Students ‘Challenge’ Social Scene Norms Through Acceptance

bethechangeclub.jpgSpelled out in plastic letters on its welcome sign facing Route 7, the words “Be the change that you want to see in the world” greet visitors to George Mason High School.

To many, these words of Gandhi are inspirational for school children of any age. But for the kids who stand behind the slogan because of their participation in Mason’s “Be the Change” Club, these words are instead a catalyst to a movement of acceptance in an environment where insecurities run rampant, and where adolescents’ self-images are too often based on what they think others see.

“Since I was new to the school, I wanted to help kids adjust and I saw the possibility for that by being in the club,” said Mason senior Shelbi Taylor, who admittedly went through what she called a “club-joining stage” during her sophomore year.

Little did Taylor know that two years later she and fellow senior Katie Potrykus would be accepting the Fairfax Partnership for Youth award on behalf of their peers involved in the “Be the Change” Club (BTC). Formed to maintain a sense of togetherness amongst students following Challenge Days, a six-and-a-half-hour program of activities to foster empathy for diversity, the BTC was spurred by hopes to keep the tight-knit community going strong throughout the year, even following summer vacation.

“Following the first Challenge Days event we did, I was bothered by the fact that the kids were going in this positive direction and then slowly it faded, as things went back to the way they were, and so I was willing to sponsor a club,” said mathematics teacher Joel Block. “I wasn’t going to watch this end.”

Sticking to that promise, Block mailed the class of 2008 a letter a couple of weeks before the start of their senior year that they had all signed as juniors. It started with “We the class of 2008, want a school environment in which people care for each other and show compassion … filled with love instead of gossip, and acceptance instead of judgments.” The letter was mailed in hopes to remind the students of the senior year they had once hoped for.

In an overwhelming response, more than 60 kids showed up for this school year’s first meeting of BTC. The majority were either upperclassmen or 8th graders from Henderson Middle School who’d been visited by senior members of the club prior to continuing on at Mason. Members make an effort to visit the feeder school and speak about the idea of acceptance to the youngsters.

“I know when we go over there as a club, they’re always asking us, ‘Are we going to get beat up? Should we watch our backs when we go down the hall?’ and that’s just a failed perception of what high school is, so I think hearing that we see them as equals has a big impact,” said Potrykus.

Taylor and Potrykus, both of whom attended this year’s Challenge Days held last week, attested to having already seen a change in the school’s social atmosphere.

“When I got to school on Friday, students were hugging everyone who went by and someone said ‘We’re making a median in the hallway’ and then another one shouted ‘A median of love!’ so it was pretty awesome,” said Taylor.

Potrykus agreed, saying that for the first time this year she entered a senior hallway in which two alcoves that had recently separated different cliques were seemingly nonexistent.

“Everyone was mingling and I saw people going up and talking to students they had never talked to before,” she said.

Block believes that while the students fall within an ideal age group to be taught lessons of unity due to frustrations with their own self-esteem as adolescents, Mason is simply taking an already-progressive school to the next level.

“It’s such an insecure time. They’re judging themselves through each other’s eyes and they don’t even know what those people are seeing – they’re assuming. They’re so insecure that anything which knocks them down really hurts because they question their self-worth to start,” said Block.

“Basically, the idea is that we want this school to be a better place and the really wild part about it to me is that it’s a really great school to start with.”

Challenge Days, run by an organization of professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area, came to Mason in 2006 as a result of the contribution to the Falls Church Education Foundation by News-Press owner Nicholas F. Benton.

Because of its success, the Falls Church School Board decided to fund the event annually out of its own budget. Last year, Benton made another contribution to add the program at the middle school level.

Through the education foundation’s “Diversity Affirmation Education Fund,” others in the Falls Church community have also contributed to the effort.