Nonprofit 'Challenge Day' teaches students acceptance, not to bully

A couple weeks ago, I was honored to be asked to join in Oxford High School's Challenge Day.

What is Challenge Day,  you may ask? For me, I think it is the most successful anti-bullying program I have ever seen.

Challenge Day lasted for three six-hour days with about 100 students attending each day (with the incentive of getting out of classes for the day).

I asked off work and spent a whole day at Oxford High School. All the "adult" volunteers (although I kept being mistaken for a high school student) broke off into groups with about five students each. We went around in a circle and had two minutes to talk without interruption. And, let me tell you, I didn't realize how long two minutes could be when talking about yourself. And not only talking about yourself but about your secrets and most painful experiences.

While going around the circle, all the students started off with the statement, "If you only knew me, you would know that…" None of the people in the circles were friends (and if anyone paired up randomly were friends, they were separated).

A football player with broad shoulders admitted that, through middle school, he was made fun of and didn't have many friends. Just looking at him, I never would have guessed that. But that's what Challenge Day was about -- learning not to judge others based on the way they look.

Before Challenge Day, the students in my group had only passed by one another in the hall. Afterward, they were giving each other hugs.

Another thing I saw that was absolutely remarkable -- that I've never seen at a school before -- was students actually crying in front of one another. To me, there is nothing braver than letting someone see you cry. And there's nothing more freeing to be able to cry in front of one hundred of your classmates and have them accept you. I wish I could have felt that way at my high school.

Hands down the most powerful exercise was called “Cross the Line.” This was the last exercise of the day. Students and volunteers lined up in the school gym and, without talking, were asked questions such as, “Have you ever tried to take your life or know anyone who has?” or “Has your family ever had financial problems?” or “Do you live in a neighborhood where you hear gun shots outside your home?”

Those who answered “Yes” to these questions would step forward and turn around to face the other students. Students’ eyes filled with tears as they stepped forward or learned about the difficulties their fellow classmates faced.

One of the most heartbreaking questions was who had ever been in foster care. And, to my surprise, about 10 of the students (which is 10 % of the attendees) answered, "Yes."  And I could see the surprise of the fellow students as their eyes grew wide in response.

Students who crossed the line would look back to see their fellow students displaying the sign language for “I love you.”

I feel like so many stereotypes are held against today's youth. I have heard teenagers of the 21st century described as "lazy" and ignorant." Challenge Day proved that this stereotype is anything but true.

Read my story for The Oakland Press about this: Oxford High School students join together in Challenge Day.

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