MTV gives California school ‘Breakfast Club’ treatment


Early in Tuesday’s opening episode of MTV’s documentary series, “If You Really Knew Me,” a student at Freedom High School in Oakley, Calif., declares that the campus is, essentially, a “kingdom of cliques.”

No, that’s not a rousing endorsement for the school, but let’s back up for second: What the heck is MTV doing in Oakley?

“Yeah, that shocked me. I wondered why they would
show up in this really small, random town,” says Freedom High grad
Leikin Poppino, referring to the youth-centric cable network that
typically hangs out in places like Laguna Beach and the Jersey Shore. “Personally, though, I think they picked a great school.”

But not one without its problems. Like a lot of
American high schools, Freedom has its share of racial tensions and its
own version of the social food chain. “A-Quadders,” for example, are
the “nerds and freaks” who hang out near the administration building.
“Senior Hill”? That’s where the cool kids roam.

These divisions are further complicated by an
enrollment that has soared from 500 students to 2,400 in just 10 years.
In that time, the student population has become highly diverse, making
Freedom the perfect place to launch a show dedicated to breaking down
barriers via an approach that recalls “The Breakfast Club.”

“Like that iconic movie, we’re putting together kids who normally wouldn’t talk or come into contact with each other,” says Liz Gateley, senior vice president of series development for MTV. “And this show uncovers the pain that so many young kids are going through.”

Tethered to the long-running Challenge Day program,
“If You Really Knew Me” goes into a different high school each week to
reveal what happens when students peel back their public personas,
break out of their cliques and show their peers who they really are.

Tuesday’s opening episode introduces viewers to
several Freedom High students, including Travis, the popular jock, and
Rob, a gay “band geek.” Also appearing are Barbara, a former cutter,
Leikin, who has “no emotional connection to her parents,” and Kabraea,
who admits to having suicidal thoughts,

They and other students are put through a series of
intense interactive exercises by Challenge Day reps who urge the kids
to share their problems and concerns. Rob, for example, movingly tells
of how his parents have emphatically told him he’s “going to hell” if
he maintains his gay lifestyle.

In the process, there are plenty of hugs and tears,
along with the realization that the kids really aren’t all that
different from one another.

Poppino, 18, says Challenge Day was a powerful transformative experience.

“I truly believe that, if everyone in the world
participated in something like this, the world would be completely
different,” she says.

But can a one-day program really change a campus?
Poppino, who has graduated since the documentary was filmed, believes
it can — in incremental doses.

She helped form a campus club called “Be The
Change,” which takes Challenge Day techniques into various classes.
Meanwhile, Travis launched an effort to abolish racism within the
football team.

And sure enough, the denizens of Senior Hill began to invite A-Quadders to share their turf.

“That little change was miraculous in itself,”
Poppino says. “Suddenly we all had the courage to be who we wanted to
be and hang out with who we wanted to hang out with. By the end of the
year, we were a class — not a bunch of cliques.”

Gateley believes “If You Really Knew Me” can have a positive impact on teenagers across the country.

“This isn’t going to automatically have everyone
sitting around a campfire singing songs,” she says. “But we’re hoping
it can open discussions in the home and be an impetus for change.”



11 p.m. EDT Tuesday



(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.