, make it a safer environment and less rumors,” Kyle Haler said. “We should have it more with the whole school because it will help everything.”
— Contact William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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