We asked Andrew Hogg, Leigh High School parent and volunteer, to give us his impressions of Challenge Day at Leigh, and what he personally experienced during these emotional and eye-opening workshops. He wrote the following:
Leigh hosted two “Challenge Days” in October, allowing 60+ students per day to spend an intensive 6 hours learning to have more empathy and compassion for each other, and to take that learning back into the school and improve the environment for everyone. As a Leigh parent, I had the opportunity to participate as a so-called “adult”. The two days I spent with 120 or so Leigh students, from Freshman to Senior, was eye-opening to say the least.
Challenge Day is a nationally recognized program with almost 30 years of experience, and 1.5 million past participants, based around an emotionally and socially challenging day of sharing, introspection, singing and dancing and, yes, lots of hugging! All with the intent of allowing students to see that they all have common challenges – from social insecurities, to educational pressures, to family dynamics and more. And through those common challenges, to understand that in this day of ubiquitous social media, and the idea that everyone else’s life is “better”, that we are in fact all more alike than we are different, and that we all have our own personal “challenges” in life.
The first few hours we participated in exercises focused on breaking down barriers and getting the kids loose and comfortable. High fives, jumping up and down, dancing, huddling in groups to share experiences, listening to humorous (but real) stories from the two group leaders, and yes, learning how to hug properly! No shoulder bumps, or side hugs – this is old school hugging (with permission of course!).
The second half is when the real work occurs, with the students randomly assigned to adults, across grades, into groups of 5 of 6 – no friends allowed. Several small-group exercises are used to share personal background and challenges. Of those, “If you knew me, you’d know…” is an excellent example of the small group sessions and the impact they had. Through it we saw that some outwardly successful and happy kids lived with overbearing parents and stifling pressure to perform – athletically and academically – and were terrified to fail. We saw that some “normal” looking kids had parents in jail, or parents who were non-functioning alcoholics or parents that were just absent on all levels. We saw kids who had dead siblings, were living in foster care, or have life-altering personal medical issues. The list seemed to go on and on. Who knew what so many of these kids had to deal with on a day-to-day basis!
And all of this was just the warm up, leading into the main event of the day: the very solemn “Crossing the Line” activity. Basically a “cross the line if you have… (enter “experienced one of many hostile acts” here)”. Lots of crying. Lots of holding hands. Lots of hugging. Many words of encouragement. Kids agape at what other kids they had known for years were crossing the line for! The realization that everyone crossed the line for multiple reasons – none of them fun. The realization that there is “image” and there is “reality”. And that the two are often very far apart. And from this the realization that we all need to be far more empathetic, and far more real. Not “How ya doin’” as you pass, but “How are you doing”, asked sincerely and with the time and energy to stop and listen. And to hear and to at least try to understand and to hopefully lighten the load.
At the end of it all, one comment summed it up best at the end of the day. Nothing earth-shattering. Just a participating school counselor who acknowledged that she had no idea all the challenges so many kids were facing, and that she felt she herself had been part of the problem, focusing on grades and AP classes and college acceptance while forgetting about the human aspect. She made a commitment to change, as did we all.
As a parent and a youth sports coach, a classroom volunteer from elementary school through high school, and someone who thought he had a pretty good pulse on kids, it was eye-opening in the extreme. I truly did not respect and appreciate the level of stress today’s kids have to deal with – stress that is magnified by social media and pressurized by the relentless demand from society to “succeed”. I’m going to bet that most parents, like me, don’t have a good grasp of what their kids are really experiencing. My take away? We should all take the opportunity – with our kids, their friends, and our own friends and colleagues – to stop and ask, “How are you doing?” and to really listen to, and hear, the answer.