At Pa. School, Teens Build Empathy By Confiding In A Crowd

May 23, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 6:40 pm

Imagine this: a high school assembly where students share their deepest, most painful secrets — and instead of judgment from their peers, they get applause.

That's the approach Philadelphia's Freire Charter School has taken in its effort to prevent the next violent outburst or the next tragedy on campus. Instead of turning to guards or metal detectors, the school is making empathy part of its curriculum.

For the students, it starts with a simple prompt: If you really knew me, this is what you'd know. At a recent assembly, about two dozen Freire students stood before 500 peers and revealed their greatest fears, frustrations and insecurities.

For Tyshierra, a 10th-grader from a tough section of West Philly, it meant sharing a story about her mother — a drug dealer, she says, who was strangled to death by her boyfriend.

"Her pillow had fallen off the bed, so I lifted her head up and placed it back when I realized her face was cold," Tyshierra told her classmates. She said she shook her and called her name over and over again. She and her siblings didn't get an answer, "so we started to panic," she said.

A few months later, her father was dead, too. He died of liver cancer. Ever since, she and her younger siblings have cycled through an endless series of counseling programs and child protection caseworkers before being taken in by their aunt.

"Losing my mother was my biggest fear," Tyshierra said. "Since that has already happened, I fear nothing and no one. Ya'll see me as goofy, funny or whatever else, but deep down inside, I'm hurting for the way my life is."

The school doesn't have an auditorium big enough to hold all of its students, so the event was held at a Unitarian church up the street. Bathed in stained-glass light, 11th-grader Sierra shook with anxiety as she spoke. She told the crowd she has lupus.

"Imagine doctors expecting you not being able to live after 30 years old. That's my life expectancy. That's me," she said. "It's an autoimmune deficiency, which means my body is attacking itself from the inside out, and it's incurable. So I'm technically dying until my lupus eats my insides. Scary, right?"

Tenth-grader Elijah told the crowd he's glad to have many good friends and a strong relationship with his grandmother, but that depression haunts him. "When I have hard times with my family and stuff, I think about — I'm just going to go ahead and say it — suicide," he said.

He then challenged his classmates and put this empathy-building exercise to the test. "I want everybody to stand up. If you really care about me and care about my issues, I want you to stand up."

And they did, the church erupting with applause and cheers.

The Right To Be Who You Are

The point to all of this, says school organizer Dave Shahriari, is to give his students a forum where they know they won't be judged or criticized. "Kids have a lot to say, and I thought it could be really humanizing and helpful for the school as a community if they could say it in a safe space in front of each other," Shahriari says.

Kelly Davenport, who heads the school, says violence grows out of students feeling isolated. Events like this — the second such assembly at Freire, make clear to them that they're not alone, she says.

"When a community can come together and celebrate the humanity in each of our kids," Davenport says, "that gives each and every one of our students the right just to be who they are, and to make that OK."

Even several weeks after the event, Freire students showed no regret about opening up to their peers. Tyshierra says she's felt a palpable shift in school culture.

Before the assembly, "everybody just was like, 'OK, we at school,' " she says. "But now, it's like we feel like a family, like we know all that about each other."

Elijah, who spoke of suicide, says the event was one of the greatest moments of his life. Since sharing his story, he says, he's started talking to classmates who used to be strangers in the hall.

"They hug me or they give me a handshake, and then they was telling me stories like, 'Yeah, I know what you was dealing with. I went through the same thing.' "

And that's given him confidence that he can lead the life he dreams of: to start a family, raise kids and be a dependable father to the very end.

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In the 15 years since the mass shooting at Columbine High, schools across the country have searched for ways to prevent the next violent outburst. Instead of turning to guards or metal detectors, one high school in Philadelphia is making something called empathy building part of its curriculum.

As Kevin McCorry reports from member station WHYY, a recent assembly involved students sharing their deepest, most painful secrets.

KEVIN MCCORRY, BYLINE: If you really knew me, this is what you'd know. That was the prompt that Philadelphia's Freire Charter School asked its students to consider on a recent Thursday.

The next day, about two dozen teenagers volunteered to stand before 500 of their peers to share stories like this...

TYSHIERRA: We shook her. I called her name over and over again. We didn't get no answer. So we started to panic.

MCCORRY: Tyshierra, a 10th grader from a tough section of West Philly, woke up one morning to find her mother - who she says is a drug dealer - strangled to death by her boyfriend.

TYSHIERRA: Her pillow had fallen off the bed, so I lifted her head up, and placed it back when I realized her face was cold.

MCCORRY: Tyshierra and her younger siblings cycled through a slew of counseling programs and child protection caseworkers before being taken in by their aunt.

TYSHIERRA: Losing my mother was my biggest fear. Since that has already happened, I fear nothing and no one. Ya'll see me as goofy, funny, or whatever else. But deep down inside, I'm hurting for the way my life is.

MCCORRY: The school doesn't have an auditorium big enough to hold all of its students, so the event was held at a Unitarian Church up the street. Bathed in stained glass light, 11th grader Sierra Cratic-Smith shook with anxiety as she spoke.

SIERRA: Imagine doctors expecting you not being able to live after 30 years old. That's my life expectancy. That's me.

MCCORRY: She told the crowd she has Lupus.

SIERRA: It's an autoimmune deficiency, which means that my body is attacking itself from the inside out and it's incurable. So I'm technically dying until my lupus eats my insides. Scary, right?

MCCORRY: Tenth grader Elijah Jones says he's glad to have many good friends, and a strong relationship with his grandmother, but depression haunts him.

ELIJAH: When I have hard times with my family and stuff, I think about, I'm just going to go ahead and say it, suicide.

MCCORRY: Seventeen year-old Lavita Hill is usually a shy, guarded student. Administrators were shocked when, midway through the event, she volunteered to speak, delivering the major theme of the day: You have no idea what another person's life is like.

LAVITA: Just because I come in jolly, and I'm happy and I walk in heels and I strut, doesn't mean I live a happy life. And I try to stay strong but sometimes it's hard and people don't understand that when you say things, sometimes it hurts. My past still lives with me today. And I still struggle, and yet I try. I try to stay strong.

DAVID SHAHRIARI: Kids have a lot to say, and I thought it could be really humanizing and helpful for the school as a community if they could say it in a safe space in front of each other.

MCCORRY: That's Dave Shahriari, the school administrator who organized the event.

SHAHRIARI: It really was sensing an organic need, sensing that the school was ready for it, that we needed it, and just crossing our fingers and hoping that it worked.

KELLY DAVENPORT: Kelly Davenport is Freire's Head of School. She says violence grows out of students feeling isolated. Events like this, she says, make clear to them, they're not alone.

When a community can come together and celebrate the humanity in each of our kids, that gives each and every one of our students the right just to be who they are, and to make that OK.

MCCORRY: In the weeks after the event, I went back to Freire to see how some of the students were feeling about opening up to their peers. Tyshierra Anderson, who told the story about finding her mother dead, said she's felt a palpable shift in school culture.

TYSHIERRA: Before all that happened, like, everybody just was like, OK, we at school, but now it's like we feel like we a family, like we know all that about each other.

MCCORRY: Elijah Jones, who spoke of suicide, said the event was one of the greatest moments of his life.

ELIJAH: Because, I thought that people really didn't care about me in this school and that changed.

MCCORRY: It's clear, people do care about him. Elijah says classmates who were once strangers in the hall have given him hugs and admitted to their own struggles with depression.

LAVITA: I was surprised that I had that in me. I didn't think that I could do it.

MCCORRY: That's Lavita, who, after pouring her heart out on stage, says coming to school feels like less of a burden than it used to.

LAVITA: It made me feel that I could do anything, like, I'm not afraid to do anything anymore. I feel like anything is possible.

MCCORRY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin McCorry in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.