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Challenging the barriers between people

How often have you been teased by a classmate for being fat or short, wearing specs or braces, being too dark, or wearing certain kinds of clothes? Or, maybe you’ve laughed at someone for the way they look or the way they speak?

I’m sure these questions will make you pause and think of all the times you were hurt by someone else’s remarks, or innocently took part in teasing a friend or fellow student in school.

Now imagine being in a classroom with the very same kids who had a part to play in your misery, with a chance to stand up and acknowledge your hurt or apologise for your bad behaviour.

This, in a nutshell is what the programme Challenge Day, being conducted in schools across the United States, is all about. Challenge Day attempts to challenge young people to break the barriers that exist between them, whether they are based on race, class, creed or sex. 

So far, Challenge Day has travelled to 21 US states, and Canada. In the past 15 years, 235,300 teenagers have attended more than 2,300 Challenge Days.
The programme believes that separation, isolation and loneliness are the root causes of a wide range of teen issues like teasing, bullying, stereotyping, racism, violence, suicide, and the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

A typical Challenge Day in high school begins with students, teachers and organisers gathering in an auditorium and playing a few games to break the ice.

The students are then asked to move away from their group of friends and find someone who is different -- someone from a different ethnic group, age, sex, even a different hair colour. The students then have to confess something about themselves to their new friends. Something like: “If you really knew me, you would know that…”

“In those six minutes I learned more about a stranger than I knew about some of my closest friends. It was amazing to be able to share things with someone I had just met, and to feel safe. Looking around, I could already see the change in attitude that had occurred since the beginning of the day,” says a student who participated in the exercise.

‘Crossing the line’ is the second major exercise conducted during the course of the day. The participants are split up again and asked to move to one side of the room. A white line is drawn in the centre of the auditorium and the organisers tell the students: “Please cross the line if you have ever felt hurt by being judged by the colour of your skin.”

The students have to silently cross the line and then look back into the eyes of those who haven’t crossed the line.

“Please cross the line if you were humiliated in a classroom by a teacher or a student.”

“Cross the line if an adult has ever told you you were stupid or not good enough.”

“Cross the line if you have ever been made fun of for being fat.”

“Cross the line if you have ever been told to stop acting like a girl, or to be more of a man.”

“Cross the line if you were teased for wearing braces, glasses or a hearing aid, for the way you talked, for the clothes you wore, or for the shape, size and appearance of your body.”

As the categories increase so do the number of people who keep crossing the line till the point is reached where there is no one left on the other side of the white line!

This simple exercise not only shows students that they are not alone in their pain and sorrow, it also makes them realise how their words and actions have hurt someone at some point of time. 

After this exercise, the students return to their group and are given a chance to talk to each other, comfort one another and apologise to their peers for their behaviour in the past.

“After we had said all that we needed to say, and finished drying our eyes, the microphone was handed over to us. People stood up and told the room what they wanted to see change on campus, what they were grateful for, what they had learned,” says Anna Bolling a student who participated in Challenge Day.

Challenge Day was started in 1987 by the wife-and-husband team of Yvonne and Rich St John-Dutra, who were moved by their own difficult high school experiences to create a day that demonstrated what a school community could be.

“The Challenge Day programme is designed to help stop the violence and alienation that the youth face every day. We don’t believe that young people feel isolated due to a lack of people around them. Rather, they feel isolated because of a lack of connection with them.”

“Our programme tears down the walls of separation, creates connection and support among participants, and inspires people to live in an environment of compassion, acceptance and respect,” explains Yvonne.

The programme is significant considering the growing cases of harassment and violence being reported in high schools across the United States. According to the 2003 National School Climate Survey, more than 800,000 students are verbally harassed every year in American high schools because of their race.

The deadly school shooting that took place in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 (where two teenage students went on a shooting rampage, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher, as well as wounding 24 others, before committing suicide) highlighted the growing atmosphere of hate and violence in schools.
A news report reveals that since that tragic day, over 200 children and adults have been killed in schools across the United States. Since August 2006 alone, there have been more than 50 school-related shootings, stabbings and other incidents nationwide.

-- Durga Chandran

InfoChange News & Features, February 2007

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