Facing the Unexpected: Challenge Day at Rachel B. Noel Middle School

By: Josh Chotiner

As a City Year corps member, sometimes it can be difficult to discern the events of one day from those of another.  Indeed this has been my experience, as I sit here attempting to sort out the blur of images that comes to mind as I reflect on my first two months of City Year service.  Yet, two days remain particularly salient in my recollections: the two “Challenge Days” that were hosted at the school where I serve on September 19th and 20th.  It is an all too befitting event to discuss as we enter National Bullying Awareness Month.

Challenge Day is an Oakland, California organization that strives to teach groups of people the importance of focusing on shared challenges we’ve faced as a means of finding common ground with others, rather than focusing on differences we assume we have without knowing one another.  The group brings its day-long event to correction centers, businesses, and schools across the country, even around the world, to show us that, deep-down, we all face challenges, and that we must reach out to each other to surmount  them.

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photo courtesy of challengeday.com

It became clear to me during Challenge Days that many of my students have faced very real adversities in their short lifetimes; some having overcome things that even as an adult I have difficulty imagining.  Over the course of the day, through Challenge Day’s fun-loving but serious programming, we adults learned about our students’ personal lives and were able to share some of our own experiences with them, which has allowed us to empathize better than before.

Perhaps the most memorable of the day’s events was the “cross the line” activity.  We were all lined up behind two parallel lines when the facilitator began to read off statements such as, “Cross the line if you or a loved one has ever been affected by gang violence,” statements which evoked strong memories and emotions.  Then, participants to whom these statements applied stepped across both lines and turned to face those who had not.  The facilitator often encouraged everyone to show each other love, to support one another for the tremendous adversities we had all faced.  The statements resulted in many tears being shed, many hugs being given, and a general feeling of unity within the crowd.  It was hard not to lose composure watching the majority of our students silently admit, between their gasps and sobs, that they had witnessed violence, lost loved ones, and felt that they were not good enough.

Challenge Day was among the most powerful events that I have ever attended. It is with a good deal of sadness that I recall some of the admissions made by students I serve regularly, but the event  was also a powerful community-building experience.  Many students made great realizations and challenged themselves to be more respectful, to not cast judgment before getting to know someone, and to resist the urge to act out when in anger.  One of the most awe-inspiring moments came at the end of the day, when the Challenge Day facilitators asked how many of the participants felt closer to the people surrounding them than they had at the beginning of the day.  Almost every person’s hand rose in unison. I am looking forward to the growth of these relationships throughout the year and am so glad we had Challenge Day to open so many doors.

If you would like more information about Challenge Day, their informative website may be just the place to start: www.challengeday.org

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