Breaking Down the Walls not life-changing, but still beneficial

October 31, 2018 — by Amy Tang

“Ugh, if I miss Friday’s classes for Breaking Down the Walls, I have to make up my in class lab and so much homework.”

Though there were some complaints like this uttered last week due to the BDTW program that spanned a total of five days and caused students to miss entire school days, the program was beneficial for encouraging compassion and understanding among students.

Students have been taught from a young age to treat others the way the way you want to be treated or to never judge people based on their appearance, reputation or other surface-level assumptions; however, it is often difficult to change long-standing habits.

But physically being a part of an emotional activity in a supportive environment is a truly impactful experience, and it can often be hard to describe the atmosphere that existed during the BDTW days to parents or others who did not attend the program. Many students discovered through the eye-opening experience the types of problems that friends and classmates face.

Ultimately, the program further pushed the message of not being able to hate those whose stories you know and tugged on many students’ heartstrings.

The assembly on Monday featured Dean Whellams, the BDTW leader, and his own experiences. He proved to be a talented storyteller, engaging with the audience by asking questions and sharing funny and heartwarming stories.

Tuesday through Friday produced unexpected results. Initially, some Link Crew Leaders saw the week as a burden that would cause them to miss two days of school. Many students expected their classmates to leave the gym complaining about how much work had to be made up from the day’s missed classes.

Instead, the emotional experience resonated with many attendees, and a majority of students were glad they attended.

BDTW may not be a magical experience that can produce universal empathy, but those who eagerly participated and wanted to learn something largely felt the full effect of the experience. By the end of the week, even seniors who were not Link Leaders showed up willingly to participate in the day’s activities.

The activities before lunch consisted mostly of surface-level conversation and games. For the most part, the activities were fun but not extremely impactful.

The conversations that students had throughout the entire day in small groups and with partners allowed people to learn more about their peers, whom they would not have spoken to otherwise.

Many students made new friends and got to know others they had seen around but never had a conversation with before.

The pre-lunch activities were necessary to promote a supportive environment and led up to later activities. After lunch, students took part in Cross the Line, an activity that left many students with tears in their eyes.

The heart of the activity touched on sensitive issues such as substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, life-threatening diseases, life as part of the LGBT community, academic stress, body image and suicide.

Bringing yourself to cross the line is often easier than speaking or explaining your story in an everyday conversation, when heavier topics might not be mentioned. The purpose of Cross the Line was to create empathy and closer bonds among students. Not only did the people on the sidelines learn a little about those who did cross the line, but the activity helped students realize that they’re not alone in their difficult experiences.

Even for those who mostly observed during the activity, it was difficult and heartbreaking to watch friends and peers cross the line on tough questions, especially when someone completely unexpected walked out into the middle of the gym floor.

Following the activity, students had small group discussions and a large group discussion; the day ended with students writing notes to people in the gym, with many providing support and opening up to others, encouraging future conversation. Every tear shed was matched by an equally emotional hug.

Was it worth missing class and in some cases having more homework?

It was. The program, though it may not have been life-changing, will be a memorable part of many students’ experience here. It is important to teach the student body that caring for others and being available for others is an integral part of being a good person in general.

Though expensive at $40,000, the program was not a waste of time or money. Missing a day or two of school to promote empathy among the student body was a nice change of pace from classes and — for seniors — college applications.  

A week of collaborative, bond-promoting activities and emotional conversation may not be not enough to drastically change the lives of a 1,350 students, but it is a step in the right direction to promoting empathy among students and a healthier school environment.

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