Last week, I attended a presentation at the Hutchinson High School Tech Auditorium. I had been called several weeks before and asked if I wanted to volunteer for a student meeting that would take six hours of my time and be very interesting. It would involve more than a hundred high school students from all grades. I was curious about the program and said yes.
I arrived at the Tech Center Auditorium a little before 8 a.m. and met a group of about 25 adult volunteers, some of whom I had met at other functions. Some of them knew what they were doing. For myself and others, this meeting was a total mystery. The volunteers had a brief meeting with the two presenters of the program and were given a brief description of what would happen. The name of the program was Rachel's Challenge.
We were told that it would begin with some physical exercises that would involve moving around the floor and various kinds of interactions with the students. We were not given any more information. We were assured that it would all make sense as we proceeded with the exercises. We were also told that at a certain point in the program we would be breaking into groups and not to worry if a group had all adult volunteers. Chairs had been arranged in the auditorium and we were told to choose a seat. Then the students came into the room and filled the remaining seats.
The leaders were introduced and the program began with a brief video which started with footage from the Columbine High School shooting April 20, 1999. Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed in this shooting. We learned about Rachel and her challenge.
After the introduction, we were told to pick up the chairs and stack them against the wall. Then we were told we would be playing a game involving thunder, lightning, tornado, flood and avalanche. On one wall there was a sign “Thunder.” On the opposite wall, there was a sign “Lightening.” We were told when the leader shouts thunder we all rush toward the wall with the thunder sign. If the shout is lightening, we rush toward that sign. If the word is tornado we stand in place, raise our arms and rotate. If the word is flood, we lie on the floor and act like we are swimming. If the word is avalanche, we ran in whatever direction we chose. These directions given in increasingly rapid order created pandemonium. It got our blood circulating and woke us up.
The games continued with the formation of circles. About half the group was in an inner circle and the other half in an outer circle. We faced each other. One of the persons was told to be a perch and the other person was a bird. So, the first person knelt with knee extended to form a perch. The bird would sit on the knee. Then we would rotate the circles and find other partners.
We had a group forming exercise, forming groups of different sizes. We ended with a group each having a volunteer and three or four students. We had an exercise requiring us to talk with each other and get to know each other. One member of the group was chosen as spokesperson and had to report the information about other members of the group. My group had three students, two girls and boy, a freshman, a sophomore and a senior. We then had lunch together. After lunch, we proceeded with a variety of exercises helping us to get to know more about each other.
For the final exercise, we were told to line up against the wall. A few feet away from us there was a blue line of tape on the floor. We were then given a series of statements or questions that defined a group by characteristics or behavior. We were told to cross the blue line if we belonged to the group mentioned. The instructor proceeded to ask questions about race and other aspects of personal identity. And then proceeded to ask some very personal questions. Have you or anyone in your family ever been in prison? I was really surprised at the number of people who crossed the line on this question.
The personal questions continued. Have you ever thought about taking your own life? Have you ever been bullied? Then there were specific questions for women. Have you ever been sexually harassed? As these very personal questions were asked, it caused me to think about myself in answer to these questions. If the condition applied to me, then I had to decide, do I want to acknowledge it in front of a group? Do I want to go over the line and admit a problem with alcohol? I hesitated but the question was have you or anyone in your family ever had problems with alcohol or drugs? I was really surprised how many people that joined me across the line.
As the group struggled with these very personal questions, the emotional level began to rise. Some crossed the line with tears in their eyes. It was an amazing experience for me to realize the common occurrence of many of these problems and how many people are affected by these very serious issues in their lives. It was a very moving experience. We then went back to our small groups and had an opportunity to discuss feelings about the exercise that we had just been involved in.
As I talked with the three students in my group, it was obvious that they had been affected by this exercise. They felt it had created an awareness of common problems. It created the feeling that they were not alone, that there were many other people who shared some of their problems. It also made them feel that they should be more understanding of others because of the problems they shared. The emotional impact of this exercise was a real surprise to me.
As I thought about the experience, I realized how the various activities created a kind of bonding of the group. It prepared us for sharing very personal things about our lives that were exposed when we chose to walk over the line. We showed people that we were part of a group with serious problems.
I began to investigate Rachel’s Challenge. It is found online at http://rachelschallenge.org. It is an organization started by Rachel's father to honor her life. In gathering the material in Rachel's room after her death, a tracing of her hand was found on the back of a dresser, something she had done when she was 13 years old. Inside the tracing are the following words. “These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of people’s hearts.”
Phil Wood, a Baha'i, originally from New England, resided for 12 years in Barbados, 4 years in China, has lived 30 years in Hutchinson. firstname.lastname@example.org