The teen years can be a treacherous time, and high school can be Ground Zero for all the pain, confusion, anger, joy, vice and struggle of those years.
That's why there's real value in "If You Really Knew Me," (MTV, 11 tonight), a compelling docu-series that visits high school as they go through the one-day Challenge Day program, and shows what happens when kids are challenged to open up and be themselves.
In the first episode, the Challenge Day program comes to Freedom High, a Northern California school that has been transformed in the last decade, growing from a mostly white 500-student body to a diverse school of 2,400. That's led to deep division at the school, and it's not just racial. Jocks and cheerleaders hang out on one side of the campus, the outcasts on another.
When the Challenge Day leaders come into the school and put the kids in small groups and ask them to complete the sentence 'If you really knew me' it peels away the labels and reveals young people dealing with everything from the anxiety of parental expectation to thoughts of suicide. One girl, a leader at the school, reveals that her family's fortune (a nice house, separate rooms, a flat-screen TV) has led to a disconnect among them. Another young man has to deal with his parents' relentless condemnation of his homosexuality. It's not just the kids who have stories to tell; an assistant coach must confront his harsh treatment of his son.
What I found particularly striking isn't the issues the teens face (although it's disturbing to see how many of the kids do have serious issues); there's plenty out their about teen suicide, cutting and the like. What comes across most is the resiliency of these young people. They suffer in silence, learning early how to wear a mask of normality.
You can see the toll of that approach when one of the students, putting what she's learned from the Challenge Day to action, goes home and tells her dad how much she appreciates all he does. His response: "Did Challenge Day help you think differently about your schoolwork?" The girl astutely, and with mature sense of kindness, points out that maybe her dad isn't as emotional developed as she is.
"If You Really Knew Me" is a tear-jerker; it's tough to watch young people carrying so much pain. And while a one-day program does seem to make some change, who knows if that change is long lasting.
But there's nothing wrong with being reminded that teens have a lot on their minds and hide behind social walls as a form of protection. (Yes, I know, adults do that too.) "If You Really Knew Me" shows that sometimes just giving them a safe place to open up can stop an emotionally stunted teen from taking that pain into adulthood.