The Challenge of Challenge Day
Written by Lee McClain
Edited by Staci Vincent***
When my seventh grade students ask me what Challenge Day is in the months leading up to February, I always turn the question back to them. “What do you think it is? What have you heard about it?” And, always, I am met with an assortment of answers—valuable scraps of tribal knowledge passed down from the upperclassman who have, in their wisdom and age, transferred to their younger counterparts Everything You Need to Know to Survive Seventh Grade. Woven within each wisp of the Challenge Day rumors is one prevailing fact whose significance somehow dominates all other Challenge Day facts: On Challenge Day, everyone cries. A lot.
Although I won’t refute that all important detail, I think my students would agree that, having finally experienced this day, it is so much more than a day where “everyone cries a lot.”
Sure, for some reason, the crying factor of the Challenge Day experience has an unbalanced presence in the retelling of the day and its reputation among students.
But, bear with me. I have an answer for why that may be.
Perhaps it’s not the crying that is so utterly magnitudinous—such that students include it as the defining repute of the day. Perhaps it’s the reason for the crying that forges the true Challenge Day legacy.
Challenge Day from a Teacher’s Perspective
Each grade level at Brady Middle School is divided into two teams. All of the seventh graders from Team A experienced Challenge Day on Tuesday, while Team B participated on Wednesday. The teachers from each team help to facilitate the event along with many other adult volunteers whose presence make the day possible, including administrators, parents, board members, and community members.
A seventh grade teacher myself, I gathered with the other Team A teachers and adult volunteers in the gymnasium early Tuesday morning to learn about our role from the two Challenge Day program facilitators: Ev and Michelle.
Our foremost role, they explained, is to participate. This day would be as much about us being challenged and coming together as it would be for the students, they told us. At this, the veteran teachers nodded their heads. The newer teachers and volunteers exchanged glances across the circle we had made in the middle of the gym.
Ev and Michelle continued preparing us. Be active, play the games, participate, be engaged, they beckoned us. If the teachers feel too awkward to dance to One Direction and Taylor Swift, if the teachers feel too uncomfortable to let loose, if the teachers feel too self-conscious to cheer and yell wildly during applause times, the students would surely pick up on it, Ev and Michelle pointed
out. And the icebreaker component of the day, they continued, is the critical foundation off of which the rest of the day would be built. It’s all about breaking down the don’t-you-dare-embarrass-me exterior that every seventh grader would inevitably come in with.
Tilting my head, I considered a few of my colleagues as Ev and Michelle continued with the morning meeting. I wondered how uncomfortable this stuff would be for my colleagues. We are so used to wearing our Official Teacher Hats in school. We all thrive on our relationships with our students, and we care so deeply about them. I think that’s truer at Orange than at almost any other school.
Yet there is still a certain invisible line that exists in our profession.
The line says you are a student; you belong on that side of the line. I am a teacher; I belong on this side of the line. And these two young, Californian Challenge Day reps are trying to obscure that line. Don’t they know that come tomorrow, we will be in our classrooms again though? Back to academics? I knew the thought was lingering in more minds than just mine.
Let the Games Begin...
Our morning meeting was over, and it was time for the 90 seventh graders from Team A to join us in the gymnasium. The adults, standing in two close parallel lines, made an entrance tunnel through which the students would have to travel as they piled into the gym. Not just any entrance tunnel. This was an extremely loud, pulsing-with-energy, wild-with-joy entrance tunnel.
Many of the students, who I had predicted would get a kick out of seeing their teachers offering fist bumps and high fives, cheering for them, and even singing along to the hip young-person soundtrack blaring in the background, were entirely underwhelmed with the entrance tunnel. They did their best to not make eye contact with a single adult as they were forced through what they surely perceived as the Awkward Tunnel of Teachers Trying to be Cool and Welcoming.
I personally received a few pity high fives from students who couldn’t bear to see their language arts teacher left hanging as she was clearly attempting to dance to the latest Bruno Mars tune while cheering for the entering kids.
And thus the morning began. Loud music, teachers acting in strange ways students hadn’t ever seen, and awkward avoidance at all costs by the seventh graders for whom this day was entirely created.
Not even ten minutes later though, Ev and Michelle, the likable and cool Challenge Day program facilitators, had somehow won over this roomful of angst-laden teenagers. I can’t believe how much the tone has already changed...from utter avoidance to sheer excitement, I reflected, mindlessly chewing my lip and studying the room. I was still feeling a little sheepish for my entrance tunnel flamboyance.
Breaking Down the Barriers
Little by little, the students became enthusiastic and eager to participate in the games and icebreaker activities—all designed to wear down the too-cool-for-being-real façade that every seventh grader learns to don. I found myself running—er, panting and sweating while attempting to lope—around the gym with the students in the Give as Many Hugs as You Can competition. At one point, I partnered with a student, linking arms, back-to-back, while we had to dance to some zippy pop song. We must have looked so ridiculous. But then again, so did the other hundred people in the gym who were also linking arms, back-to-back.
And somehow, my tension and anxiety about being goofy and real in front of my seventh graders started to dissipate (and trust me, I’m already goofier than the average teacher). Okay, I thought, I can do this. I can let go of my apprehension and uneasiness. It shows the students that they can too.
Dropping the Water Line
After a morning of games and icebreakers that, well, broke the ice, it was time to break out of our comfort zones and move into the heavy part of the day. Cue the waterworks. Ev and Michelle shared some stories about their lives. And I’ll tell you one thing. That’s the quietest a room full of ninety seventh graders ever has been.
“If you really knew me,” Michelle began, “then you would know...". She continued on quietly, trusting our pledge to keep her confidences safe.
I could feel tears pricking my eyes, threatening to escape down my temples as she told her story. But I made a decision at that point to be okay with my students possibly seeing me cry. After all, does the teacher-student line have to mean that we can’t be human in front of one another? And so, I cried for Michelle. Right there in front of my students. For a stranger I had only known for three hours. But empathy, I thought, might not be such an embarrassing thing to demonstrate.
We eventually broke into our “small family groups”—one adult with three or four students. We sat in circles in the gym, pushing our chairs really close together so that our knees even touched. This was the “If You Really Knew Me” component of Challenge Day—the namesake of the MTV reality/documentary show based on the Challenge Day program. And what is said in the small family groups stays in the small family groups. Safety and trust is paramount.
In my group, I had to go first. We were each to spend exactly two minutes sharing, stripping down our thickly coated veneers, revealing our tender unmasked selves.
“If you really knew me,” I whispered shakily. What should I say? These are my students. I can’t be TOO real, can I? What are the boundaries here?
“If you really knew me,” I repeated. I’m going for it. I’m going for it. I think it’s okay to be real here.
"If you really knew me,” I echoed for a third time, “then you would know that I grew up going to Orange. If you really knew me, you would know I didn’t fit in with the average Orange kid, and I sometimes felt like an outsider. If you really knew me, you would know that my family didn’t have money.
That I grew up in an apartment building infested with cockroaches. That I grew up with a single parent--my dad. That when I was in sixth grade, my entire life changed because my dad chose a life of drugs over us. He was gone all the time, and he had become so distant, so empty. If you really knew me, you would know that when I went to Brady, my teachers gave me money for lunch every day that I never repaid. You would know that I have desperately wanted to teach at Orange for as long as I can remember because this is home to me, and I want to be the kind of teacher who is there for all my students but especially for my students who have to go through tough times.”
When I was finished, the four students in my small group hugged me.
One by one, we shared our “if you really knew me” stories. After each person shared, we thanked them and hugged them. We didn’t offer advice or solutions. We just listened.
And right there, in the middle of the gymnasium at Brady Middle School, my heart
splintered into a thousand aching pieces for the pain of my students. My kids.And you know what? Their hearts broke for one another.
They cared about one another.
Have I mention they weren’t in groups with their friends? They were in groups with random peers who might not ever even normally talk to one another on a daily basis. And they cared about one another.
Crossing the Line
As the day progressed, it finally became time for “Cross the Line”—one of the most
sobering and impacting components of the entire Challenge Day experience. In this segment, the entire roomful of people stands silently behind a line made of blue masking tape on the gym floor. Michelle and Ev read statements, and if it applies to you, you cross the line and stand vis-à-vis with the people who did not cross the line. The entire activity is done in complete silence.
So Michelle began reading. “Cross the line if you are under eighteen years old.” And
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.
###Click here to view the entire photo album from Challenge Day
from both Teams A & B.
((***Editor's note: Lee McClain is a seventh grade Language Arts teacher at Brady Middle School. This is her second year participating as a facilitator for Challenge Day. This marks Brady's fifth year incorporating the Challenge Day program. To ensure the confidentiality and privacy of each individual, no photographs were taken during the 'Cross the Line' event. Photos incorporated at that part of the story are from other events throughout the program. Thanks to Lee McClain for her candor in sharing her experience with us.))