DALTON -- Eighth-grader Max McIlquham surveyed the lunchroom at Nessacus Middle School on Tuesday afternoon.

He spoke philosophically about the chatter that took place among students at one table, while another table was unusually quiet.

Lunch was a change to the normal routine in anticipation of "No Name Calling Week."

The school club, Students Teaching Respect, Integrity, Value and Equality (STRIVE), worked in coordination with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office Peer Mentor Leadership Program to organize a lunch in which the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders sat next to peers they might have seen in the hallway, but did not know.

Middle school students tend to gravitate toward close-knit groups of friends, counselor Stephanie Shafiroff said.

But on Tuesday, or "Nessacus Celebrates CommUNITY Day," they were forced out of their comfort zone to meet a new friend -- and help potentially stop bullying before it begins.

Max, 13, was one of 23 students who had assisted in the development of the event, and he had the leadership skills to make himself comfortable in unfamiliar situations.

Not all his peers were fraternizing, but Max wasn't shaken by the mixed results.

"If one person or more gets a friend or gets included in a conversation, it's a success," Max said.

For Nessacus' two lunch sessions, students were randomly seated at tables decorated with balloons. Each table was identified as a foreign place, such as "Japan," "Florida," or "Maine.


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" Cards with questions were prepared and placed on the tables so students could strike up conversations.

The goal was to have each student learn one new characteristic about their peer, said STRIVE adviser Lynn Clairmont. Then, they would go to the back of the cafeteria and write this newfound knowledge on a giant placard that will be displayed later.

Eighth-grader Cameron Williams started a conversation with fellow eighth-grader Kaitlyn Poplaski about her favorite color and family members.

Seventh-graders Anna Stone and Ariel Grube and sixth-grader Arianna Hover had difficulty getting the conversation started, so they sat quietly next to each other until one of the STRIVE club members took a seat at the table to promote more conversation.

Arianna, 12, described the setup as "weird and interesting, meeting each other."

"We're trying to get to know each other, but we're all shy and that's what we have similar," Arianna said.

School counselor Stephanie Shafiroff said it's naturally uncomfortable for middle school students to step out of their comfort zone.

But through practice, the students will get better, Clairmont, the adviser, said.

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413)496-6214.