Sometimes I forget that my some of my students' lives are so crazy out of school because in school, they are just like everyone else (kind of...). What I see is students who are working hard sometimes, want to talk and hang out with their friends, and are still trying to figure out who they are, which is just like any other high school student. Most of the time, they don't really talk about their home life, or if they do, it's never anything negative. It's a mention of their brother, sister, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, etc. or talk of what they did that weekend. It's rare that they bring up their struggles, mostly because they just want to leave it at home.
That being said, yesterday was completely different. Yesterday was Challenge Day at Jackson and it was such an eye opener. Our day started in the gym. All of the adults (about 25) who were volunteering met before the students arrived just to go over the logistics of the day and get organized before the students arrived. As the students entered the gym, we formed a tunnel that the students walked through. There was music blaring and a lot of the students danced their way through the line. The first part of the morning was a lot of dancing, running around and games. They would say things like "You have 30 seconds to hug as many people as you can...GO!"and everyone would get out of their seat and run around. Or, they divided the group up into two large groups that faced each other and had to keep a huge ball off of the ground. The morning was more focused on community building within the group. It was mostly juniors and seniors, so I didn't know any of them. I had seen them around, but it was good to just engage with them and set a tone of community at the beginning of the day.
After a couple of hours of community building, things got more serious. We were put into small groups and then brought together as a community. We did this activity called "If you really knew me..." which was featured on MTV. When we were together as a whole group, the facilitator from Challenge Day shared her "If you really knew me story." She talked about how her father was an alcoholic and her parents divorced early on. She went on to talk about how once her dad got engaged, the fiance decided she didn't want kids around, so the facilitator was ostracized from her father, not by choice. The other facilitator shared about how he grew up in a rough neighborhood. He was one of four boys and his three brothers had all been killed or committed suicide. Having them share their stories really set the tone for us to share our stories.
We then broke up into our small groups. I had two girls, a boy and another Corps Member in my group. I'm so thankful that Katherine, the other corps member, was in my group because I feel like I really got to know her on a deeper level. Thankfully, I had heard that this was an emotional activity and I knew that our students dealt with a lot of "stuff" at home and outside of school, so I was as prepared as I could have been before hearing these students share. Here is what the three of them are dealing with when they go home.
Her mom wants a divorce from her step-dad but isn't sure if she can financially support her two children as a single mother. She's worried that she would lose her kids if she were to get a divorce because she wouldn't be able to support them. The girl's brother has been in a lot of trouble recently and hardly goes to school. He recently came out as homosexual and their step-father isn't okay with that. Lots of times, he isn't allowed back in the house and the girl can hear him throwing rocks at the window, hoping the sister will sneak him in. Last night, he called her because he was stranded and didn't have anywhere to go.
She said that if we really knew her, we would know that the one person she loves the most is her dad. She used to live with her mom in Miami, but last year, was able to move in with her dad in Jacksonville and was really excited. A few months into her new home, her dad told her to get in the car. He drove her back to Miami and told her he didn't want her to stay with him anymore. She still lives with him now (I didn't want to push the details of that), but that they are just two people living in the same house, not like a father and daughter.
The Boy: It was interesting because, while the girls were very emotional, they were very open about their lives and talked a lot about what it was like to be them. The guy, on the other hand, was more resistant. He simply said,
"I don't have a daddy. He's been in jail my whole life. I have to be my own daddy."
and while that isn't as detailed as the girls' statements, it's equally as powerful.
After this activity, we had lunch and could take some time to regroup. It was extremely emotional for everyone, adults and students alike. I was really impressed with their ability to open up to people they were not that close with or had just met.
When we came back from lunch, we had equally, if not more, emotional activity. I have participated in "Cross the Line" before with my peers, but I had never done it with students. In case you've never heard of this activity, here's how it goes. There is a line of tape that divides the room in half. Everyone stands on one side of the line. The facilitator reads out statements such as "cross the line if you have ever been abused." If the statement applies to you, you cross the line. It's extremely powerful activity, even though it's completely silent. The students (and adults) became emotional quickly as the statements resonated with ourselves and each other. When the statement "cross the line if you have ever lost an immediate family member or close friend," one male student completely broke down. He was bent over and stomping his feet until he eventually collapsed. It was so moving and emotional. Throughout the entire activity, there were so many different incidences of emotional rawness.
The afternoon ended with everyone writing letters to someone. You could write it to a family member/friend who you wanted to show your love and admiration for, or you could use this letter as a mode of forgiveness, acceptance, etc. Then, they asked anyone to share that felt comfortable. A student wrote a letter to a teacher thanking her for supporting her through an abusive household. Another was to a student's daughter telling her how much she loved her. The last was the most powerful, though. A student had written her cousin a letter forgiving him for molesting her. To see her emotion and her strength was so inspiring. Her friends and almost everyone the room surrounded her and supported her.
This whole experience was awesome and I am so glad that I got to experience it. I always knew that our students were going through so many things at home and had issues that I am lucky to have never experienced, but to put a face to all of them was a whole new thing. I don't want to think of these students as victims. Instead, I want to see them for their strength and their perseverance. They are some of the strongest people I know. The fact that they make it to school every day is a feat in itself. I am so proud and honored that they chose to open up to me and the rest of the City Year team.
I'll close with something a student said yesterday. It's such a simple statement, but something I know I take for granted everyday. I am so thankful that I grew up in a household where the words "I love you" were said multiple times a day and giving hugs was as frequent as going to the bathroom (which for me and the world's smallest bladder is very frequent!).
"I just want love. That's all." -a student at Challenge Day yesterday.