On the morning of Dec. 6, I and around 60 students and 16 members of the staffulty picked up name tags in front of the South Gym, wondering what we were about to get into. We were about to begin Challenge Day, a program designed to encourage empathy and a greater sense of community within a school. It was the second time this year the program has come to Aragon. Overall, it was a completely unforgettable experience.
When we entered the gym, we were greeted by loud music and a tunnel of cheering teachers and staff. From the first moments of the program, I felt welcomed and safe. The program leaders, Chris Foster and Kevin Synarski, immediately made clear the expectations of confidentiality and respect.
We began with a game that had us sit by new people and see small things we all had in common. Then we played a few more games where we got to know people, mostly whom we had never talked to before. These games increased our comfort with each other and prepared us to trust one another during the activities later in the day.
After a short break, we played a quick game of giant beach ball volleyball and then split into 15 “small family groups” of one to two staff members and four to five students.
Chris and Kevin then led a discussion on gender roles and societal expectations, and encouraged us to “lower our water lines.” They explained that, like an iceberg, only a small amount of a person is immediately apparent — a majority of who they are lies below their “water line.” The two leaders encouraged us to get real and reveal what is below our surface.
Then, within our small family groups, each of us talked about our lives for two minutes uninterrupted, beginning, “If you really knew me, you would know … ” At the end of each speech, the person who spoke received hugs from everyone in their group.
It was surprising to see how everyone opened up during this discussion and shared things, both good and bad, about their lives to relative strangers. The way the program created such a safe space for us to talk and get support was fascinating.
We ate lunch with our family groups, now comfortable with these people who we just opened up to.
Following lunch, we had a quick dance party, then did an activity called, “Cross the Line.” During this activity, Chris would state a feeling or experience, and we would walk to the other side of a tape line if we had ever experienced it. This activity was very powerful because we each got to see that many others had experienced similar things as us.
When Chris asked us if we’d ever felt alone at school, every single student and staff member crossed the line. Looking around and seeing everyone standing together made me understand that I should do more to make everybody feel included.
Lastly, we had an opportunity to speak out to the whole group and address what we had learned throughout the day and how we would apply it to ourselves. I left the program feeling a little bit different than I did when I first entered the gym.
Challenge Day was an incredible experience. I feel a new closeness to all the people who attended, and am inspired to change the conversation and the culture at our school.
Leadership teacher Melissa Perino did a fantastic job organizing this event, and it is a shame that there wasn’t enough interest at the start to have a third Challenge Day in January. I think everyone who went would agree that it was well worth missing class to participate.
Everyone has a story, and there is always someone out there who will hear yours. I wish that every Aragon student had an opportunity to take part in this extraordinary program.