It’s 7:30am, biologically too early for any teenager to be up, and close to a hundred of us, students of all shapes and sizes file into the auditorium, clad with nametags. Immediately, the instinct that started back in grade school takes over. Some of us sit alone with our thoughts, wondering what the next seven hours of Challenge Day will bring; others pair up and sit with friends in little pockets around the room. There’s a pack of students that gathers in the back of the auditorium and takes ownership of most of the energy and the volume. The rest of us sit on the periphery.
When we’re called, we walk with varying levels of enthusiasm to the gymnasium, and through a tunnel of high-fives. The adults do the same; there’s the mom-teacher that jumps up and down to every single one of our hundred student faces, and others who look a little ambivalent with their decision to be there.
We take seats in a giant circle and our Challenge Day leaders, Jyoti and Schan, welcome us. Jyoti has the feisty fire and the kind of in-your-face boldness that makes up for her size. Half Indian, half Jewish, she has dark skin and hair with wild grays to match her dramatic facial expressions. Schan acts as her opposite—a big-boned gentle giant. Booming voice, teddy bear presence.
Both Jyoti and Schan wear bold red shirts with the words “Be the Change…” in curvy yellow letters on their backs, echoing back to Ghandi’s famous words “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Change happens outside the comfort zone,” Schan explains to us, stepping out of a box made of blue tape on the gym floor. Before we can tackle the idea of “being the change,” we have to stir things up.
We spend the entire day with no cell phones, limited contact with the friends we walked in with, and busy with crazy activities.
We all, students and adults alike, dance. A lot. Funky chicken. Jersey-Shore fist-bumping. Do-Si-Do.
“Dance like I know you do when no one’s home, and you’re in the kitchen, and you just gotta move,” Schan tells us, showing us some of his best moves.
The room participates in an educational presentation on the different types of hugs, from the chest-bumps and the feathery girl hugs, to the real hugs. A lightning round of sloppy embraces commences, shaking those barriers put in place at the beginning of the day in the auditorium.
We bullet out of our seats in the circle in a mad scramble to grab a seat across the room, slamming into each other, bouncing off of people we barely glanced at in the halls. We play cheeks-on-the-floor volleyball with a ginamous beach ball, screaming for steals while the adults dance around us, our cheerleaders with goofy body jerks and head bobs.
And then it’s time to get real.
Jyoti talks to us about Man Boxes and Be-A-Lady Flowers. About the expectations of toughness in boys and men; don’t cry, suck it up, don’t feel, just do. Be-a-Lady Flowers look like the expectations of what to say, what to wear, how to style our hair, what to cover up, how to be.
She tells us how her father expected her to be like the girls he saw in India, the country he came from. He wanted to tame her, and for a long time she just wasn’t good enough for him. She tells us how in school, a boy she liked told her “You’re too brown for me.” A quiet and collective gasp breathes over all of us.
Schan, our big teddy bear, tells us of his teddy bear named Boo-Boo. How it’s one of the few things his mom gave to him. How much he loves her. How when he was four, she became a statistic by mixing pneumonia medication with alcohol in a tragic accident.
He tells us how his mother passed away and members of his family did their best to suppress her memory. He tells us how much that broke his heart. Our teddy bear Schan, tells us how he fought through his high school days, the tough kid. How much he misses his mom. How he loves talking about her.
All around the room the sign language sign for “I love you” shoots up. A silent salute to Schan, to Jyoti. A silent demonstration of love and support.
Those unfamiliar with the meaning of the sign, maybe confused it something used at a rock concert, knew its love by the end of the day. Every one of us turned to face a sea of them during the famous Crossing the Line challenge.
In complete silence, participants stood on one side of the gym and crossed a line of blue tape every time a statement applied to their lives. Participants that crossed the line were to then turn around and face those that stayed behind.
“Please cross the line if you’ve ever felt hurt or judged because of the color of your skin.”
A crowd of people cross, all different shades of skin color. I’m reminded of my French teacher’s assertion that we’re not black or white, but different flavors of ice cream. Vanilla Bean and Mocha Caramel.
“Please cross the line if you’ve ever felt alone, unwelcome, or afraid here at school.”
All those days away from the lunchroom. A refugee in a teacher’s classroom. I cross.
“Please cross the line if you or someone you love has an illness or has died due to the use of tobacco products.”
My grandmother smiling through her oxygen cannula. I cross.
Please cross the line if you or someone you love has been hurt or killed by the use of alcohol or drugs. If you’ve ever been teased or hurt because somebody thought you were fat, or too big. If an immediate family member has died. If your parents are separated or divorced. If you have been affected by cancer.
The love signs shoot up, a sea of hearts reaching out to lift up our brothers and sisters. Hands placed on shoulders. Embraces. Tears and red faces. Stone cold expressions.
Physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual wrongs, hurtful names, stereotypes, deaths, illnesses, homelessness, financial crises, isolation, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence, betrayals, losses, fights, words like knives. Scars.
Scars that require us to lift up our skin and show the most vulnerable parts of ourselves—here are the cards I’ve been dealt, here’s what you’d know if you really knew me. Scars that we share with the people we crossed the line with. Scars that the people we crossed with gave to us.
“Everywhere we’ve been, all across the country, across the world, we have not met one bad kid,” Jyoti tells us. “Not one. Science tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be moved. We haven’t met any bad kids, just kids who’ve had bad stuff done to them that redirect that energy to someone else.”
The activity ends and we sit with our family groups—a small three- or four-person group headed by an adult. Our knees touch. We exchange scars, talk about the things that don’t get talked about. And we just listen to each other. We hold hands like in prayer. We hug.
Open-mic time takes up the rest of the day. One student tells the gymnasium how hard things have been for her, choking up. Fifty people stand up and surround her in a group hug.
A slew of apologies come up, but it’s not just about apologizing, Schan and Jyoti remind us. It’s about change. It’s about being the change. You take away a bad action, you gotta add a good one. Take away the hurt, but work on the mend.
“From now on, I’ll stand up for you,” one girl says to another.
“The other kids in our school didn’t experience what we did today,” one student says. “We have to teach it to them.”
“We don’t have to let this just become a Challenge Day,” says another student. “We can make it a Challenge Year—a Challenge Life.”
“We can’t wait around for Superman to come in and fix things,” Schan tells us. He starts naming off historical figures—MLK, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi, all figures that saw a lack of love in the world and worked to change it with just that: Love.
We have to be that change.