If you’ve seen the highly acclaimed film Freedom Writers, you may remember a specific scene in the movie where Hillary Swank (who plays the role of Erin Gruwell) asks each of her students to stand in two single-file lines, facing each other (see clip below). She then proceeds to share several statements, some of which are quite personal, and asks the students to stand on the line if the statements are true for them. The primary purpose of the activity, which is known as “The Line Game”, is to create a sense of community by breaking down perceived barriers.
This activity happens to be the very first thing I do with any group of students I work with, young or old. It also happens to be something they enjoy doing more than any other activity. Considering the fact that I’m asking them to be vulnerable (i.e. Stand on the line if you lack self-confidence), this might surprise you. Why is it that so many students, regardless of age, are so eager to share what would otherwise be considered un-cool things to talk about? Why is it that a large majority of the thousands of students I’ve worked with are willing to admit that they often make decisions just to fit in? Why is it that an even larger majority have no problem admitting that they lack self-confidence? Because it provides them with a safe opportunity to remove the many masks they tend to wear.
Below is an excerpt from a poem written by Charles Winn in 1966, which beautifully captures the power of the mask.
Don’t be fooled by me. Don’t be fooled by the mask I wear. For I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me. Pretending is an art that is second nature with me, but don’t be fooled.
… I give the impression that I’m secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without; that confidence is my name and coolness is my game; that the waters are calm and that I’m in command and I need no one. But don’t believe it; please don’t.
I idly chatter with you in suave tone of surface talk. I tell you everything that’s really nothing, nothing of what’s crying within me. So when I’m going through my routine, don’t be fooled by what I’m saying. Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying; what I’d like to be able to say; what, for survival, I need to say but I can’t say. I dislike hiding. Honestly I do. I dislike the superficial phony games I’m playing.
I’d really like to be genuine, spontaneous, and me; but you have to help me. You have to help me by holding out your hand, even when that’s the last thing I seem to want or need. Each time you are kind and gentle and encouraging, each time you try to understand because you really care, my heart begins to grow wings. Very small wings. Very feeble wings. But wings. With your sensitivity and sympathy and your power of understanding, I can make it. You can breathe life into me. It will not be easy for you. A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls. But love is stronger than strong walls, and therein lies my hope. Please try to beat down those walls with firm hands, but with gentle hands, for a child is very sensitive, and I am a child.
Who am I, you may wonder. For I am every man, every woman, every child…every human you meet.
If you are a teacher, or work with groups of young people in any capacity, I encourage you to play this game with your students. Contact me by leaving a message below and I will send you the list of statements I use with various age groups.