I did something last week I hadn’t done in the last eight years as an educator. It was called Challenge day. And before the end of the day, there I was, with tears down my cheeks, revealing very personal information to four students who sat knee to knee to me, in a family group. I had another student rubbing my back, and in that moment, my head warm from the memories of what I was describing, and getting hugs from these students who really weren’t students any more, not now, not in the middle of all of this, not after what we shared with one another.
People talk about barriers being broken, where stuff like class, race, gender, level of power, drop, but this is the first time I’ve truly experienced it. It was like that scene in The Breakfast Club where six or seven students spend the whole day in Saturday detention and they are all different but by the end of the day everyone’s barrier has fallen, and they are all friends, united if only for that one afternoon. You move forward from it different than you were before. Whether or not those relationships continue isn’t the point—it’s the fact that it happened. And if it happens once, there, with those people, then it can happen anywhere, with anyone.
The day started off with me knowing a little bit about how intense it was going to get, but still not sure about just how intense this little day out of teaching might be. I knew I was in for a heavy day, and standing there with the other adults, next to the school principal, was a bizarre sort of anticipation, with both of us kind of knowing what was in store for us by the end of the day, at at the same time having no idea.
The adults had a meeting about what would happen, and we got a basic run down on how the day was going to play out. We were to stand in a line, two lines on either side of the gym doors. We were to jump, dance, go crazy, just like that, go crazy.
Faking it was the thing I just couldn’t do in High School. But fake it I did, fake it as an act of defiance; to not be the kind of person that stands idly by with my hands in my pockets, like my sophomore year of High School, wandering around the halls looking for anything but another person, looking for an idea, or an author, or a musician to take me away from myself—the person in my mind who’d been trained to tell me I was never going to be good enough, no matter what I did.
1990. I’m sixteen, Eating my lunch as fast as I can, so I can spend most of my lunch reading in the library. I’m shoveling a sandwich down, sitting at a table by myself. Two students walk up to me, trying to get me to talk. They know about my stutter, they want a little lunchtime theater. I try to talk to them, open my mouth, try to wrestle the beast of my tongue into making sounds. Somewhere during this. I spit out a bit of my bread while trying to talk, the same word slammed into repeat, my tongue dead in the roof of my mouth.
Then laughter, just laughter up and loud and all around full in my ear. The jittery reel of a porky pig cartoon. Abedee-Abedee-That’s all folks. The two kids say.
Fast forward twenty four years later and there we were, me in the middle, me an adult and four student family. Me who has a family of my own, two daughters, four and two, a guy with a wife, a car and a job, sitting there like I’m sixteen years old and stuttering and feeling like I did that day in the cafeteria listening and hugging these students on either side of me, front and left and back and right, close eyes, all lean in for group huddle.
If it sounds like touchy feely crap, that’s kind of the point. Jyoti, one of the Challenge Day leaders, said that infants need a specific amount of physical contact to stay alive. Not just for happiness, but to feel alive. She said that the reason we all sat knee to knee, while we all sat in chairs pushed together knee to knee, this physical closeness was not for me, not for Mom and Dad and me and sis even though we got our problems. It was for the kids that don’t have a family.
A family, a childhood, the line, the whole crossing the line thing. Schan the other Challenge Day leader talked about crawling up next to his mom when he was four, and hugging what would overnight become her corpse and how the rest of his life up until that point he was trying to find a piece of her in everything. How he kept everything he ever got from her, and afterwards, the four of my family members in the gym talking about how that landed on all of us, in our own way. And people start crying the guy and girl and teacher and administrator, they all start crying, a room full of criers, brave, courageous criers letting barriers down in front of others and knowing they’ve got your back. Because when you are that close to someone proximity-wise, when you are touching knee to knee , you can’t ignore them.
In between all this stuff there were games, run like heck fire to a chair on the other side of a circle, play a game of humongo beach ball on the floor on either side of a row of chairs and not get off your butt game. Jump up and down to House of Pain’s Jump Around, and when I look down at my feet I don’t see the Doc Martens or Chuck Taylors of my youth, but a dress shirt bobbing up and down, maybe a gray hair in my periphery, yet here I am jumping, taller and freer and wilder than I ever have before.
And what will people remember me for when this day is over? Not my patience with the others, not the way it was hard to tell if I was a teacher or a student in the middle of all that crying, or even that I cried in front of many, many students, but the way I danced, good or bad or who knows when you are in the middle of the moment, but just that I was apparently not so self conscious in a moment when I was. They had no idea. That for me, dancing for me is to show weakness, to see the kid in the middle of the adult. I’ve been through tears before, but not dancing.
The scary thing was Crossing the Line. All of us, a hundred or so teachers, administrators, students all lined up on a purple line in the gym. A blue line of blue masking tape a few feet away, running parallel. This blue line was for stepping across whenever Challenge-er Jyoti called out a category that applied to you.
“Cross the line if you’ve ever been a victim of physical abuse from anyone.”
When you walk across the line, to the blue line, you have to turn around. You have to turn around and look at those on the other side.
“Cross the line if you have been the victim of emotional abuse.”
I’m standing there, Jyoti on the microphone the only voice in the room.
“What did it feel like for someone to tell you that, for them to have all of that power?”
And then, I’m back, in the eighties, in the view of my parent’s tile kitchen floor, the screaming the fights, it’s all there, but I’m not alone. There’s a hand on my shoulder. The person next to me. Whatever each person stands to cross the line for, there’s always someone else there. You are never alone.
“Cross the line if you have lost a loved one due to alcohol or drugs.”
I cross the line and think of friends. “Think what it was like to hug them.” Close my eyes and see her face there, in her Toyota one night in 1994. Another hand on my back.
“Cross the line if you’ve ever been homeless.”
The amount of students, their bodies stuck together, tears and red faces. No other sound, Jyoti on the mic and sobs from both sides of the line—The folks who’ve been there or not been there. The have and the have nots. Not one person alone, no matter what side we stood on.
“Cross the line if you think you’ve had a childhood.”
Most of the adults cross, I cross, but not all the students cross. Those left there, the look in their eyes, they’ve known things at 12 I’ve never known at 40. They are older than I am.
The day ends with a so now what. We’ve been here, we’ve partied, danced, acted like fools, now it’s time for how to fix this. To do what Ghandi said, and “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
The reckoning, and how it starts with one student standing up. Raises a hand, points at a student she spread rumors about, online.“You didn’t even know about it,” she says, “but I’m telling you today. I’m sorry.”
The breaking point, the hot enough a temperature, the fever break. One by one, more students voluntarily admit they insulted or spread rumors about a peer on Facebook They just couldn’t take it anymore, wanting to not feel the guilt of being the aggressor anymore. And it wasn’t just girls, but guys too, axes and grinds and beefs all brought to surface and addressed and hugged out.
And not just hugged out and false promises, but the specifics of now what? That’s what Challenge Day leader Schan says to everyone who’s apologizing. “What ‘s the change? How you are going to do it different next time?”
A few students get behind the microphone and make a rallying cry. One student says, “Let’s not make this a challenge day but a challenge year, a challenge life.”
The symbol we’ve been using all day, the sign language for love that prior to the start of the day to me was a rock-on symbol that one would display at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. But now it’s love. Love for showing up, love for sharing, loving for caring, love because I’m here for you, I’ve got your back. And once, towards the end of the day, the love signs just weren’t enough, and one person got hugged by fifty people at the same time.
When it’s over, when I’ve removed my name tag and am driving down SR 500 to the dealer to get an oil change, I can hear those voices, those tear filled eyes. I’ve never felt more proud of my school than on this day. Never more certain that teaching is the thing I am supposed to do, this kid in the middle of the adult, right here, right now.
Written by Mr. Strong
Images by Cody Calhoon