RACINE — Student Joseph Rodriguez was walking through Starbuck Middle School on Friday, his nose buried in a book, when three student bullies took his backpack and began throwing it around.
The bullies passed it back and forth, spilling papers everywhere, until fellow student Dante Wilder stepped in.
He grabbed the backpack, told the bullies to stop and helped Rodriguez pick up his fallen papers.
And so began an anti-bullying play that tried to show students they can stop bullying by intervening and treating people with decency and respect.
The play was put on by Rodriguez, Wilder and about eight other high schoolers who are all part of the Teen Peer Program at Focus on Community, a Racine-based nonprofit. As Teen Peers, the students helped write the anti-bullying script, spent hours practicing it and are now taking their show on the road to various Racine schools like Starbuck, 1516 Ohio St.
The show starts with Rodriguez getting his backpack taken. It ends with him surrounded by friends, including several former bullies; the main bully is alone, having lost friends as they kept standing up for Rodriguez.
The transformation takes place over the course of several scenes. Bullying-related videos and short skits are mixed in as the story unfolds. One of the skits, for example, focuses on the idea that retaliation — or an eye-for-an-eye mentality — only makes matters worse.
There’s also breakdancing by Wilder, a Horlick High School junior, and rapping by several other students.
“I used to be the cat that was laughin’ and jackin,’ and then I understood the damage I was stackin,’ ” Horlick senior Tei Jones rapped as part of the show Friday.
Tei joined the Teen Peer program and performs the anti-bullying play because he used to be a bully himself, he said.
“I was a huge bully in middle school,” he said, explaining sports made him popular and he didn’t know how to fit in with the cool crowd without being mean. “I didn’t know how (else) to express myself.”
Tei realized the error of his ways in high school when he was no longer the “cool” kid, he said.
A similar past led Rodriguez, a Horlick High School junior, to Teen Peers. He became a bully after being bullied himself.
Rodriguez was often made fun of in elementary school for “how quiet I was, how my hair was so long and always messy, and how I didn’t watch the same shows as them,” he said. There was a spot on the playground where he’d go to cry.
He felt so bad that he started bullying another “outcast” because he was jealous of him, he said.
“He always still had a smile on his face (despite the teasing),” Rodriguez said. “So I tried to make it harder on him so he could feel the same pain as me.”
Rodriguez stopped bullying and being bullied in middle school, where he made more friends and realized how hurtful he’d been. He’s since apologized to the boy he bullied, he said, and he performs in the Teen Peer anti-bullying play.
“I’m hoping we can at least reach out to one” student to make things better, he said.
Interested in being part of the Teen Peer Program?
Check out the group’s next meeting Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Focus on Community, 1220 Mound Ave.