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Student narratives unleash banked emotions

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

Kids today – as ever – don’t enjoy a good reputation.

The critique of modern teenagers – that they are spoiled brutes sheltered by parents, smartphones and educators from life’s hard truths – gets regular airing in corporate board rooms, newspaper editorials and online message boards.

But, on Tuesday, Escalante Middle School offered a brilliant riposte to adults’ mutterings about the shallowness of our young people by hosting 100 teenagers from throughout the district to participate in Epic Day, the third in Colorado.

Epic Day is part of a cutting-edge program, the Hero Project, which uses mythology, games, mentors, small-group confessionals and a “time machine” to combat bullying, suicide and drug abuse.

Escalante Middle School counselor Chad Novak, who does program analysis and design for the Hero Project, said it was pedagogically based in a social constructivist theory of narratives’ power.

“By reauthoring your own history you can take the victim or bully from before and turn them into a hero from rewriting your own narrative,” he said.

Novak said that while Epic Day is understandably attention-grabbing, it’s only a kickoff event “that starts off an eight-week cycle of projects that are very specific to the region,” projects that encourage leadership and community.

While Epic Day, led by Loren Lapow, also involved a light show, a massive TV screen, a bank of Mac laptops and a cordless microphone, there was nothing technological or gimmicky about its content.

Their testimonials made clear how thoroughly every generation of parents fails at keeping its children from knowing life’s despair, pain and darkness, and how much bravery growing up really requires.

Thirteen-year-olds spoke with unpretentious grief about the suicide of their friends.

Fourteen-year-olds, who should know nothing of mortality, spoke of parents’ deaths with startling intimacy.

One young girl told the room she was sorry that despite her parents and grandmother telling her, daily, that they loved her, she had never told them she loved them, too.

Listening to teenagers speak honestly about their lives reduced some adults in the room to tears.

Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp afterwards characterized the kids’ statements as heart-wrenching.

Visibly moved, Escalante Middle School teacher John Hise thanked the students for giving his work meaning.

Novak said the animating insight of the Hero Project was that modern society is ailed by “individualization. When people are under stress or bullied, they disengage, become isolated and lonely, which leads to maladaptive behaviors, such as addiction, aggression or self-harm. Whereas we create a program that pushes them together.”

He said that on Wednesday, students had been coming up to him all day, asking him about when the next Epic Day would be.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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