Most days of our lives we just flow through. We go to work, we eat, we interact, we sleep. Of course there are rainbow smiley days and the thundery heartache days. And then every so often there are days that hit you as if a Giant Sequoia has timbered on your poor helpless body, knocking you off your feet- leaving you breathless and concerned that you might not be able to recover. But then out of the blue there is a special day tucked into the frequency of life that has been arranged especially for you. A day that alters the course of your life in such a positively dramatic fashion that you are never the same again. It's as if the universe quickly yanks off a layer of the human shell as would a magician to a tablecloth on a fully set table. This I have recently been given the opportunity to experience, and by writing about it I get to re-live it yet again, and hopefully send the vibration your way that that will open your heart to the positive rhythm that is humming through life right now.
On October 20th 2011 I participated in Challenge Day, an event at Palos Verdes High School that not only drastically changed how I view my role as a teacher, but also altered my perspective on the kind of person I want to be in this world. I was challenged to take on the philosophy of Gandhi and “Be the change I want to see in the world." I thought skeptically, “how am I possibly going to “be that change" after spending an entire day in a gymnasium with 150 students?" Well, I did change, along with every other person present.
I agreed to participate since I would get a day off from teaching, but mostly because Kristen, the gal organizing the event, promised me, "Ann believe me, this is right up your alley." (Thanks Kristen, you were right!) I was unaware that I would actually walk in one version of myself and walk back out a changed being. The vision for the Challenge Day was for every child to live in a world where they feel safe, loved and celebrated.
Sounded good. I was in.
During the 45minute introduction for the teachers and staff who were taking part (including the custodian and principal) we were told that we needed to have high energy and be excited all day to help motivate the kids. Kristen suggested that prior to the assembly I might want to get a Starbucks Venti with 3 shots. Really? What was I getting myself into?
We were told that we'd need to dance continuously for the first 3 hours and every time they asked the students, “Do you want to play a game?" we'd have to jump up and down and scream like it was the most exciting idea on earth. Since I'm not really the cheerleading type, this intro didn't leave me all too thrilled for the rest of the day. They pumped the speakers with classic 80's and 90's tunes so we adults could fine-tune our rusty dance moves prior to the kids entering at 8:00a.m. (Yes, and doing the running man to
MC Hammer at 7:45 am along side the principal is quite odd) Time was allotted to practice our animated response multiple times to the “Do you want to play a game?" request. By the time we were done learning about how we were supposed to act for the next 6 hours I was ready to sneak out the back door.
Finally 150 kids poured into the gym passing through our cheering tunnel of adults as we high fived them, danced like crazy people, and whooped it up. The students seemed shocked and confused to see us acting so joyful and goofy, and I'm sure it was a sight to see the custodian dancing, who is usually racing around campus in his red cart annoyed at students for leaving their trash around for him to clean up. Over the next few hours we danced, and danced, and danced some more. The most popular up beat songs were blasted from large speakers as two Challenge Day facilitators led us through non-stop, animated and ridiculous “ice-breakers" to get us to all feel a bit more comfortable with one another.
We played 150 person musical chairs, lip synced songs standing face to face, we hooked arms back to back with a partner and danced, which is incredibly weird no matter how you do it. I was matched with the center on the football team whose butt snugly rested in the small of my back as we danced to Justin Timberlake's “ Back." Yes, awkward. Next I led a dance train of over 25 kids, then I was the bottom of over a dozen people sitting on my lap as we pretended we were on an imaginary roller coaster. They played sitting volleyball with a gigantic orb, and that's just to name a few.
Not only was it a dance party but it was a hug fiesta too. We were instructed to hug, hug and hug some more. We were challenged to embrace as many people as we could in 60 seconds and then were instructed on how to give a really good hug, which we were required to practice liberally. The good vibes were flowing and it was wild, entertaining and more fun than I've had in a long time. I found myself 3 hours into the event standing on a chair getting a serious groove on to Lady Gaga while I shouted out like I had won the lottery. When they asked if we wanted to play a game I found myself pumping my fists while doing a football quick step, then squiggling my body up in the air, yelping like a giddy puppy. It felt like we were all under a spell of pure, authentic joy and I was really getting into it.
Once the guard was down it was time to inject our hearts and our minds with the Challenge Day philosophy. They talked about separation, isolation and loneliness being enormous challenges for any human being but for young people, these feelings can be devastating to physical and mental health, which often leads many down the paths of self-harm, addiction, bullying or violence. For many students living under these conditions, academic learning becomes virtually impossible. What causes separation, this profound feeling of loneliness and isolation that so many of our adolescents struggle with daily? The answer is simple....FEAR. What if the solution to the challenges of separation, isolation and loneliness was as simple as taking a couple of minutes each day to connect with those people around us? Students are surrounded by others constantly, usually spending more time with their peers and teachers than with their own families. Often, we simply don’t take the time to foster genuine connection with those around us. This they were going to challenge us to do during the course of the day along with taking a look at the behaviors in others which we consciously choose to ignore, like seeing someone else getting bullied and doing nothing about it. Notice, Choose, Act was the three word slogan to remind kids to take responsibility for not just their own well-being, but others too.
The two facilitators told personal stories about difficult challenges they faced in their lives. I, along with many others got a little emotional when the leader Chris told about his gentle and loving grandmother who raised him, and then painfully described how she was hit by a drunk driver. The few tears that came from Chris's story were only to be just droplets in the rivers of tears that would flood the room later that day.
They told us about the iceberg metaphor- how most of us show what is above the water line, which is about 10% of who we really are. We don't expose the other 90% for fear of being vulnerable or looking a certain way that's not accepted. They challenged us to lower our waterline and reveal our authentic selves. It was described as if we have a balloon inside and if we stuff how we feel and don't communicate and genuinely share what we are going through, then the balloon gets bigger and bigger and we act out because we don't know how to handle what we are feeling inside. I could certainly relate to the balloon metaphor from my days in high school and post college where mine transformed from an innocent animal-twisty balloon to a wildly wreckless run-away hot air balloon, eventually blowing up causing me (and the people around me) much pain and suffering. I didn't have any tools to deal with it back then (although I do today) and by this point in Challenge Day I was completely hooked on their spiel and wanted to know more about how they planned to help these kids feel safe, loved and celebrated. I felt a twinge of envy that I had never been given the opportunity these students were getting and how possibly it could have changed the course of my own life.
We were then paired up for multiple, quick activities where we shared personal stories of fear, embarrassment, sadness and joy. I spent my lunch with one of my current students whom I already had judgements about prior to Challenge Day. I had the opportunity to listen to her fears but also her future hopes and dreams and share with her my own.
Next, we were efficiently orchestrated into functional groups of an adult and five students and were guided to complete the sentence, “If you really knew me, you'd know...." This was where the real miracle started to spread through the gym to take hold on the hearts of each person present. Boxes of Kleenex were well arranged around the room as the tears commenced. I was touched to discover that most of the teens in my group had parents who were rarely home and who put suffocating pressure on them to succeed, but gave them little support in doing so. Even an uber-cool surfer kid in my group emotionally opened up about feeling that no one loved him. Every single student in my group expressed feeling unloved, unheard and alone. This exchange really had an impact personally because it's easy for me to see on the outside that most of the kids at our school have what they want materially and somehow I had overlooked that maybe they didn't have what they needed emotionally. They certainly did a good job of covering it up- or as they say at Challenge Day- they had raised the waterline so others couldn't see how they really felt.
Our group bonded over their common suffering, which they seemed to find solace in realizing that they weren't the only ones. Hugs were generously given and a connection formed, which was also clearly taking place in the other twenty-five groups of five. The honesty, vulnerability, support and compassion was palpable.
Then it was time to "cross the line", one of the most powerful group activities I have experienced. I remembered seeing it done in the movie Freedom Writers, but this time I got to cross the line myself. We were taught the “I love you" hand gesture in sign language, which we were instructed to hold up for the those who crossed the line.
Cross the line if you have ever been bullied.
-For being tall
-For being small
-For being smart
-For the color of your skin
-For your religion
-For your sexual orientation
Cross the line if you have been abused.
Cross the line if the one who abused you was the same one who said they loved you.
Cross the line if someone you know has a problem with drugs or alcohol.
Cross the line if you have lost a parent.
Cross the line if you were adopted.
Cross the line if you or someone you know has tried to commit suicide.
Cross the line if you never had a childhood
The list went on. The tears flowed and the love and compassion swirled through the room as an actual entity in itself, caressing, soothing and wrapping itself around the hearts of all of us.
If I crossed the line I would wrap my arms around a student near me and look back at the others who had their I love you sign up and who were looking us all in the eyes with tears streaming down their faces. The tough football players cried, the science teacher cried, the trumpet player in the band cried, the math wiz cried, the star baseball pitcher cried. I cried. Everyone cried. I could feel the shift taking place. I saw the eyes of the kids who had been bullied, or abused or left out or unloved or had faced very difficult challenges in their life. There were so many of my current students and previous students whom I had made up stories or made assumptions about in my head. It suddenly all dissipated and I saw the real authentic images of love in each one.
Suddenly it seemed incredibly insensitive of me to harass my students when they didn't have their homework or to make an example of them if they were late, or say something that I think is witty when they're not doing what I want. This usually makes the student uncomfortable about themselves and creates an environment for others to laugh at him or her. I realized it would be important for me to re-evaluate my methods of discipline in the classroom and instead dig deep to become more sensitive and compassionate to what is going on behind whatever behavior is transpiring in class. Sometimes I act like Captain Windes, “All aboard my ship! I am in charge and if you don't abide by the Windes laws on this vessel you will walk the plank!" Over my eight years of teaching I've found it easier and more efficent to just have a set of rules that everyone has to follow equally without much flexibility. Having a standard for behavior is crucial, but I was starting to wonder if I was relying on a set of rules that didn't allow for a more human element. Of course I get, “the dog ate my homework" (yeah students still use that one) or “ my homework fell in the shredder." (got that last week) The list goes on. But I also get the kid who averts his eyes with a fallen face who, on day 3 of not doing his homework still has no reason why and I continue to give him a zero and roll my eyes at him. Could I take a moment to pull that kid after class and ask if they are okay? Sometime I get caught up in the idea that I am already doing SO much for kids and I am compassionate and I do listen and I do talk to kids after class and at lunch and after school. But perhaps there is room for more. If I truly want to be the change I want to see in the world it's going to take some extra effort. I'd like kids to feel listened to, and loved and valued and heard.
So what's that going to take?
By the last stage of Challenge Day hearts were open wide, waterlines were lowered, compassionate empathy intertwined each soul in the room and pulled everyone together as equals- not fractured as seperate entities like the cool kids, the band kids, the jocks, the emo's, the teachers, the drugies, the smarties.... we were One.
The final activity was for individuals to come up in front of the entire group of 150 and proclaim, "If you really knew me, you'd know.." As if we all weren't already a bit overwhelmed with the previous activities, this kicked it up to the final notch.
One boy, “Steve" bravely came to the microphone, “If you really knew me, you'd know that I've been bullied emotionally and physically since my first day at this school and I'm a senior now and no one has ever done anything to help me. I am now determined to not let this happen to anyone else and I will stand up for those who don't have a voice."
The crowd wildly applauded and put up their I love you's, as one boy stood up crying and came to the microphone.
“If you really knew me, you'd know that I bullied Steve since junior high and I even hit him a few times." He began to sob. "I am so insecure and I don't know who I am or how to act and I am scared most of the time. I think Steve's so brave and I am inspired by him and I will never bully another kid again. I am really sorry Steve." The two boys hugged.
Tears and cheers from the crowd.
A former student of mine who is extremely introverted came to the microphone. “If you really knew me, you'd know that every day I eat lunch in the bathroom stall because the one time I asked to sit with a group of girls they laughed at me."The Challenge Day facilitator asked the crowd who'd be willing to have lunch with her. The entire room jumped up raising their hands and most even got up on their chairs waving their arms that they volunteered. A rare smile stretched across her face as she saw the new support and inclusion that was flowing her way.
A current student of mine walked to the front of the gym. “If you really knew me, you'd know that I crossed the line for someone I know that has thought about suicide, and that someone was me. But after today I don't feel that way anymore. I know that is not the answer and feel there is hope for me." You could hear a pin drop, which was right before the thunderous applause and hollering and the onslaught of hugs and tears.
Goosebumps dotted my skin as the life-saving power of this assembly sunk in. These kids needed a voice. They needed to know someone cared. They needed to know they were not alone.
Then I got an idea.
It was as if a power greater than myself pulled at my heart and said, “Now is the time, little grasshopper." I started shaking and my heart accelerated knowing that, yes, I was really going to do it. More students went to the microphone of equal or greater intensity as the past few I described, but no teachers. Yet.
I was going to say it. Out loud.
I realized I had a chance to be real with the students. To lower my waterline. To help bridge the gap between adult and teenager, and especially to honor those brave students who chose to take the risk to reveal publicly very personal details about themselves.
Next thing I knew the microphone was in my hand and all eyes were on me.
Deep breath again.
Am I really going to do this?
"If you really knew me, you'd know...."
It seemed as if the crowd was leaning into me, waiting to see what that crazy Senorita Windes was going to say about herself.
“If you really knew me, you'd know that I am an recovering alcoholic and I have over 6 years of sobriety."
And then I started to cry. My teary faucet had already been tapped all day and was fresh and ready to keep on flowing. I caught myself before I got too emotional and said, “and if I would have had something like Challenge Day when I was your age I might have chosen a different path. I didn't have tools like you are learning today, or someone safe to talk to and instead I chose drugs and alcohol as the solution to my problems. My balloon popped many times over and over and I still didn't know how to change how I felt inside. Many of you know I run the drug and alcohol awareness program here on campus but I feel its important for me to lower my waterline so that you know that I understand and I have been there, so if there is anyone out there who is struggling with substance abuse, or you know someone who is, my door is always open and I am here to help." I started visibly shaking with tears streaking my face. Did I really just say that? Did I actually give up the anonymity that I used to guard so fiercely? What will they think? What will people say? What have I done? Why am I standing here crying in front of the Palos Verdes student body and staff....and the principal?
Then the applause began. The audience took to their feet offering me a standing ovation in support. Students rushed up to hug me. Staff members approached me teary-eyed and embraced me.
I exhaled and looked out to the crowd who now had their I love you fingers up, and I knew I had done the right thing. I am ready to be the change I want to see in the world, and that starts by taking a risk and putting myself out there. To share my experience, strength and hope with others, and to be a beacon of light.
So I now I challenge you to be the change you want to see in the world. What does that look like? How can you stretch yourself to be a more loving and compassionate human being? Take the risk to share more of who you really are - underneath “the waterline”. We could all work on deepening our relationships and on building intimacy through genuine connection, which helps us find real freedom. We get to experience the freedom to be ourselves, to embrace our full humanity and to live our lives 100% fully alive. So what's it going to take?
Let's start with this....
“What would I know if I really knew you?”
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog
Peace and blessings
Note: all pictures are borrowed from www.challengeday.org