11/16/2005

Mixing It Up in Florida: A Bird's Eye View

Tafeni English, director of Mix It Up, and Tiffany Rogers, marketing outreach coordinator, visited East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Fla., on Tuesday for the fourth annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day. Here is an account of their day. Visit www.tolerance.org for more Mix It Up stories - from Oregon to Pennsylvania, Iowa to Texas - to find out how more than 5 million students challenged social boundaries at 13,000 schools.

As we entered East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Fla., we were welcomed by smiling faces and a sign of bold blue letters: "Welcome to the Home of the Eagles."

A student led us through one of the many breezeways to the cafeteria with colorful "Mix It Up, Speak Up, Talk It Up" handmade signs along the way. The Multicultural Club and the Key Club had decorated the cafeteria, which featured banners and a microphone stand. Emcees Nuri and Simone greeted us.

The event began when someone shouted "Seniors first!" and students trickled in. Then the bell sounded and swarms of other students arrived.

A student leader yelled, "Mix It Up, sit with someone new today," handing out blue, red and yellow bracelets to coincide with balloons on the assigned tables. Even the tables had been mixed up, long, straight rows replaced with a zigzagging pattern. It was clear to all students this would not be a routine day.

Some, like Mark, fell right in, frolicking from table to table to meet new people. Brittany thought it was great that she got to meet people she never would have ever spoken to before. Some played a competitive game to see who could meet the most people gathering names and grade levels at a rapid pace.

Resistance, though, also is part of Mix It Up. Some students sat back, watching rather than participating. Comfort zones are like that; not everyone is willing to break out of them. But even within that group, students rose up to challenge boundaries.

Mica and Safire, for example, left their non-participating friends and joined the fray. Mica, a football player, encouraged a fellow teammate to get up and mix in spite of another's opinion that the event was "childish" or for "losers." Safire left her group when none of them cared to come inside and meet others.

Student leaders - Natalie, Alexis, Ashlynn and others - took other timid students by the hand, helping them meet people as they moved from table to table. Participation increased. PJ, for example, worried at first about looking "stupid," then joined in, calling it preparation for the "real world," when you have to reach out and meet new people.

Then came the raffle, with a wide array of prizes. Even then, Mixing It Up remained the focus; winners were challenged - "Have you Mixed It Up? Have you met someone new?" - before prizes were handed over.

Ashley epitomized the day. In the space of one Mix It Up event, she set a basketball date with a new friend, put a name - Dawn - to someone she passed every day anonymously in the halls, and discovered mutual friends with someone she previously considered a stranger.

It was time to leave, and as we walked out of the building, another image caught our eye: a picture of two hands, one black, one white, with fingers interlocked and a single word printed below. Coexist.