Early in Tuesday's opening episode of
No, that's not a rousing endorsement for the school, but let's back up for second: What the heck is
"Yeah, that shocked me. I wondered why they would
show up in this really small, random town," says Freedom High grad
Leikin Poppino, referring to the youth-centric cable network that
typically hangs out in places like
But not one without its problems. Like a lot of American high schools, Freedom has its share of racial tensions and its own version of the social food chain. "A-Quadders," for example, are the "nerds and freaks" who hang out near the administration building. "Senior Hill"? That's where the cool kids roam.
These divisions are further complicated by an enrollment that has soared from 500 students to 2,400 in just 10 years. In that time, the student population has become highly diverse, making Freedom the perfect place to launch a show dedicated to breaking down barriers via an approach that recalls "The Breakfast Club."
"Like that iconic movie, we're putting together kids who normally wouldn't talk or come into contact with each other," says
Tethered to the long-running Challenge Day program, "If You Really Knew Me" goes into a different high school each week to reveal what happens when students peel back their public personas, break out of their cliques and show their peers who they really are.
Tuesday's opening episode introduces viewers to several Freedom High students, including Travis, the popular jock, and Rob, a gay "band geek." Also appearing are Barbara, a former cutter, Leikin, who has "no emotional connection to her parents," and Kabraea, who admits to having suicidal thoughts,
They and other students are put through a series of intense interactive exercises by Challenge Day reps who urge the kids to share their problems and concerns. Rob, for example, movingly tells of how his parents have emphatically told him he's "going to hell" if he maintains his gay lifestyle.
In the process, there are plenty of hugs and tears, along with the realization that the kids really aren't all that different from one another.
Poppino, 18, says Challenge Day was a powerful transformative experience.
"I truly believe that, if everyone in the world participated in something like this, the world would be completely different," she says.
But can a one-day program really change a campus? Poppino, who has graduated since the documentary was filmed, believes it can — in incremental doses.
She helped form a campus club called "Be The Change," which takes Challenge Day techniques into various classes. Meanwhile, Travis launched an effort to abolish racism within the football team.
And sure enough, the denizens of Senior Hill began to invite A-Quadders to share their turf.
"That little change was miraculous in itself," Poppino says. "Suddenly we all had the courage to be who we wanted to be and hang out with who we wanted to hang out with. By the end of the year, we were a class — not a bunch of cliques."
Gateley believes "If You Really Knew Me" can have a positive impact on teenagers across the country.
"This isn't going to automatically have everyone sitting around a campfire singing songs," she says. "But we're hoping it can open discussions in the home and be an impetus for change."
IF YOU REALLY KNEW ME
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