NORTH PROVIDENCE – Many of the students who will perform in Birchwood Middle School’s upcoming musical with an anti-bullying message have first-hand experience with the cruel behavior, either as the bullied or the bully.
During a vacation week rehearsal for “The Love Note” in the school gym, director Alison Kelly asked for a show of hands, from the 30 or so students, of who has been bullied.
Fully two-thirds of the students raised their hands.
When Kelly, a high school teacher, asked how many students have bullied others the remainder of the students raised their hands. Several raised their hands to both questions.
“That’s what I expected,” Kelly said.
“We are trying to call attention to bullying,” said middle school teacher Carolyn Coughlin.
Birchwood gained national attention last year when the CBS program 48 hours filmed a segment about its anti-bullying program, which included another play performed by students.
CBS crews from the show were in Rhode Island in 2011 filming some of Rhode Island’s efforts to address the issue. Program crews spent time filming activities of a special legislative commission that studied the issue and introduced legislation that has since become law – the Rhode Island Safe Schools Act.
The new law directs the Department of Education to develop a model school policy for cyberbullying prevention.
The anti-bullying effort at Birchwood is a continuing mission for school psychologist Elizabeth Vachon, Principal David Flaherty, Assistant Principal Tonianne Moniz and science teacher Katie Bowers who is assisting the performers.
“The Love Note” is written by Gail Phaneuf, a professor at Curry College in Massachusetts. It is the story of a new student, Jesse, at a middle school who encounters bullies, one of whom steals a cherished love note Jesse’s mother had written to her to encourage her in her new school. The bully, Brittany, steals the love note and takes Jessie’s lunch every day, telling Jessie that going along with the abuse will assure that she will be included with Brittany’s friends.
Kaylee Perry, 11, a 6th-grade student, plays the lead role Jesse, which combines a concern and interest of hers.
“I don’t like bullying because it is really mean,” she said. “I want it to stop. I love acting and singing and I’ve danced for six years, so a play about bullying interested me.
Dillane Wehbe, 11, a 6th-grader, plays the role of a bully in the musical who torments a character named Peter, played by Chris Clemente, 12, a 7th-grader.
For both Dillane and Chris, bullying has been a reality in the past.
“Last year, people called me names because of my height (he is tall), the size of my head and because I was overweight,” he said. He said he talked to his parents and teachers about the problem and this year it is no longer an issue for him.
Chris was bullied in the 5th and 6th grades.
“People were spreading rumors about me and they were saying I was gay because I was the new kid in school,” Chris said. “I am doing this play because I want to let them know that bullying should be stopped. You shouldn’t ever take your anger out on other people.”
Another actor, Christine Vadis, 13, an 8th-grade student, said she wanted to leave her mark at the school by doing something worthwhile that would get her into the yearbook.
“I felt like being in a play would be cool and my friends are involved in it,” she said. “I want to do a lot of stuff so I can get into the yearbook. By doing this play, maybe it is the little extra that will help put a stop to bullying.”
The rehearsal was held in the school gym last week because the floor on the high school stage where it will be performed was being redone last week. That left Kelly to mark the dimensions of the stage by using lines on the basketball court, employing chairs and tables as wings.
Despite the school’s efforts, and zero tolerance for bullying, Birchwood and other schools in town still have a problem with it.
Coughlin hopes that the experience of being bullied and bullying has an impact on the performances.
“These kids are all on board,” she said. “When we started the play, the kids talked about being bullied and how it made them feel. It helps because they know how it feels and they can bring that to the play.”
Kelly is bringing her own experience in theater to the effort. She performed throughout her years as a student at West Warwick High School and she was involved in 12 shows at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston.
“I was looking for a way to bring cultural arts to the middle school,” she said.
She sees the musical working in concert with the efforts by Vachon, Flaherty and Moniz to combat bullying.
“The Love Note” will be performed Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10, at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at North Providence High School, Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for students. The proceeds will benefit anti-bullying efforts.