As Challenge Day continues, students stop seeing each other as nerds, jocks, troublemakers and rich kids, and start seeing each other as peers.
Though most Monroe students think they know Riley, one of the "popular" students, he leaves his label at the door and opens up about a time when he wasn't so popular. "I grew up really overweight, and my mom and dad really put a lot of pressure on me to lose the weight," he says.
Then, Riley dispels a common belief that popular kids have it easy. "A lot of people judge me as somebody who has a lot of money, when in actuality, my mom is working two jobs and we're barely making it," he says. "People always place judgment on me [and] think I'm some rich, spoiled kid. I'm really not."
Ra'Shada, one of the teens labeled a "smart kid," admits that she lies about her test scores. "[My score] is a lot lower than what I say...I'm afraid that people won't think I'm smart anymore if I tell them the real score," she says.
Charles, one of Monroe High's "rich kids," says being wealthy may mean that his college tuition is paid in full, but no amount of money can protect him from his hidden pain. He reveals that after his father left his mother, his mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. "Every night, I [cry] myself to sleep, but I'll never let anyone see it," he says. "Every day I wake up, I'm scared. I'm scared where my life is going."
As painful secrets come spilling out, Monroe High students find support from their peers and begin to make real connections, which is the ultimate goal of Challenge Day, Yvonne says.
After hearing some of her classmates' heartbreaking stories, LaCrisha breaks the silence about being separated from her mother for nine years. "I come off as a person that has no problems, but when I was 8 years old, my mom left me," she says.
LaCrisha was reluctant to share her struggles with students who were strangers only hours before, but by the end of the day, she is overwhelmed by their support.
"I just want to thank everybody for being there," LaCrisha says. "Today, when one person hugged me and they told me, 'I love [you],' I really felt love for once. ... For that 30 seconds you were hugging me, I felt the most love I think I've felt in a long time."
As barriers begin to break down, some students decide to take action.
Steven, an openly gay student, appeals to his classmates for tolerance and acceptance. "There are people in this room [who] have called me a faggot or a queer. There are a couple people that have bumped into me," he says. "I don't think you guys know how bad it hurts."
From across the room, Michael, Steven's classmate, is moved. "I remember last year seeing you in the hall and screaming out one of those names you said that hurt you every night," he says to Steven. "I had no right judging you in that way, and I just wanted to apologize. You're as equal as any of us."
Steven accepts Michael's apology, and the two young men embrace in front of their fellow students.
"I just want to say that's how we change the world—one person at a time," Oprah says. "It begins by apologizing for beliefs that have had negative influences on other people."
On Challenge Day, the students also tackle Monroe High School's most destructive issue—racism.
Chris, a senior football player, stands before his classmates and apologizes for making racist jokes about his teammate and friend, Dorian.
"There are a lot of people in here today that I've said some things [about] that I never should have said. Nobody deserves what I said to them," he says. "I want everybody to know that I'm not going to just stop here. I'm going to go out to my family, and I'm going to let them know that racism's not where it's at. ... Today I overcame a huge hurdle in my life, and I just want everybody to know that and I'll be here for any one of you if you need me."
After receiving a hug from Dorian, Chris's African-American classmates walk up—one by one—to embrace him.
Niccole, an African-American student who experienced racism at Monroe, feels like Challenge Day helped break down some of the walls that may have contributed to the problem. "I think [students and teachers] didn't realize that it was happening. I mean, they did it, but they didn't really think about it," she says. "I think, at that point, they realized that what they say does affect what people do."
Since Yvonne and Rich brought Challenge Day to Monroe High School, Assistant Principal Denise Lilly says student-teacher relationships have improved. "I believe that we now see each other for who we really are," she says. "It's changed us tremendously in our building."
Though Challenge Day only lasted one day, Denise says she remains committed to keeping the students connected throughout the year. "[I want] to be as pro-active as possible," she says. "[I want] to show the students that I believe it in my heart...to show them that no matter who you are, no matter what you've gone through, you are a person that needs love and needs caring."
Students, as well as administrators, have seen positive changes in the hallways of this Michigan high school. Steven, one of Monroe High’s gay students, says that since Challenge Day, classmates have stopped calling him "faggot" and some students even say "hi" when they pass by.
De'Lea, another gay student, says the experiences she had on Challenge Day have helped her open up. "I'm not so in my shell anymore. I can let people know what I'm feeling," she says. "I've made a lot of friends, and it's been a big change."
Now that Monroe High School has completed the Challenge Day program, what's the next step? Yvonne says the first thing every student needs to do is stay real and vulnerable. She also suggests that every school form a team that's committed to keeping connections strong.
"Your entire goal [should be] to make sure everybody's safe, loved and celebrated," Yvonne says. "Don't stop until people are. ... Be courageous [enough] to say you're sorry—to keep looking around and loving people because that's the key."
In the years to come, Yvonne says schools like Monroe should plan a Challenge Day for an entire grade level every year. "It's kind of like a rite of passage," she says.
As these 64 students have shown, breaking down barriers and making emotional connections can make a difference. "If there's one thing that I am hoping that everybody takes from this show, it is the power of possibility and change that begins with every one of us," Oprah says.
Printed from Oprah.com on
© 2014 OWN, LLC. All Rights Reserved.