there I stood with the other unmoving adults as all the seventh graders shuffled to the other side of the blue line, turning back to face us. Adults on one side and children on the other. What are they thinking about in this moment? I really wanted to know. They were looking at us. And we were looking at them. And it was silent.
“Thank you,” Michelle announced. “You may now cross back.”
She continued with many other statements. “Cross the line if you have ever been teased or bullied by someone in this room...Cross the line if you have ever been oppressed because of the color of your skin or your ethnicity or religion...Cross the line if you or anyone you know has ever committed or attempted to commit suicide.”
My students, my kids. My colleagues.
“Cross the line if you or members of your family have been a victim of drug or alcohol addiction,” I heard Michelle call out.
I stared at the blue tape I was supposed to be crossing. Some students and adults had already began crossing. And then I felt a hand grasp mine. I looked up and saw that it was a colleague from my team. She held my hand. And we crossed the blue line together and turned back to face the many students who had remained.
With tears spilling down my face, I looked up and saw seventy-some seventh graders looking into my eyes—arms outstretched and pointed toward me, hands angled and raised into the I love you sign. I scanned their faces. I really looked at them. Their round eyes were crowned with eyebrows of concern. And empathy. And love.
I looked at the students around me who had crossed the line also. And we silently and knowingly hugged each other. I am not alone, I understood. I hoped that my students were experiencing the same insight.
As students and adults crossed for various statements that applied to them, a literal line showed us all that we are never alone. That there are others who are undergoing the same experiences as us. That there are those on the other side who, though they are not experiencing the same pain, are there with arms extended, offering love. That sometimes you don’t realize the situations that people are in. That sometimes we make judgments without really knowing the full story.
Imagine what it would be like to know, as a seventh grader, that you are not alone. I doubt any adult would deny how desperately important that knowledge would have been in our own middle school years.
Bringing It Home
Later in the day, we had opportunities to connect with members of the large group again. This time, it wasn’t for playing games and being silly. It was for embracing others, supporting one another, and making apologies if needed.
With barely any hesitation, I knew what I had to do. Within moments, I found the student I was after, and I looked into his eyes. “Um,” I started, draped with a combination of shame and awkwardness. “I need to apologize to you.” I looked into his eyes and apologized for the other week when I had lost my patience with him in our class. I explained how even if his behavior was a little less than desirable, he didn’t deserve my shortness. I explained that I would never want to make a student feel badly, but that I knew that day I had. And I asked for his forgiveness.
At one point during this segment of Challenge Day, I saw one of my colleagues sitting with a student, embracing him. I won’t forget this. This student has had a really tough year in his personal life. And they sat there together not even talking. Just embracing. Because sometimes our students—our kids—have devastating lives, and they need to know that people care about them.
Before the day was over, the most important component of Challenge Day unfolded. “A man named Gandhi once led an entire nation of people to independence and freedom,” Ev declared, “and he said we must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Ev and Michelle explained that it’s not enough to notice what really goes on in the halls and classrooms of Brady. They explained that it’s about choosing to act in a way that makes a positive difference. It’s about being the change that needs to happen.
And so, Challenge Day may in fact live up to its reputation: Everyone cries. A lot.
But it’s not about the crying and the tears and the—count them—225 knotted and snotted tissues left on the gymnasium floor at the end of the day. It’s about something so much more important than that. It’s about affecting real change. It’s about learning to love one another—flaws and all. It’s about learning what empathy is and having the courage to feel someone’s sorrow or joy right along with them. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and being brave enough to do exactly what teenage brains are hardwired not to initially do: Stand out, go against the grain, and do things simply because they’re right—even when no one else is. And yes, doing that all at the risk of appearing a little different from the rest.
And that’s the challenge.
As the students left for the day, their moods were soaring. Everyone seemed so happy, and there was a lot of laughter. Somebody in my small group even said, “Why don’t we do this more often? Things are going to be so different after Challenge Day.”
I smiled and gave him a high five.