Thursday, January 30, 2014

Breaking Down the Walls

Before Winter Break, an email came out from a colleague about a new program being brought to our school. It would be a one-day event, called Breaking Down the Walls, intended to help kids see the walls they put up based on cliques, stereotypes, etc. Faculty volunteers were wanted, so I put my name down, thinking, "Why not?" I figured it might be a nice way to make myself more known on campus, to help grow my program.

I knew, going in, that it would be a fun day, and a day of learning about the kids around me, but I honestly had no idea just how profound the experience would end up being.

The morning started off with a lot of laughter, as silly games and funny sharing exercises were employed. I lost track of how many kids I told, "I'm Ms. Cooper, and I was born in Omaha, Nebraska!" I told a few more about my childhood--my older brother and I watching Snoopy cartoons together, growing up in Rancho Cordova, then Folsom. We walked in two big circles, high-fiving those we passed.

Mid-morning, the kids were all divided into pre-assigned groups of 8-10, with student leaders to direct the activities. Teachers had been told to simply find a group, one where we don't know the kids, and to sit in. Participate, do the activities, but don't lead. Perhaps encourage, but really, just be part of the group. Let the student leaders do it. So for me, it was just a chance to be a human being. We started with silly group games involving holding straws between our fingertips while moving around in the circle (difficult!) and answering some random, deep questions.

After lunch, however, it became more serious. The whole group lined up on one side of the gym for a session of "Cross the Line." Some were easy. "Cross the line if you're left-handed." Some were not. "Cross the line if one of your parents is deceased."

"Cross the line if you don't feel safe at home."

"Cross the line if you've been bullied for how you look."

It was incredible to see teachers and students crossing the line, admitting to fears, anxieties, hardships. Tears were shed. But even more amazing was to see what happened as kids crossed the line together. Two boys clapping each other on the shoulders or softly fist-bumping in solidarity as they realized they both had lost siblings to death. Girls who have probably never spoken to each other offering hugs as tears fell down.

After "Cross the Line," we reconvened with our small groups to talk about a line-crossing that was difficult for us to make. Many of us still had tears. I had tears in my eyes as I told my own story--how hard it was for me to cross that line at, "Cross the line if you're good-looking."

"I think many of us felt it was a bit of a joke," I told them. "But you see, just a few short years ago--when I was well into my thirties--was when I finally felt like I am worthy enough of saying, 'Yes, I am good-looking.'" I told them I worked long and hard to feel that way about myself, making huge lifestyle changes to make myself stronger and healthier...and how I know--I really, truly know--that each and every one of them, every morning, gets up and compares the image in the mirror to society's expectations of what we're "supposed" to look like. Heads were nodding.

"I hope all of you learn much sooner than I did, that you are good-looking because of what you are, inside and out."

Finally, we all came back to the bleachers to share as a whole group. One of the kids from the group I'd participated in stood up to make a simple, heartfelt plea: that today not be a one-day thing, the only day that people are nice to him.

Our facilitator, Phil, asked him what people do to make him feel bad.

"Not so much, anymore. They just ignore me."

This young man has a slight speech impediment. He's shy and perhaps a bit awkward. And yet, he showed tremendous courage in standing up and asking everyone there to not forget about him after Breaking Down the Walls is just a memory of something awesome we did in January.

The last activity of the day was to write short notes on sticker labels, to hand out to people. Of course I gave some to kids in my group, and some to choir kids who were there. But I also gave one to a girl I didn't interact with at all in the day, a young woman who reminded me so much in fashion, hair and an uncanny facial resemblance of Ally Sheedy in "The Breakfast Club." I noticed she had crossed the line when we were asked who had been bullied for their clothing choices--and here I thought she looked adorable in her outfit! My note to her read, "I was surprised that you crossed the line when asked about fashion/bullying. I love your style!" Maybe, hopefully, it will mean something to her.

The last couple of weeks have been hectic for me--a little bit of madness building up. I felt some guilt at leaving my class today to participate in Breaking Down the Walls, but now, I don't. It was an important day, and a crucial conversation. I interacted with kids who may well end up in choir at some point...or may not. But they will know me, remember me. I feel like it was a huge step in becoming part of the school's culture, even more so than dancing with the other teachers at a pep rally, or hanging out at a football game.


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