Even though I haven't been in ninth grade for about a decade, I remember how awkward that time was. But adolescence has always been uncomfortable and probably always will be, right?
Most teens today would rather give up their cell phones than: Talk to someone outside their circle of friends. Dance in front of their peers. Cry in public. Hug someone. Use the word "love." Or share their hopes and fears with a group of strangers.
At least that's what I thought until last week when I walked into a gymnasium at Red Lion Area High School.
For six hours, 100 freshmen danced, laughed, cried, shared and hugged everyone, even their teachers. The Challenge Day program, as seen on MTV's "If You Really Knew Me," taught them that it was OK to love themselves and others.
"I don't know if anything changed out there," workshop leader Jon Gordon said as he pointed to the gym doors. "But if you take what you learned in here and apply it out there, you will be a tidal wave."
Co-leader Ray-Ray Chavira, who sported a red Be The Change shirt, brought a few students up to microphone to tell the group "amazing things about themselves."
As each teen spoke, several hands raised with the American Sign Language symbol for "I love you" - a sign the program uses to show respect when someone else is sharing.
After each declaration the room filled with applause and cheers.
Next, Chavira instructed the group to get up and make an apology to a person in the room. Then, they broke into smaller groups to give each other validations and positive reinforcement. The Motown tune "Express Yourself" played in the background and tissue boxes sat on the gym floor, just in case.
Former Red Lion teacher Lisa Amspacher first heard about Challenge Day a few years ago while watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
She and a few other teachers thought it would be great to bring the program to the high school, but the cost was an issue.
Amspacher said that the price tag for a multiday program was about $14,000, since the leaders' round-tip airfare from California and hotel expenses are included. At first the school board balked at the steep price, so teachers and community members held fundraisers to bring the program to students last year.
Amspacher, who now teaches in Hershey, participated last year and was inspired by what she saw.
"The kids come in with apprehension," she said. "It's amazing what they leave with."
This year, the school board secured some grant money for the program and decided to foot the bill to send the whole freshman class through Challenge Day.
Last week's session opened principal Charlie Humberd's eyes.
He said that a school's main focus is academics, but that doesn't mean people should ignore what else goes on in the hallways.
"In every school kids talk about (each other)," he said. "People think that's the way it is, but it shouldn't be that way. This is a good way to build a community and make kids know this is a safe place to be."
After the kids burst through the gym doors at the end of the day, Gordon gave one last pep talk to teachers and adult volunteers, from other local schools and organizations, before sending them out the doors, too.
Gordon said he probably gave about 100 hugs during the day and has lost count of how many he's given at schools across the country.
He said every Challenge Day is different. The program, he said, has been around for more than two decades, but became more popular after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Thanks to the MTV show, Gordon said some kids are familiar with Challenge Day and parts of the workshop require less explanation.
"No matter where we go, we can relate to each other," he said. "We get to find out that we have a whole lot more in common than we think."
POPeye is a bi-weekly column focusing on the ever-changing landscape of popular culture. To reach writer Erin McCracken, call 771-2051 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Challenge Day
Since 1987, Challenge Day has served more than 100,000 youth in 400 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Challenge Day, which is a nonprofit organization, provides one-day workshops as a service to students in seventh to 12th grades as well as other organizations, companies and corporations.
The program addresses common issues seen at schools including cliques, rumors, teasing, isolation, racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, violence and peer pressure.
Participants learn about the possibility of love and connection by celebrating diversity, truth and full expression.
Challenge Day champions the Be the Change movement, which inspires youth and adults to notice what's happening in the world around them, choose actions that create positive change and be a living example of compassion.
For details, visit www.challengeday.org.
If you watch
What: "If You Really Knew Me"
When: 11 p.m. Tuesdays
For details: The reality documentary series follows teens across the country who go through the Challenge Day program. For details and to watch full episodes, visit www.mtv.com/ontv.
What participants said about Challenge Day
"I feel like everything I do and say really does affect the people around me." - KRISTIAN CRISOSTOMO, Red Lion freshman
"This day is a huge roller coaster ride." - JON GORDON, Challenge Day workshop leader
"I used to make fun of people a lot. Today actually changed part of my life." - JONATHAN LAFFERTY, Red Lion freshman
"This is something that adults need. (They) do the same things (as teens) and it hurts just as much. I learned more about really listening to teens." - ERICA RICH, youth program coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Central Pennsylvania and Challenge Day volunteer
"Some parts are depressing, but we had a blast. People got what they needed to off their chests." - TRISTIAN WILHELM, Red Lion freshman