By Ron Leir
Fifty-seven Lyndhurst teens went into “lockdown’’ mode in the high school gym for 12 hours and couldn’t have been happier about it.
And many, if not all, can’t wait to do it again.
Their adventure, enthusiastically endorsed by the local school district, was dubbed the “Lock-in Palooza” by Maryann Mulé, a student assistance counselor and anti-bullying specialist, who created the event as a way to inspire “acts of kindness” among students.
The experiment, which included dinner, seems to have worked, judging from kids’ reactions.
“Students can be impulsive, nasty, insensitive,” Mulé observed. “For example, a girl may tweet another girl, ‘I can’t believe you wore such an ugly sweater,’ and with the profusion of social media today, once you make a mistake like that, there’s no way of taking it back.” So, to try and dissuade such inappropriate behavior, Mulé said the district’s goal “is to persuade students, ideally, to think first about they’re doing before acting, or, if they’re the target of a spiteful remark, to say to themselves, ‘You don’t need to respond,’ ’’ and, thereby, avoid an escalation of hostilities.
Instead, Mulé said, “If we can train our students to be more kind to each other, then they aren’t going to engage in bad behavior.”
To that end, Mulé – with the backing of Schools Superintendent Tracey Marinelli and LHS Principal Nicholas Cofarro – invited students from grades 9 to 12 to volunteer for an all-night commitment – where they’d be confined to the school gym, from 5 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Saturday (Nov. 22-23), to participate in a series of staff-supervised exercised designed to promote teamwork.
As a way of eliminating outside distractions, once they entered the gym, it was “goodbye, cell phones,” which had to be surrendered to staff for the duration, Mulé noted. Kids had to fill out an application and get parental consent to attend.
Several participating students managed to find time for the “overnight” even with a lot already on their plate. Like Adam Kmeck, a 17-yearold senior who juggles AP courses in physics, biology and calculus, Computer Club, Future Business Leaders of America, freshman peer group and Golden Bear mascot, among other things.
As he waited for the event to start, Adam revealed a very personal reason for being there. “I want to better understand people, to empathize more. One day I’m caring, the next day I’ll just walk by someone,” he said, waving his arm at an imaginary passerby to drive home his point.
For ninth-grader Sarah Almeida, 14, a member of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), Color Guard and marching band, the event sounded like a “fun idea” and a good way “to get out of the house,” where she’d otherwise be “doing homework and sleeping.”
But junior honors student Lucinda Garcia, 16, felt she was a girl with a mission: “spreading positivity in school. We can have a better community if we stop thinking of having immature fights over somebody’s boyfriend, for example. Some people get angry over little things – they get angry over the way you might look at them.”
Lucinda, who is also president of the GSA, busy with directorial responsibilities for the LHS winter musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” in chorale and on the LHS newspaper, figured it would be “fun to see if I make new friends” via the anticipated team-building opportunities. And, practically speaking, she added, “networking is important, in and out of school.”
During the night, students bonded through such exercises as inventing and presenting skits, working as teams, matching up with partners they didn’t know and learning more about each other, discussing the elements of discrimination, planning and executing a “trust fall” and negotiating an obstacle course as a cohesive unit.
And there was a surprise appearance by The Cleopatra Club, a rock band whose members are from Garfield and North Haledon, whose music really made the Lyndhurst kids’ night.
Did the experiment work?
Sarah Almeida, who’d hoped for a night of “fun,” wasn’t disappointed. “It was great bonding – I had a blast. I feel a lot closer to kids I didn’t talk to before. We don’t feel like strangers anymore. I made four or five new friends,” she said.
Freshman Aaron Perez, 14, who was persuaded by his friends to get in the program, said he made as many as 15 new buds, from different grades. “I didn’t expect to bond,” Aaron said. “I met a lot of kids there I didn’t know before and now when I see them, I say ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Before that, I’d just turn away.”
Skeptical initially, Jose Rodriguez, a 15-year-old sophomore, found himself turned on by the hype about attention to kindness. “A lot of people, I wouldn’t talk to them before but now, I think those people are pretty cool.” And the role he played in his team’s skit – coming to the aid of boys being “picked on” – “made me realize that by saying some simple, couple of words, you can be a ‘superhero’ by making someone in need feel good about themselves.”
Jose must have been pretty convincing in that part because, as he put it, “I saw the effect on people’s faces. Everyone got into it.” Would he participate in another “Lockin Palooza”? “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
Principal Cofarro was confident going into the event that it would be an unqualified success.
“Ms. Mulé came to me with this [proposal] and we jumped all over it because it gives the kids a chance to collaborate and that’s an extension of what we try to do throughout the district. Team-building, cooperative learning, peer sharing. Having dialogue, conversation breaks down the boundaries between kids, gives them a sense of self-worth. It gets them to think creatively to solve problems. At the same time, the teacher-student relationship is enhanced. And while there’s rigor in the school day, we want to have our kids to feel safe and comfortable as they grow and achieve in a healthy and stress-free learning environment,” Cofarro said.
As for Mulé, the experiment turned out to be “one of the best moments I’ve had in my five and a half years as an educator. We have a lot of kids with social anxiety, who suffer from depression, who have trouble relating, and here they were, taking it all in. It was truly a rewarding experience to see so much kindness, happiness.”
“Now,” Mulé maintained, “we have to do it again next year!”