FERDINAND — Not one student ate lunch alone Friday at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School.
Social isolation and loneliness can be crippling to teens, especially at lunchtime when the kids are left to fend for themselves socially. According to nonprofit organization Beyond Differences, social aloneness is often a precursor to bullying and violence in schools.
So, students in Natalie Howard’s high school ethnic studies class orchestrated a program during Forest Park High School’s lunch periods that fell in line with the Beyond Differences’ national No One Eats Alone program to reach out to their peers.
Even though isolation occurs on a small scale at the school of about 600, teachers and students said it does exist.
“I know it’s not as big as it is in bigger schools because everyone has their friend group, but there are some people who I know I see every day eating by themselves,” said Maggie Brown a junior and an organizer of the event.
Participating students — the activity was optional for high schoolers, while junior high students were required to partake in a similar activity organized by the Junior High Student Council — were randomly assigned to a lunch table where they were encouraged to strike up conversations with fellow Rangers they may have never spoken with before.
Talking points written on pieces of paper and “Would You Rather…?” cards were sprinkled on tables to encourage easy, fun dialogue. Students also received candy, gum and other prizes at lunch to celebrate.
According to information on the No One Eats Alone website, social isolation is a universal problem in schools. It cites its own data accumulated from more than 10,000 students in dozens of schools and afterschool programs.
“We also acknowledge the relationship between social isolation and bullying and violence,” the website says. “By reducing social isolation, we believe we can help end much bullying and violence.”
Sophomore Abby Hauser believes the experience was productive.
“I think in some situations it can be, but I do think we do a pretty good job,” she said of the prevalence of social isolation at the school. “It’s good every once in awhile to have an experience like this to put ourselves out there.”
Special education and junior high reading teacher Melissa Haas said she hopes the kids remain open to helping others moving forward.
“I told the kids today, maybe it wasn’t your favorite thing to do because you didn’t get to sit with your friends, but think about how it may have made that person who might typically sit by themselves feel today,” she said. “And if you had a conversation with that person, how it may have brightened their day.”