Michelle Arias lined the participants up silently. The co-facilitator of Challenge Day, Arias, read the first question: “Cross the line if you are under 18 years old.” Most students stepped forward. “Has your age made people respect you less, or call you stupid?” The questions became more intense. “Cross the line if you experience any violence in the home.” Students and teachers became visibly emotional watching the crossings. As students opened up to the pain in their lives, maybe for the first time, they were not alone as a gym full of teens and adults comforted them.
Emotions were drained and bonds were made during Challenge Day, December 11-13. The Challenge Day is a 6 ½-hour experiential program with the mission to show students the potential love and connection that can be shared in the community if all guards are let down. Over three days, 234 out of 289 sophomores participated as did 49 upperclassmen. Exactly 283 Wantagh students were given the opportunity of a lifetime; they were given the chance to open up to people they never thought they could talk to. Through the pain, students laughed, cried and felt love. The two passionate leaders, Jake Cahill and Michelle Arias, made the sophomores and upperclassmen feel comfortable and free of judgment by sharing their own struggles and how they overcame obstacles. The motif of these three days was the sign for “I love you.” This showed support and comfort when teens and adults were strong enough to speak candidly.
The participants, some excited and some nervous, made their way to the back gym to be greeted by loud music and even louder, but welcoming teachers. After a quick dance party and a few hip bumps with teachers, Cahill and Arias introduced the rules and some icebreakers. The students familiarized themselves with those around them with high fives and hugs, and shared hopes and dreams with partners and played volleyball.
But soon after, it was time to get real. Everyone was put into groups of 5 or 6; this would be their “family” for the rest of the day. Each group went around saying “if you really knew me, you’d know that _____,” “but if you really, really, knew me, you’d know that _____” which gave the families their first chance to really open up to one another.
“I was incredibly impressed with how vulnerable each and every student allowed themselves to be,” said math teacher, Diane Pudell. “They were willing to step out of their comfort zone and speak openly with students and staff that they did not necessarily know well. It was an amazing experience and I was extremely proud of everyone, especially the members of my family.”
Arias was big on diagrams. She explained how boys think they must fit into this “Be a Man” box and girls into a “Be a Lady” flower. Everyone feels the need to fit some perfect frame but in reality, fitting a mold takes away from the realness of a being. She then drew an iceberg that showed how most only show 10% of their image; just the surface. But if everyone would just drop their “waterlines” to reveal the other 90% of themselves, we would be living in a world that is 100% genuine.
“After we got back into our groups, it was shocking but nice to see how quickly everyone dropped their waterlines,” said sophomore Tylar Benedetto. “And just like that, all stereotypes were erased.”
Perhaps the most vulnerable activity of all was “Cross the Line.” Students lined up as the questions were read. Question by question, students bravely stepped forward, letting their guard down. “The whole day was an eye opening experience to realize that you’re not alone,” said senior Tara Keogan. “It felt amazing to have the love and support of the entire room and every time I crossed that line, I became stronger.”
The students were given cards and a chance to write a letter thanking, apologizing, or forgiving someone. With ample opportunities to speak over the microphone, many students and teachers showed their 100% genuine selves.
Why were the sophomores given this opportunity?
“While we would have loved to have offered this program to all 1,168 students in the high school, we were limited by both funding sources and the parameters set by the Challenge Day program itself,” said Assistant Principal, Jim Brown. “As such, we targeted the sophomores. We felt that our seniors will be leaving us all too soon, and our freshmen have really only just arrived and are still acclimating to high school life. The decision then to select the sophomores centered on the sustainability value of the impact of Challenge Day. Our hope is that the sophomore class will live the positive messages of Challenge Day over the next two and half years thereby making Wantagh High School a better place to learn and grow in.”
The profound impact that Cahill and Arias had on the Wantagh community has the potential to last a lifetime.
“This event has been in the works since I shared the experience with my daughter who was given the gift of Challenge day in her High School last year,” said W.H.S. Principal Mrs. Breivogel. “This was a costly venture that was made possible by generous donations of the class of 2012, the 6-12 Assoc. and The Allyson Rosenblatt memorial foundation. The response to this program is even better than we anticipated. We all benefitted and hopefully we will be able to sustain the change and create a high school culture where every student feels compassion, kindness and understanding toward each other. That is my ultimate goal.”