Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Walking Wounded


Challenge Day's vision is that every child lives in a world where they feel safe, loved and celebrated. Imagine it.

Recently I had the privilege of participating in an outstanding event, hosted by the organization “Challenge Day”. You may have seen Challenge Day coverage on Oprah or other various media coverage. There is some great video of Challenge Day on their website . As good as the site is, I am here to tell you it pales in comparison to the real thing.

Our Challenge Day experience began bright and early on a regularly scheduled school day, with about 100 students, a few staff members and two of the Challenge Day workers in a large room at a local community center. Rule number one is that what happens at Challenge Day stays between the participants and unlike Vegas, it really works that way. Trust was the first rule we all agreed to. Our Challenge Day leaders will be referred to as “Jake and Isabelle”, (right, not their real names). Isabelle, expressive and smooth talking gave us all a preview of the way we were going to be treated. “You aren’t going to be hurt here today,” Isabelle said. “Respect. We are gonna take it to a new level. And don’t be shy with me now”, she spoke with a voice that reminded me of slow flowing maple syrup. “Don’t be worried because today you are all my sweethearts. You are my darlins you are all angels, sugar and honey. I’ll call you every name that I know to show you what sweet babies you are to me and nobody today is going to hurt my babies”. This is not the way most high school students are accustomed to hearing themselves addressed, and although some seemed a bit apprehensive most smiled and seemed to relax a little, including me. Being the alpha male that I am (with testosterone off the charts), I was ready to sit on her lap and have her sing me a lullaby.

Jake stepped in at that point and described a few things we would be doing during the day. “What kind of day are we going to have?” he asked after the briefing that included games and “WoW” moments. "An AWESOME day, say it with me!” kind of stuff, and we started getting excited, although we were oblivious as to why. “Today” firmly stated Isabelle “you are going to go home the new fabulous person you are. You are going to find out what you are made of. And sugar AS I ALREADY SAID, you are made of some mighty fine stuff”.
Jake got us started by walking around the room and breaking up cliques by having us find fifteen people we had never met and introduce ourselves. We really listened when each person said their name, “no test later” but Jake said names were important because, they are the first thing you ever own. We said names back to each and “wrapped it in a smile” as instructed by Isabelle. After playing some games and having fun, we were told that there would be times when we would need to be silent during the day. Respectful silence. No speaking. But what we could do was flash the international sign for “I love you.” I don’t think any of us really expected to use it and accepted this instruction with an attitude of “Yea, that’s nice” but no one really thought we would be into flashing “I love you” with the whole two fingers down, two up with the thumb.

Next, we broke down into groups of five or six, with people we didn’t know. Our chairs were in a circle and our knees had to be touching. Isabelle reminded us to BREATHE and let the exercise flow. Each one of us was allowed the amount of time we needed to answer the sentence “If you really knew me you would know………..” Up until now we had been participating in some “warm and fuzzy” kind of interactions but at this point it began to get serious. The words that followed “if you really knew me you would know that……. were hard to hear as students started to fill in the blanks. I don’t shock easily and I’ve been around a few blocks. But masks began to come off and eyes began to peel away defensive stares and I began to see children. Tears. Children in pain.

Confidentiality and trust are part of the foundation that Challenge Day has been built on but let me tell you it was all there. Abuse. Loneliness. Estrangement from friends or a parent curiosity about a parent they never knew. Secrets, bad ones. Sexual harassment at school or at a part time job. Eating disorders. Cutting. Some of the answers to the question “If you really knew me you would know that..” were lighter, such as “Everyone always thinks I’m so funny. No one ever gives me a chance to be sad, or serious.” Jake called a time out for lunch and although we could sit anywhere with anyone in the room, our groups stayed together and continued to share. With Jake and Isabelle’s help we were bonding quickly and eager to continue.

What came next was the very serious “Cross The Line”. Jake and Isabelle prepared us “There will be no talking. No words. When we ask you to cross the line, if it’s true, cross the line. Tell the truth. Remember you are safe here. And BREATHE". We stood on a line on one side of the room, and there was another line across the room. If what was said applied to us, we were to cross over. Isabelle began. “Cross the line if you have ever been made fun of for what you believe. Your faith. Your religion. Your God. Cross the line”. Silently many, of us crossed the room. “Look around” she said. “Did you know that these people had suffered? That their strength and belief had made them a joke to others?” We looked around at girls in headscarves, boys with crosses around their necks, an East Indian student who was a Hindu. An Asian girl who was Buddhist. Many looked embarrassed, as if being made fun of was their fault. We were new to this. “Cross back”, Isabelle said softly.
“Cross the line if you have ever sat alone in the cafeteria at lunch time. If you look around for someone who you hoped would smile at you. Cross the line if you have ever been afraid to walk the halls, being hit or thrown into a locker trying to get to class”. The list went on and on. And then finally we started to get it. “Cross the line” Isabelle requested, “If you are a female who has ever been cat called, whistled at, your body been talked about, groped, touched in an abusing way or been sexually harassed. Cross if you have been raped or physically abused by a boyfriend, a brother or a father.” As the girls crossed the line, EVERY FEMALE IN THE ROOM started to break down, tears, slumping as they crossed the line in shame. “Look” Jake commanded. “Look at what we have done to our sisters.” Every male in the room recognized what we had done in one way or another. That’s when I saw it for the first time. A very popular and intelligent senior guy raised his arm and his fingers spoke “I love you”. And then we all began to get it. One by one the signal was sent by every male, using hands that had caused pain and humiliation, now signing “I love you”, the only way we had to apologize. And then an amazing thing happened again. One by one the girls, crying and holding each other began to stand taller, wipe their tears and sign back. “I love you.”

Back across to the other side. “Cross the line if you are African American. Cross the line if you are Asian. Cross the line if you are of Arabic decent. How has life been for you since 9/11? Cross the line if you have ever had trouble learning. If you have been called “stupid”. Cross the line if you have ever been made fun of for the shape of your body. For being too skinny, too fat. Too dark or too light. Cross the line if you have been called ‘white trash’. The N word. Any name that degraded who you are.” Again and again the line was crossed and crossed back and crossed again. “Cross the line” Isabelle whispered, if you are Jewish”. Slowly, silently, with a bent head a person crossed the line alone and began to cry, telling us how her great - grandparents had lied and said they were Catholic to avoid death camps. How they had secretly celebrated their faith to this day, never admitting their religion. This was the only time that others crossed over to physically comfort a person on the other side of the room. Choking up I realized that the students who crossed over were Arab/Americans. I watched something happen in that room that hasn’t been able to be achieved in 3000 years on the other side of the world. Every time the line was crossed hands were raised. “I love you”. No matter what your body looked like or your skin or your face or intelligence or who your parents are,who hurt you, or what you believed, hands all around the room were saying “I love you.”

More happened on that day but you get the idea. There were confessions. There was forgiveness. The end of Challenge Day left us both drained and energized. I, who am twice these students’ ages learned as much as they did, or more. All of us were changed. Image a school where every child feels safe, loved and celebrated. How about every home? City? Country? Imagine.

If you have the opportunity to attend, support or even just go to the website, I strongly encourage each and every one of you to do something to promote this lifestyle, to live, and BE the change.

About the Writer

icanluvulongtime is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on The Walking Wounded

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By Glenn T on February 29, 2008 at 12:09 am

Wow.  Just wow.  I kindof want to come find you and slap you silly for making me get all misty-eyed sitting by myself in Starbucks... and then I realized that I "crossed the line" a few times myself while reading - found myself making the "I love you" sign under my little table ... and then I guess I don't feel bad at all about the tear that's running down my cheek. 

One word for this piece: moving.

Wish they had six stars.

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By john robertson on June 08, 2008 at 03:04 am

I remember something like Challenge Day when I was a kid in HS. It felt great to actually get all warm and mushy with some of the hip kids, since  I was one of those inbetweeners. You know the type; I was liked by some of the hipsters, some of the stoners, some of the nerds, yadda, yadda... So yeah, we all confessed our regrets to each other, and revealed our hopes and fears, and we played trust exercises like falling backwards into our partner's arms... you know the drill. We left vowing to be changed forever, and to never let this feeling go... and then we went back to school and filled the same empty spaces; still warm and waiting for us, back into our clicks. Well, they went back to their clicks- I just continued to be a click gypsy. What can I say? It's hard to walk around feeling that good all the time. After all, we're only human. However, it is good to remember that we are sometimes capable. It reminds us of what we have  to lose.

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