M-A freshmen took part in the annual tradition of Challenge Day on Monday, October 10 through Wednesday, October 12. The event, brought to the school by the non-profit organization Challenge Day, is a day of activities designed to build a sense of community within the ninth grade and promote a supportive school environment.
In the days leading up to the event, the freshman class was teeming with excitement. Many students had no idea what was to come, besides a day off of school, which is always a welcome reprieve. Before Challenge Day, freshman Joe Posthauer thought it would be “a day of talking and crying about emotions and people’s problems; basically like a feel good day for everyone.” As he and much of the freshman class later discovered, Challenge Day was much more than that.
On their Challenge Day, freshmen entered either the Ayer’s Gym or the New Gym, where they met their Challenge Day leaders. Over the course of the day, the leaders bonded with the kids and urged them to open up and be honest about themselves. Leader Chris Foster said the purpose of Challenge Day is to “give people permission to be themselves, and to connect, and to step past that awkward moment when you don’t know if someone is going to speak.” Before going into Challenge Day, freshman Sofia de la Vega believed that its purpose was “to see that people that you may know, and you feel like you’ve known for a while, might be going through things that you don’t know about. [Its purpose is] to get closer to them.”
Freshmen entered Challenge Day with varying knowledge of what the day would hold, although many had heard about it from friends, teachers, or parents. Before the event, freshman Sofia Cho said, “My life skills teacher barely mentioned it so I don’t really know what to expect. I guess it could be fun.” When asked about her expectations for Challenge Day, Nell Fahey replied, “I’m not entirely sure how Challenge Day will affect me, but I think I will at least have a better understanding of my peers going forward.” When the day came around, many freshmen, like Cho and Fahey, were unprepared for the powerful emotions that accompanied it. After Challenge Day, Cho shared,“I was just expecting a few sad stories and a game, but instead many old wounds were reopened.” This sentiment was echoed by Fahey, who stated, “I knew I would cry and all but some of the topics surprised me because I hadn’t realized how in depth we were going to be diving into our live.”
Challenge Day covers a wide variety of topics, anything from abuse to stress about school. Students discuss and share their stories in small groups, or share with the larger group if they are willing. Said de la Vega, “I liked how it was accepted to talk about struggles and other topics you wouldn’t normally.” This idea of acceptance is something the Challenge Day leaders work towards. “For me it’s just kind of to create this safe space for them to feel like they can express themselves without being judged or corrected,” said Sevan Poetry, Foster’s co-leader. “Sometimes just having a safe space to get some of those emotions out can help us feel more connected.”
Challenge Day leaders work incredibly hard to establish this space where students feel they can share without judgement. “We play games; there’s a little kid inside of everybody, so when everyone’s laughing and having fun, it kind of takes us back to our childhood, before we were inundated with messages of separation,” said Foster. “After that, we go first so it makes it safe enough for [students in] the room to be themselves, and then it just unfolds really naturally.” This natural environment is something students really notice. “Looking back on it, I cried a little about something that when I think about it now, I feel little emotion for. The environment that day really gets to you and you feel like letting go,” claimed Posthauer.
Once the day is over, students go home, coming back the next day to a normal school day. Yet Challenge Day leaves its mark. “I do think it changed the way our grade acts as a whole, because many of us are painfully stereotypical,” said Cho. “Challenge Day may have changed that by showing us how much emotion everyone hides all the time.” Fahey seconded this notion, claiming that “a lot of people have stopped only judging others by their image and realizing there is so much more to people than what they decide to show.” Besides changing opinions about classmates, Challenge Day inspires freshmen to “take a look at what they have and be thankful for everything they see,” said Posthauer. “All these things that most of us take for granted come into light during Challenge Day, and it makes you even more grateful for what you have.”
Challenge Day, a powerful annual tradition at M-A, will hopefully be around for years to come. It teaches students empathy and gives them the support to be themselves at school. For those joining the program in the future, the M-A class of 2020 has a bit of advice:
“It may take others a while to grow comfortable around new people, but letting out emotions can be really good.” -Cho
“If you do decide to share some deeper parts of your life, know that you can trust the people who are there to support you.” -Fahey
“You don’t have to cry, just don’t be rude and have respect.” -Posthauer
“Embrace it!” -de la Vega
Listen to an interview with Challenge Day leaders below.