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Kids show courage while in 'retreat'

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
February 1, 2011
— When you're a teenager, it takes guts to admit you've got courage.

But when 140 Edgerton eighth-graders gathered around a bowl of water ringed with stones in the middle of a darkened conference room Monday, it was anybody's guess what would happen.


The students were asked to come up with one act of courage, speak it aloud and then drop a stone into the water.


The exercise at the Janesville Holiday Inn Express was part of a daylong "courage" retreat for Edgerton Middle School's eighth-grade class hosted by Youth Frontiers, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit youth outreach.


Its purpose: To help students identify and break down the social and personal barriers that divide them.


Call it an anti-bullying initiative from within.


As the students broke through, their words were punctuated by splashing stones:


"My thingy is to be nicer to people. If we were all the same height and the same size and the same skin cooler, it'd be boring. Does anybody know what I mean?


Plunk.


"It's like I've painted a picture of myself as me being all tomboyish. I have to be tough and make sure I don't freak out over the cutest thing. But I don't like it. That's not me.


"So don't think of me as suddenly I'm all weak. Its just … I want to be me, and less judgmental of myself."


Plink.


"I need to learn how to make more friends. So, uh, anyone here can be a part of my group."


Plunk.


On it went. Some students stared at their shoes as they spoke. Others had shaky voices. One cried.


Throughout the day, the students were put into small groups that pried them from their usual cliques and their comfort zones. They played games and did group activities.


In one exercise, students listed their fears on paper. The point was to show the shy kid and the class clown that they have common hopes—to be liked, to be understood, to get a chance.


"We're talking about the courage that it takes to be a leader, to be yourself, and to do the right thing," said Kecia Winter, a counselor with Youth Frontiers.


She said the retreat's coordinators understand that not everyone's a bully or a victim.


"It isn't just a lecture about bullying. It's more," Winter said. "What we're trying to do is empower or inspire the 80 percent of kids who might stand by and watch people get treated unkindly."


Edgerton schools guidance counselor Susan Running said the retreat's message might fade for some students, but she enjoyed seeing one scene play out Monday: She watched two students, both sworn enemies, working out their fears on paper.


"It's kind of cool to watch to kids that you usually see snarling at each other just sitting there talking," Running said. "To me, that's the goal in all of this."



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