Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Challenge Day, for an adult

“If you really knew me, you’d know I’m terrified of failure. And my great fear of failure? Failing to make a difference.”

Last week, I was able to put that into words. I shared that with a group of high schoolers I’d never met. Because when you start a phrase with “If you really knew me,” you’re opening yourself up, giving up a piece of yourself you don’t share often.

I was at the local elementary school for “Challenge Day,” when about 100 high school students gather for a day of community building. I thought of it as an anti-bullying campaign. I was wrong.

“If you really knew me” was only part of the activities. We listened as our Challenge Day leaders shared their stories, connecting with youth on issues of racism, sexism, broken families, drugs, abuse. Listening to their stories made my heart hurt.

And then we split up into our small family groups, and my heart broke. We shared those “if you really knew me” statements, giving up those pieces of ourselves we cling most tightly to, scared to share. Scared to be vulnerable. But those members of my small group had the courage to  share stories with people they didn’t know well, some of them strangers. Some things they said shocked me; some scared me. I was blessed to listen to each member of my group think through and reflect on that idea, those 2 minutes being sacred space for each person. No advice given, no responses to what they said, other than to pat a shoulder or hold out a tissue for the tears streaming down their face.  No high school student should be dealing with some of the things they shared in our group.

Later in the afternoon, we did an activity called “Cross the Line.” The entire group stood on one side of a line, blue masking tape crookedly pulled across the gym floor. One of our Challenge Day leaders called out different circumstances or situations that affect the youth.

“Cross the line if you’ve ever been made fun of for your body, whether it is because they say you are too fat or too skinny, whether you are too tall or too short.”

And 60-70% of the group crosses that line. No one ever crossed that line alone at any point in the activity. And as one, those that didn’t cross the line held up their hands in the international sign language sign for love (an image that so reminded me of the Hunger Games I couldn’t help myself). Eyes met across the line. Tears started to flow. Everyone returned to the same side of the line.

And then the next prompt.

“Cross the line if you or someone you know lives in an environment where they live in fear of abuse, be that verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual.”

And so many students crossed the line. We raised our hands in recognition and solidarity. And so on, 20, 30 different prompts.

I knew some of the students crossing those lines. And I knew, albeit briefly, those students in my small family group that had just poured their hearts out in “If you really knew me.” But watching these students, many of them the same students, cross that line, 10, 15 times, for things that I have never had to deal with or experience...well, it got to me.

I watched students reach out to one another in between prompts. I watched adults break down as prompts hit home and they crossed the line sobbing. All day, our Challenge Day leaders had encouraged the adult helpers to participate fully--I don’t know that we were ready for what that would mean. We were no different than many of these students. We share many struggles.

Selfishly, I came away realizing my blessings, my luck in my idyllic upbringing. And I recognized my power and challenge to work to change what I can for those going through some of these difficult, difficult things.

I don’t think I can overstate the power of these activities. We realize we are not alone. We realize that we each carry our own baggage, struggling with our own journey. We gain an awareness and compassion for each other we might not have had before.

The final activity of the day gave the youth an opportunity to share their feelings in a letter, whether affirming the positive power of someone who has changed their life for the better, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or writing to someone who had died or moved they had never gotten closure with. Some of the youth, in front of the entire gathering, apologized to each other for disputes and struggles going on for years at a time. Others publicly recognized and thanked friends for their support and love.

I ended the day aware. Aware of my privilege, aware of the brokenness around me. I ended the day affirmed and loved. And I ended the day more sure of my role and place in this community than I have felt at any point in the last 5 months. I am not the solution, but I am a tiny part of it. And I am proud and honored to work alongside those students toward that greater, diverse, vibrant, supportive community.