Tyson Baker spent most of 2014 performing in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s anti-bullying play DIFFERENT=AMAZING, which was seen by more than 12,000 students, grades 4-6, between February and October 2014 as part of Plan-B’s Free Elementary School Tour. Davis Arts Council, Good Company Theatre and Art Access partnered on various stages of the tour.
DIFFERENT=AMAZING was beautiful in its honesty and simplicity. The idea: Advocating anti-bullying in elementary schools. The ingredients: A short, honest, fun kids touring show based on real-life accounts of bullying. A time frame of 40 minutes. Two actors. Two pairs of black All-Star Converse. A black bench. Two long-sleeve t-shirts. And willing ears.
So how did it go?
It was an amazing success! My beautiful and talented co-conspirator Latoya Rhodes and I toured to close to 50 schools along the Wasatch Front. We went to elementary schools, libraries, private academies, art galleries, boys & girls clubs and theaters. We even got to go to my old Junior High, Snowcrest Jr. High in Eden where my Mom still teaches P.E., Health and Spanish.
We performed for my Mom’s 8th grade Health class and Mrs. Bulloch’s (my old Drama teacher!) 7th grade class. After our last performance, Mrs. Bulloch asked if we could play some acting games with the kids. Latoya and I goofed off with them for ten or fifteen minutes, the bell rang and the kids started to file out to the busses to take them home. Lingering behind was this young African-American girl, buried beneath these large, black-rimmed vintage glasses. She approached us timidly and struck up a conversation. She asked us about the stories, if they were real or not, and told us how she liked Latoya’s monologue “It’s Not Safe To Feel.” She said she liked it because she felt like she was an outsider too, being a black girl in a predominately white school. She and her sister had moved there fairly recently, plus she was super shy and said she had trouble making friends.
Our director Jerry had warned us from the beginning not to give any advice to the kids; that we were just the messengers, and the actual counseling should be taken care of by the teacher or school counselor. So we said what words we could, something along the lines of, “You seem like a beautiful girl to us, keep your chin up darlin’.” We shifted the conversation to her interests. She said she liked running track. We talked about Minecraft tactics. She was to converse with – part of this has to do with the fact that I’m an overgrown man-child and have a slight obsession with Minecraft. But she was also very literate for her age, very matter of fact. What struck me most was how willing she was to listen and then open up to us. A shy, self-conscious 7th grader. There was something about what we did or what we said that made her feel safe enough to confide in us, complete strangers. And to see her face lift when she realized that, yes, she could chill with us and talk with us and we would be the last people to judge her for whoever she was? Amazing.
Latoya and I had a ritual that before and after every show, we would stand by the door to the ‘gymatorium’ where the kids would come in, and try and get as many high fives, bones, and ‘wassups’ as we could to the kids and teachers coming in. We would do the same as they were leaving and we would have these kids pass us, beaming, saying “That was really good.” or “My friend is bullied.” or they had this look of “What planet are you guys from?” (a common kid look). But then there’d be the handful of kids who wouldn’t leave with the masses, probably because they didn’t have any mass to leave with, and they would kinda stare at us, and wonder if it was okay to talk to the actors/adults. We would approach them, and that same wave of relief would come over their faces when they realized “Yeah, they get it. They aren’t here to judge or to tell me what to be. They’re here just to listen and give a high-five.”
One of the best experiences on the tour was when we got to have an official talkback with the 4th, 5th and 6th graders at Emerson Elementary. Our moderator there was the principal, a younger guy, really fantastic, by the name of Daniel Bergman who sadly passed away suddenly this past September. After we were done performing the show – normally we pick up our bench and get out – Mr. Bergman invited us to sit, and started a really great Q&A/sharing session where everybody was on an equal plane and had a heart-to-heart with the kids. And the kids loved this guy. He had this wonderful relationship where he got them and they got him and because of that, there was mutual respect from both sides. He mentioned that “being the older kids, you’ve got to set by example, because the younger kids don’t know better. Treat people like you would want to be treated.” I confided in them about my elementary school bullying experience and how it still sticks with me. Latoya talked about being picked on as a kid. He wrapped it up by encouraging the individual classes to go back to their classrooms and talk about what they had just seen.
Midway through the tour, Jerry forwarded Latoya and I an e-mail he received from another school we had been to earlier that week. It was from the principal and it read: “…One of my 5th grade teachers came in at the end of the day to tell me her students thought it was the best anti-bullying assembly they had ever had. Following the assembly I asked teachers to return to their classes to process what they had heard. In this particular teacher’s fifth grade class she said one of her students was sharing a personal story and started to cry. She was very proud of how everyone in her class came together in support of this student. She said it opened the door for other students to share and discuss the topic of bullying and their personal experiences.”
Bully Warrior on.