Thoughts from Dr. Joe: All we can change is ourselves

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.” He might well have been referring to me as I navigate the labyrinth of classrooms at LCHS back-to-school night looking for Mr. Lively's class, room 305. I'm about to throw in the towel and head to McDonald's for a chocolate shake when Principal Ian McFeat finds me bewildered. “Dr. Joe! I want to speak to you about something,” he says.

I get that uneasy feeling reminiscent of elementary and high school days. I start to wonder what I've done wrong this time.

“Would you be my guest tomorrow afternoon at Challenge Day? I would appreciate your thoughts,” he said.

I have no clue what he is talking about, so I ask.

“I can't explain it,” he said. “You have to experience it to get it.”

I showed up as planned and followed McFeat and Jarrett Gold to the gym, curious to understand the hoopla of Challenge Day. I was unsettled as to why neither McFeat nor Gold could intellectualize the experience. I am a proponent of cause and effect. Witnessing 100 high school kids euphorically connecting with each other would not be sufficient. I needed to know the cause of their euphoria. Situations happen to people, but they unfold from deeper causes.

In E.M. Forster's novel “Howards End,” he discusses the imperative of making connections. Forster's epigraph, “Only Connect” became the mantra as the antidote for the complexities of contemporary societies. Connection is the essence of Challenge Day.

Challenge Day builds empathy and compassion within students and ignites the need for positive change. Addressing myriad problematic behaviors such as bullying, cliques and racism, students participate in workshops that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through both collective and individualized expressions of acceptance and truth. Challenge Day fulfills a component of Maslow's “Hierarchy of Needs,” where children are immersed in a secure setting feeling safe, loved and celebrated. Ultimately, students are motivated to be change agents.

However, sustained motivation is intrinsic; it must be developed. School board member Ellen Multari said, “Internal motivation is developmental. As adults in our kids' lives, we need to provide the appropriate external motivation and reinforce positive outcomes until they can internalize it themselves. Challenge Day provides a model for dealing with stress and anxiety that we all experience.”

Be the change, the students are told. I lived through the Age of Aquarius in the '60s. We were going to change the world, end the war, and eradicate the ills of society. But we had the wrong paradigm. I've learned that all we can change is ourselves. That's were you begin. But it takes a commitment to be an example of change and assimilate the core values and behaviors of a challenge day. Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world but nobody thinks of changing themselves.”

I applaud McFeat and Gold for recognizing the necessity of a challenge day. I appreciate their cognizance of institutionalizing an environment that would sustain its edicts. Curtailing the social ills must be holistic and must permeate into every pore of the school and community. However, it starts at home.

The social and emotional needs of students lie within the affective domain of education and I am encouraged that McFeat has attempted to address this component. We have to find the connection in the social-emotional milieu as they relate to cognition.

Affective education should have a priority in curricula. With current emphasis placed upon standardized testing and content standard accountability, strategies aimed at balancing the cognitive and affective are essential. Educate holistically so children are able to identify their unique gifts and talents and use them to reach their full potential without losing themselves in the process.

The law of karma is the law of cause and effect: As you sow, so shall you reap.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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