A line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” succinctly captured the spirit of Chesapeake High School’s recent unity event.
“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike,” read Principal John Yore during the event.
This was the motivation behind the Breaking Down the Walls unity event held at CHS the week of September 23.
“The purpose of Breaking Down the Walls is to establish connections and to build relationships as a school community,” said Yore. “There are lots of things that tear us apart, but this is an opportunity to build community by recognizing that we share experiences.”
On September 7, a letter was sent home with students to encourage them to complete an application to participate in the event. The application included students’ names and the reason they wanted to participate.
On Monday, September 23, students had an advisory lesson on unity and the way that the event would work. The school was split in half on Tuesday for a morning and afternoon assembly to ensure that message reached all students – even if they didn’t fill out the application, while the 600 students who signed up were split into one of three all-day sessions.
“I expected it to be another assembly where they would talk to us, and then we would go back to class,” said David Espinoza, a senior at CHS. “They went beyond all my expectations and got all of the students involved.”
Funding from an anonymous donor enabled Chesapeake to invite Dean Whellams, who travels the country “breaking down walls” and bringing people together.
Student ambassadors and students from the Athletic Leadership Counsel, a new program at Chesapeake featuring representatives from all teams, were trained by Whellams on Tuesday to lead small groups during the event.
“We started with large group teambuilding, and after lunch, they formed small groups with the student leaders,” explained Melissa Bradshaw, CHS assistant principal and lead on the project.
“We heard students say, ‘You brighten my life just by being in it,’ and we heard students say, ‘I haven’t been a very nice person to someone in this room,’” said Yore. “There were a lot of tough realizations, and those stories were touching.”
The students participated in a variety of activities during the day, but Bradshaw said there is likely one that “students will never forget.”
The Cross-the-Line activity was quiet. All of the students in the gym were silent as Whellams called out things like, “Cross the line if you’ve ever played a sport,” and progressively moved into, “Cross the line if your parents are divorced.”
“Mr. Dean said you can’t hate someone whose story you don’t know. You never really know what’s going on,” said Espinoza.
“Someone seems like they have the perfect life, and you find out they’re going through the same things as you,” added Amber Brisbane, a junior.
Students credit Yore, Bradshaw and the rest of the administrative staff for the event’s success. It is because of their hard work that the students are open to making positive change in their school, and they encourage other schools to follow suit.
“Mr. Yore and administration’s positivity is spreading. You’re always greeted with a smile and they check up on us,” said DaMiya Williams, a junior.
Yore stayed through the entire day with the students and even participated in small groups to encourage students, something that was very important to them. He made them feel “understood and comfortable,” according to Brisbane.
“The little things matter,” said Brisbane. “They are making small changes and it is making a huge difference.”
Bradshaw, who is in her first year at Chesapeake, was in charge of bringing this project to life from little things that were already in process from previous staff.
“This was placed in my lap to take the lead and we just went with it,” said Bradshaw. “It was stressful, but I saw the benefits that week.”
As for the students, they believe the event has made a world of difference already.
“People who used to sit alone at lunch are being invited to sit with groups,” said Espinoza. “They are starting to open up and see the bigger picture.”
This is not the last unity event at Chesapeake High School. On October 23, students are encouraged to wear orange for National Unity Day as a symbol of their pledge to end bullying and other negative behaviors.
Yore explained that unity is not achieved in a day or a week, but the Chesapeake community is committed to becoming a place where all students feel valued and respected.
“The true measure of our success will be the positive impact now, and in the future, for our community,” said Yore.