WORDS FROM THE SUP’T: Why ‘real talk’ matters

Can you remember the last time you had a real talk? I’m not talking about our usual polite exchanges about work or the weather. I’m talking about getting real. Over two days at Clarkston United Methodist Church, nearly 300 Clarkston High School students did just that at our fall CHS “Real Talk” event. Students learned how it feels to take a chance and make themselves vulnerable to others. They shared pieces of their inner selves that may never have been revealed otherwise. This was done with compassion and without judgement, as young adults and mentors connected in ways they will never forget.

Through guided discussions, tears, hugs and laughter, Real Talk shifts negative peer pressure to positive peer support. The program was introduced last winter by CHS teachers Melissa Bridgman, Ryan Eisele, and Rachel Vickers with the help of dozens of teachers, school leaders and community members who facilitated small group discussions.

There were no cell phones or outside interruptions, and each Real Talk activity was designed to nudge students to interact with peers they didn’t know. In a very short time, the walls came down and what was left was simply…real.

In Real Talk, we can see and feel the life-changing power of human connection. We are engaging with students on the most basic, most critical level – and teaching them to do the same for one another.  I asked some of our Real Talk facilitators to describe, in their own words, what the Real Talk experience is all about:

Rachel Vickers, CHS Leadership Teacher and Real Talk Coordinator:

“Students are dealing with so much within their day to day lives that is often not seen by those around them, including parents and teachers. Having a better understanding of what they are facing, whether it be stress from school, home, friends, relationships, allows everyone involved to be able to support them to their fullest. If students are happy and healthy, they are more willing to participate in class, and feel successful.

One thing I especially love about Real Talk is it allows students to talk about some of the struggles they have or have had within their own lives. The vulnerability that is exposed creates a sense of community and support among staff and students. The aftermath of Real Talk is also something to be celebrated. Students are kinder, more supportive of one another, and teachers and staff within the building are much more aware of their students needs.”

Kelli Horst, Clarkston Community Schools Board of Education Vice President:

Once students started opening up (and boy did they share!), I was both heartbroken by their stories and overwhelmed by the support and love they showed each other. It takes real bravery to reveal some of their most intimate fears and feelings among their peers (many of whom did not know each other at the start of the day), and there wasn’t a judgmental or cynical comment. There is real power in that kind of connection. I wish every student in our district could experience it.

It was like looking at a 17-year-old me in the mirror, except I didn’t have the tools or avenues at the time to express my own fears and traumas. I hope that through programs like Real Talk and our district’s ongoing commitment to the social and emotional health of our students, we are creating mentally healthier generations.”

Allie Dennis, Clarkston Junior High School Language Arts Teacher:

Our kids are some of the strongest individuals I’ve ever had the honor of knowing, speaking to, and learning alongside. Real Talk gave me the unique opportunity to hear about the battles kids are fighting against. These battles are raw and real, and need to be acknowledged, heard, and understood. Our kids are struggling and we need to step up, do our part, and show them how exceptionally beautiful and brave they are. I heard stories that stuck with me, stories that resonated with me, and stories that upset me. I heard the wisdom of a young soul, meandering through cloudy and seemingly impossible times, just trying to find clarity and solace.”

Julie Meredith, Clarkston Independence District Library Director and Clarkston For Life Committee Member:

Real Talk was such an eye-opening and impactful day. It was an opportunity for adults and teens to connect and remember that we all experience stress and anxiety. No one should ever have to feel alone when facing life’s toughest trials. Real Talk broke down some of the barriers that make people feel isolated. You never know if you might be the person in the right place at the right time to truly support someone who is hurting and needs someone to care. Open your eyes, open your ears and be present in the moment.”

Real talk. It’s not always easy, and in today’s digital culture, it’s certainly growing more elusive than ever, but even one authentic touchpoint can be a pebble that ripples out for a lifetime.

Shawn Ryan is superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools

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