Actor Latoya Rhodes' takeaway from the Free Elementary School Tour

Latoya Rhodes 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.

How can I quantify an experience like DIFFERENT=AMAZING? I sit here at my computer pondering all the amazing things that happened on the tour. Reflecting back on my own childhood, on how DIFFERENT=AMAZING came to exist, to rehearsals with Jerry, Tyson and Matt, to where I am now: drinking a hot tea, smiling, and hoping I can at least share parts of a life changing show. I suppose I will just start . . .

When I was younger I was bullied relentlessly because I looked different from all the other kids, had different hair, wore very thick glasses, was painfully shy and was a complete geek to the core. I was a prime target. The bullying even got so bad that it grew to be physical. I got into a physical fight in the hallways with one of my bullies, which I lost, and another bully punched me in the stomach at recess. Unfortunately, nobody at school did anything about it.

Now being older, I have been asked frequently if I thought that bullying has gotten worse since I was a kid, and before the question is complete I answer yes. I mean, getting into fights to defend myself from those bullies was not ideal; however, the bullying nowadays is so severe that these children are committing suicide.

Back in 2010 with the tragic suicides of two junior high students because of bullying, artists in Salt Lake City wanted to do something to raise awareness of this growing epidemic instead of sitting idle. Out of this anger, came the creation of DIFFERENT=AMAZING. I was honored to be one of the performers, and we raised funds to support anti-bullying programs to educate students in the schools. The show celebrated people’s unique differences and showed how amazing they are. Many people asked, “How could this show be taken into the schools?”

Fast forward to Fall 2013. I got a call from Jerry Rapier at Plan-B asking if I wanted to once again be part of DIFFERENT=AMAZING; however, this time it was going to tour to elementary schools throughout Salt Lake and Davis Counties. Jerry told me he would be directing with Matthew Ivan Bennett as the playwright, who was going to take actual events from elementary students from Utah, and even his own bullying experience, to create the script. I immediately said yes! All those experiences that I had when I was younger, to my first experience with DIFFERENT=AMAZING back in 2010, seemed like it was building up to this point of being apart of educating students on bullying through theater. Let’s just say I was thrilled, honored and anxious to start this great work.

Fast forward again to Winter/Spring/Fall of 2014: we start the tour. My partner-in-crime was Tyson Baker. It was a pleasure to be on tour with him because he is not only one of my dear best friends, but also an actor whose work I’ve admired from the time I saw him as Friar Lawrence in ROMEO & JULIET at Weber State. We also had worked together in CLOSER at Wasatch Theatre Company. I remember during rehearsals for DIFFERENT=AMAZING, I would watch Tyson explore, and try things out in the space which would inspire me to play as well. There was willingness on both of our parts to dive into the deep end, and truly trust that we both would catch each other if we fell. We all dove in deep because we saw the big picture, that this project hopefully would inspire and provide action in preventing bullying. Tyson and I started calling ourselves the “anti-bullying warriors” on a mission to spread the message “be the difference that equals amazing.”

Reflecting on the tour I often catch myself saying that it was one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of my career thus far. The stories we got to share with these students – who were very willing to listen, respond and come up to us to express and share their own experiences – have really left life-altering impressions on me. Typically after each show, Tyson and I would stand at the exits and give high fives to the students. I’ll never forget the first school we went to. There’s a scene called “That’s Not My Name,” where a boy is a little more feminine then the other boys, and is a target for bullying because of this.This one young boy that came up to me, gave me a high five and said, “I’m like that boy.” I said, “What boy?” He said, “The boy in that last scene. I am like him. I get bullied because I am like that boy.” I remember looking at him with compassion and asked, “How does that make you feel?” He said, “I don’t like it.” In return I asked him, “Do you realize how amazing you are, and how your uniqueness makes you amazing?” And to my surprise, without skipping a beat, and with much conviction, he smiled and said, “Yes, that DOES make ME amazing!”

I remember another experience where this little girl came up to me, pulled me aside, and asked if she could talk to me. I told her of course. She proceeded to tell me of her experience being bullied because she was a different ethnicity. The bullying for her would not only happen at school, but after school as well. She reminded me of myself when I was a little girl, and I could relate because I was bullied for looking different. I asked her, “How does that make you feel?” She replied, “Sad.” I asked her, “Well how do you feel about looking different?” She said to me, “I like it. I like the way I look. I like that my family speaks a different language.” I reminded her that those things, the way she looks, and how she can speak not only one language, but two, makes her very special and amazing. That without those kinds of differences, the world would be dull and less vibrant. We unfortunately had to get going to our next school, and before I could leave, she gave me a gigantic hug and Tyson a high five, and was on her way. The only thing I could do was hope that she felt amazing, and that the story we told and left at that school would inspire people enough to do more to stop bullying.

We were finding that a lot of the schools received us with open arms; however, not all experiences were positive. At one school we visited the show had to come to a complete stop. During the monologue “There Was This Girl,” I was onstage telling this one girl’s experience of seeing a friend being bullied and not doing anything to help her. For some reason I had this instinct to check in with Tyson, who would be sitting with the kids in the audience during the monologue. All of a sudden I see Tyson walking toward me. He then came onstage. I thought to myself, “This is not apart of the blocking, but I will go with it.” All of a sudden he was standing next to me, motioning me to come close to him. Mind you, I was still performing the monologue. He whispered in my ear, “We have to stop.” I was really confused. Why did we have to stop? Then he said, “Let’s at least leave them with a positive message.” so we jumped to the Epilogue. Once the students started to exit the cafeteria, the principal came up to us and said, “Bullying does not happen at my school.” She proceeded to say that at her school the kids all get along and that the teachers were upset because the play talked about how sometimes teachers and principals don’t do anything to stop bullying. I reminded the principal that these stories are from actual students in Utah elementary schools, and that in these stories, unfortunately, the principals and teachers did not do anything. She responded, “Well, that doesn’t happen here.” We left the school really shaken. I kept thinking of those kids who probably needed to see that show, to feel free to express themselves, or relate. Those kids who were bullies who needed to see the damage caused by bullying. It is an experience I will never forget. Sometimes I find that adults forget what it is like to grow up in a world full of bullies, at least with a child’s perspective. They often say to those kids getting teased that they need to toughen up, that kids are just being kids, and that if you ask them nicely they will leave you alone. That is not the case. DIFFERENT=AMAZING was not only a show for the kids, but for adults as well to realize that something must be done, to be more active in preventing bullying – or at least work toward preventing it – instead of thinking that it is something that does not happen.

Tyson and I found that there were so many kids wanting to be heard and share their stories with us. From the Boys and Girls Club of Murray to Alianza Academy, kids would rush to us at the end of the show and would just tell their stories. It reminded me that this project was so very important. Hearing a young kid say that they lost their friend due to them taking their own life, because of bullying, broke my heart.

DIFFERENT=AMAZING was more than a show, but a tool to hopefully inspire kids to accept each other, stand up for each other, and also for the adults to understand that action must take place. We can all become “anti-bullying warriors,” by just listening and holding those bullies accountable for their actions. Also, talking to those bullies to see why they bully. We all can be the difference that equals amazing if we just take flight to fight against this epidemic, realizing that the work is not over, but that it has only just begun.

Click here to support Plan-B’s Free Elementary School Tour as part of #GivingTuesday!

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