On Thursday the group at Alhambra High is talking about feelings. It’s the second to last day of the two-week "Fresh Start" program, and there is an easy familiarity among them.
The quote of the day is "no feeling is final," and they are in small groups filling out worksheets about the "stress spiral." The group takes apart a scenario about a student named Mark who had to join a program at school because he “ditched so much.” Mark tries to develop a plan to change his thoughts, feelings and actions.
The students have to identify coping strategies Mark uses — such as eating ice cream or playing guitar — to deal with his negative thoughts and feelings. And they try to identify how Mark’s feelings, actions and thoughts are linked together.
Sharon Chan, one of the therapists, leads 15 students in one of the three classes in a group discussion. "What if you have a day where eating ice cream, watching the TV, and those things don't work?...Sometimes it's having a friend or family support us, and that's OK."
Chan asks the class to come up with 10 coping strategies, and asks: "Who would you call if you got to the end of the list?”
"I'd call Maria," said Cassandra Contreras, 14, looking over to her friend's desk a couple feet away. "Even though I just met her last week, I'd call her and talk to her. She understands."
"Awwww," the class groaned collectively.
Then they start to put together their lists. Students shout out their coping methods: writing a letter and never sending it, keeping a diary, playing sports, posting to Tumblr.
Maria Guadalupe Lara, 14, watches the action with an appreciative and mischievous grin, shouting out her suggestions.
"You can come in here and say whatever you want, because we have the Vegas rule," Maria said. "What happens here, stays here."
Dianna Dolores Zuany, 14, was always a social butterfly and school leader. But as an eighth-grader, she was struggling in her classes for the first time and was worried she wouldn’t be able to graduate. Her grandfather died in December, she had a new boyfriend, and she and her childhood best friend were starting to drift apart.
"As an eighth-grader you have your drama, you have the little girls and the boys, the 'Oh I have a boyfriend' and all this, and the crossing the stage," Dianna said. "You had your worries, what if I fail freshman year, what if, what if, and you just worry, but this is a fresh start."
Near Dianna sat Arturo Jr. Cuevas, 15. For Arturo, Fresh Start really is a second chance. Arturo didn't cross the stage at his graduation ceremony because he failed a science class. He’d allowed himself to bend to peer pressure to slack off as an eighth-grader, and was distracted by trouble at home.
"I felt really ashamed since I was the only one that didn't cross stage. I was really angry with myself thinking I could have done so much more, but I didn't do it," Arturo said.
But he wanted high school to be different: "I want to start right. I don't want to mess up like I did before. I want to be ready and prepared."
Arturo also wants to make his dad proud. "I want him to say, 'That's my son. He didn't cross stage, sure, but at least he was able to get through high school, no problem.'"
The exercises are meant to push the students to explore how they think and feel in new ways. In an exercise the staff hands out mini-candy bars, Twix, Snickers, Milky Way, to the students. They had them choose which one they would desire most and hold it in their hands. Then the students are asked to meditate on the packaging — how it feels, what the wrapper sounds like, what past experiences of eating the candy they can remember, what the sensation was of putting it in their mouths and tasting it.
“Now pass your candy to the right,” Cone said, relating what happened next. “So everybody loses their favorite candy.
“Immediately they all sighed and got really frustrated. So we talked about that, what are the immediate thoughts they had with feeling disappointed and having this candy they really really wanted and had pictured eating. What was it like to give that up?”
The students speak about this, and then they are given back the candy. They’re asked to verbalize what it’s like to eat the candy now. Whether it’s better than they imagined, and how delayed gratification plays into this.
“If you can put off your immediate desire to be rewarded right away, and postpone that to your bigger goals, then you can be more successful,” Cone said.
“And just also as a coping skill, just being able to live in the moment and really savor the moment. Because most depression and anxiety is about time travel, either living in the past, or living too much in the future, and not really focusing on the here and now.”
As the day’s lesson shows, no feeling — of isolation or anxiety — is final.
But with a “Fresh Start” under their belts, it’s now up to the students to choose which feeling will guide them in their new journey through high school.
Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).