by Deborah Steele Hazen
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
If you have been seeing the hand sign on page 10 – or representations of it – around Clatskanie, especially at Clatskanie Middle/High School (CMHS), there is a very specific reason for it.
Last week, the students and staff at CMHS, along with a number of adult volunteers from the community, experienced “Challenge Day.”
Challenge Day is a 501 c(3) non-profit organization that – and we are quoting now from the organization’s website – “helps people learn to connect through powerful, life-changing programs in their schools and communities. The day-long, interactive Challenge Day program provides teens and adults with tools to tear down the walls of separation, and inspires participants to live, study, and work in an encouraging environment of acceptance, love, and respect.”
While the hand sign at the top of this column is the American Sign Language sign for “I love you,” Challenge Day uses it to represent – not only love – but respect and acceptance.
CMHS’ experience with Challenge Day occurred on three days last week – juniors and seniors on Tuesday, freshmen and sophomores on Wednesday, and seventh and eighth graders on Thursday. Each day also included staff members and volunteers from the community.
It was my privilege to participate in Challenge Day on Thursday with about 30 other adults and over 100 middle schoolers.
Perhaps the most important message I could convey in this column is that the community as a whole needs to understand that despite the “sextortion” lawsuits and the negative publicity, Clatskanie, and particularly CMHS, has received, this is a community – and a school – full of good people.
While we certainly need to address any bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment or other bad behavior that might still be occurring, we also need to accentuate the positive.
This program – Challenge Day – did both.
Taking Action for Positive Change
Challenge Day, again quoting from its website, goes “beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and igniting a movement of compassion and positive change,” encouraging students and adults to “be the change” in the spirit of Gandhi’s quote at the beginning of this column.
The six and a half hour program is designed to build connection and empathy between the participants, and to fulfill the vision of the Challenge Day organization – which presents these programs all over the world – “that every child lives in a world where they feel safe, loved and celebrated.”
Encouraged by CMHS Principal Amy McNeil, teacher Tim Kay, who had participated in the program previously in another school district, and leadership teacher Karen Slotten, the CMHS leadership class made a video a few months ago that won a $4600 “scholarship” to meet almost half of the $9600 cost of bringing the program here, with the support of Superintendent Lloyd Hartley and the school board to provide the other $5,000.
In our opinion it was money very well-spent.
Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones
Mutual respect, acceptance and inclusion were among the ground rules of participating in Challenge Day. Also, what was said in the way of personal testimonies and shared feelings stayed there in the middle school gym where the three sessions were held.
I can, however, describe generally what happened.
The approximately 30 adults participating in Thursday’s Challenge Day gathered with the two facilitators, Katie and Schan, about 45 minutes before the students arrived. They went over the ground rules, talked a bit about what to expect, and started breaking down our inhibitions by making us cheer and dance. Dance! Bad dancing was totally acceptable, and, in fact, celebrated.
When the doors were opened to the middle schoolers waiting outside, the adults formed a tunnel through which they ran, all of us cheering at the top of our lungs, whooping and hollering, giving “high fives,” “low fives” and pats on the back as the students ran through the gauntlet of adults.
After that exciting entrance, we were all gathered in a circle of folding chairs on one end of the gym. Frankly, the day was so packed with action, meaningful words, celebration and emotion, that I can’t remember the exact order of things. But, among other things, the first hour or so was devoted to inspirational talks by Katie and Schan who informed us all that after that day we would never again be able to say that we didn’t know that negative judgments, thoughtless jokes, rumors, or oppressive behaviors, comments or violence hurts people.
They talked about how all of us walk around with “balloons” full of emotions, and if we don’t let those emotions out in a healthy way, they start to leak in negative ways. They expressed their philosophy that “there is no such thing as a bad kid!” Kids who do negative things have “balloons” full of emotion with no healthy outlet. “No one hurts another person unless they have been hurt!”
They also challenged us to adopt the program’s three step formula for creating positive change: “NOTICE – Wake up! Notice what’s happening; CHOOSE – Dream It! Create a vision for what you do want your life to look like, and ACT – Do something! Have the courage and commitment it takes to be the change.”
Early on they taught us the hand sign for love, and encouraged us to raise our hands with that sign to show love, respect and acceptance for whomever was speaking or taking positive action.
Katie’s and Schan’s uplifting words were interspersed with much music, cheering, clapping, laughter and games.
All staying within the circle of chairs, we played a version of musical chairs, running across the circle to another seat, avoiding sitting next to our best friends or, in my case, other adults.
We danced. We locked arms back-to-back and danced, then changed partners, taking the first one we could grab, and danced back-to-back again and again.
After a funny hugging demonstration by Schan and a boy he picked from the group, we played various hugging games. Running around in the circle, hugging as many different people as possible.
The kids played a light-hearted version of volleyball, sitting down on the floor with a huge beach ball, while the adults stood around them and cheered on the team they were closest to.
All of these things removed the students from their circle of best friends and created a spirit of camaraderie and equality among everyone there.
Katie gave a talk about how boys are frequently taught to to stuff their feelings and “be a man.” Girls are taught to “be a lady.” People are like icebergs, she told us, with only a small percentage of the total person showing above the water line, while a mass of thoughts and emotions, experiences and reactions are hidden out-of-sight.
Katie and Schan both gave moving testimonies about personal tragedies and/or challenges in their own lives. They told them in such a way that we could relate personally to them, draw parallels with our own experiences, and many eyes filled with tears.
That was another one of the ground rules. Tears are okay. Nobody was made to feel uncomfortable if they were crying. They were offered hugs and support.
When we broke into small “family” groups – four to five people with one or two adults, no relatives in the same group, no best friends – tissue boxes were placed right in the middle of our tight little circle, chairs drawn up so our knees were almost touching. No one wandered away from the group to dispose of used tissues, we just dropped them on the floor.
In our first small group session we were asked to share one thing from the part of our iceberg that lies below the surface. Everyone had a turn, everyone else listened respectfully. There were no judgments or advice, but many hugs were offered and accepted.
We ate lunch in our “family” groups, and just chatted. There was time for everyone to take a restroom break – kids isolating themselves in the restroom during other times was forbidden – and we were also encouraged to check in with our special friends and family members.
Crossing the Line
After lunch we participated in an activity that I found probably the most moving of the day. We all stood behind a blue line of tape across the gym floor. There was another blue line about 10 or 15 feet away.
Katie asked a series of questions and after each one, she asked the people who could answer yes to that question, to cross to the other blue line, turn around and face the people who had remained behind the original blue line.
The questions included such things as: If you have lost one or more parents or someone else close to you – cross the line. If you have been impacted by alcohol or substance abuse – cross the line. If someone close to you has committed suicide or threatened to commit suicide… If someone you love has been involved in the criminal system… If you have been hit or physically hurt purposefully by someone… If you are repeatedly subjected to yelling or verbal abuse… If you have been made to feel bad about the size or shape of your body…
After she asked each of these questions, and people crossed over the line, Katie would talk about those issues. How they impact us. How no one deserves to be physically or verbally abused. How we should notice how many people those issues affected, and have compassion and understanding for each other.
One question was asked in reverse. If we felt like we had been allowed to be a child we were to cross the line. It was interesting to see that a number of people – middle schoolers as well as adults – stayed behind the blue line. They felt they had never been allowed, through various circumstances of their lives, to be children.
While we stood facing each other behind one line or the other, there were many hugs, many tears, many hands raised with the love sign.
After the “crossing the line” session, we went back to our small groups to briefly share our feelings, each having their turn, everyone else just listening, and offering hugs.
We were then given an opportunity to mingle through the crowd, seeking out those we wanted to hug, encourage or thank, and we wrote cards to believe we love.
At the end of the day we were all gathered again in a big circle. Anyone who wanted to could speak to the group at large, but no one was forced to talk. Many wanted to apologize to specific people in front of everyone. Schan and Katie asked the person or people they were apologizing to if they would come forward. None refused, and most took the opportunity to respond. Apologies were accepted. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged.
Students and staff crowded around the large sheets of paper posted on the wall to sign up to be part of the “Be the Change” team that will keep the spirit of Challenge Day alive.
“Life-changing” is the term we have heard most often from those who participated in last week’s Challenge Days, and we believe it’s true.
The program is designed to “demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth and full expression, and positive change.”
By doing so, it addresses such problems as cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.
We believe this program will have a lasting impact on many of the students and staff of CMHS, and the community volunteers who shared the experience.
The Golden Rule
While it was not officially part of the program, an all-school assembly was held on Friday morning to celebrate the shared experience and inform those few students who opted out what all those hand signs are about.
Our middle/high school students and staff have now been provided with the tools they need to create a healthy and happy environment. They have been challenged to live in such a way thatthey always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.
This community is now challenged to nurture this golden rule.