In a school assembly that they called "mind-blowing" and "eye-opening," students cried and stood with each other, realizing they are not alone in experiencing societal problems.
It was a day organized by two Altoona Area High School teachers, Breanne Venios and Meghan Bradley, in whom a few students confided suicidal thoughts.
"We thought this has to be an issue with more students. We want them to know they are not alone," Venios said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Motivational speaker Manny Scott takes a selfie before delivering a speech to a group of Altoona Area High School students on Thursday. Scott’s life story was partially depicted in the movie Freedom Writers.
During the assembly, students were asked to stand up if they've had experiences including being raised by a single parent, seeing their mothers beaten, losing family members because of violence or drug and alcohol abuse, or having an incarcerated parent.
Altoona Area High School Principal Patricia Burlingame knows the statistics of her school. She knows the percentages of students who come from homes with various social or economic problems.
But to see the number of students who stood made her gasp.
"Oh my gosh. ... Oh my gosh," was her reaction to the number of standing students.
Students said it took courage to stand up. But they did. And they saw each other in a way they never have before. Even teachers stood up. A majority of students were standing by the end, they said. Burlingame said a history teacher approached her after the assembly.
"'Wow, world history really isn't important, is it?' he told me," Burlingame said.
"You are important," she told students in her principal advisory committee that met after the assembly.
Burlingame asked her committee for feedback on the assembly.
The consensus was a surprise at the commonality among students of different backgrounds.
"You think everyone lives these perfect lives aside from you. But we are all the same in some type of way," one student said.
Another student said she anticipates the assembly will help students seek help.
"I stood up to a lot of things asked. If you can do that, then you can walk down to the counselor's office to talk about it," she said.
Another student who didn't have many problems was shocked.
"It was eye-opening to see how many kids have seen their mothers hit, alcoholic parents. It's so sad and eye-opening. I have two good parents. I never saw those things."
"This was the one time that I saw the school come together as one," said another student.
The catalyst for this reaction by students was the speaker, Manny Scott.
With a grant from the school district's alumni supported foundation, Bradley and Venios brought in Scott for a visit.
The true story of how Scott and other former students from Long Beach, Calif., were inspired to change their lives is told in the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers."
"If you look at statistics, my father was incarcerated. I was doing drugs. I dropped out of school. I should be in jail or dead. But because a bunch of strangers left their comfort zones to help me, I am here," Scott said. "I'm still changing. But the real starting point was when a man addicted to drugs told me that you can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you deal with it."
He returned to school with a new attitude. In Erin Gruwell's English class, he and students like him were inspired by Anne Frank's diary. Those students became engaged in school by writing their own journals.
They are now known worldwide as the Freedom Writers, portrayed in the hit MTV movie.
In his journal, Scott began writing new chapters in his life. He has achieved many of those journaled dreams. He is now happily married, a doting father of three, a successful entrepreneur, a doctoral student and one of the nation's most sought-after speakers.
His message for students was three-fold.
"Don't give up. Don't lose hope. Your life can get better. I want kids to know they are not alone," he said during a media conference after the assembly.
"To change, they need to make a decision about what they don't want and do want. ... They have to become aware to the imbalances and pain to the point where they know they have to change," he said. "And the most important thing is perseverance. I missed 90 days of school per year from fourth to ninth grade. I'm still paying for that. My handwriting is still terrible. If you fail and mess up, get up and try again."
Guidance from teachers and coaches was crucial to his development, he said.
At one point in the assembly, students were given five minutes to hug someone who had a positive impact on them. Some hugged teachers.
Students said they saw faces of teachers, surprised that they were being hugged by students they didn't expect.
Coming in, some students said they thought it would be a typical assembly in which a list of statistics were rattled off accompanied by preaching about support, love and anti-bullying policies.
Instead, they said Scott made it personal, and it impacted them in a way many couldn't fully articulate.
"Honestly, I felt different," one student said. "I can't explain why. Everyone was crying and hugging each other. It was unlike anything we had at the school before."
It's going to be an uphill battle to keep that unified feeling, students said. It will take more than a new club to integrate what they've felt Thursday into school routine.
Led by Venios and the high school's English teachers, students are continuing to journal about their lives like the Freedom Writers. The project is meant to reinforce the fact that no one is alone in their problems.
"I think we are succeeding," Venios said.
All high school English teachers had their kids generate diary entries. Each classroom teacher will collect their students' anonymous entries to be published by 48 Hour Books. The books will be sold for $15 each.
"The proceeds will go to Blair County Teen Center and Shelter as a way of passing on the positivity we experienced," Venios said.