Words Can Soar: Hillcrest students look to prevent bullying

In the hallways, on the school buses, and over the Internet — the tentacles of bullying reach far and wide, and through a malleable prism of platforms.

That’s why combating it has proved to be so difficult for school administers and parents alike.

But there’s hope for both the victims and the aggressors, and it’s coming through the resilience and persistency of Rachel Weintraub.

The Hillcrest Middle School seventh grader believes that to stop bullying, both in and out of school, students need to talk to each other about it — and use the arts to kickstart that conversation.

“Singing, painting, acting — anything in the arts can be used to stop it,” said Rachel, who started the program Words Can Soar in January and created a large, anti-bullying mural in front of her school along with eight of her friends and Hillcrest Principal Stafford Thomas the day before school started Monday, Aug. 31.

“You can do a lot of different things as long as we are united in stepping up to bullying together,” she added. “Nobody should feel like the victim of bullying and nobody should feel the need to do the bullying, and the best way to talk having peers talk to peers about it so we can all begin to understand each other better.”

Rachel was motivated to launch Words Can Soar through her own personal experience of being both anonymously bullied through social media, after school, in fifth and sixth grade and in school hallways. Some of the comments she heard included “you’re ugly,” “I hate you,” and “I have no respect for you.”

“I’ve had it happen face to face in school and online over social media,” she said. “And these are people that I thought I could have been friends with but when they’re trying to lower your self-esteem like that it’s hard to maintain a positive relationship with somebody who’s saying things like that.”

Despite being cursed at and berated by aggressors, the seventh grader said she’s never tried to retaliate with anger.

“That’s when you give them power — by getting angry,” she explained. “That’s why it’s important to put on a smile because that’s the last thing they want to see from you — what they really want is to see you frown…

“You have to show them they can’t get to you no matter what they say or do.”

Besides smiling, Rachel said her experiences have taught her another trick to use in response to being bossed around by a bully.

“Smile and say, ‘If that’s what makes you happy,’” she said. “They usually don’t have a response to that.

“Getting angry only fuels the fire and creates further conflict,” she added. “You have think of positives, like your other friends and family, and be happy and confident with who you are.”

Singing and acting

Nothing fuels Rachel’s confidence quite like her dual passions of songwriting and acting.

She said that music can be used in such a positive way, and that it’s helped her personally overcome her recent struggles with aggressors in school.

She wrote an anti-bullying song called The Choices You Make Today Will Pave the Way, which won at the L.A. Critics Awards last year.

A songwriter since the age of eight, Rachel performed the song at Hillcrest’s anti-bullying assembly last year.

Her next song titled, Walking Away with Your Heart, is available on iTunes and is up for another award at the L.A. Critics Awards this year.

“Songwriting, and singing songs, is something I love because it lets me tell my story through music,” she said.

Her artistic success has carried over into acting, which is something she’s been doing since she was four years old.

She will make her movie debut this year in the film Lies I Told My Little Sister, where she plays the title character in flashback scenes

“It was such an amazing experience — I’ll never forget it,” she said. “I did the reading before anything was even done, and I got the part really early on so it was exciting to be part of it from the very beginning.”

As part of her acting practice, she’s been going into New York City for play auditions, film and TV works, and commercials ever since she started performing on the stage.

“I try to do a lot of different things,” she said. “I like acting and songwriting. For me, they’re pretty much equal…

“I just love the arts in general.”

More murals

The mural at Hillcrest seemed like the logical next step for her artistic expression, and after talking to her friends she realized there were a lot more victims at her school than she realized.

“You talk to friends and you begin to discover their experiences are both similar and different from your own,” Rachel said. “A lot of it has to do with low self-esteem, but there’s also a lot of people who just don’t understand why they were bullied in the first place — and the aggressors sometimes don’t even realize it themselves.

“That’s why peers need to talk to peers more about it,” she added. “Teachers really do do their best but there’s a lot more that we can do ourselves to address it, I think.”

And that’s why Hillcrest’s mural is the first of what Rachel hopes will be a series of paintings showing up at schools around town.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” she said. “And getting to share it with people who have been put in similar situations really made it special.”

Rachel, who made the water-based paint herself at the home of a friend, said that she and the eight other girls met together for a few hours to flesh out ideas for what the mural would say and look like. The painting took about five hours to complete after the idea had been finalized.

“I wanted to get everyone’s story and opinion, and have all of these voices fill it with heart and soul,” she explained. “I wouldn’t do it any different.”

Principal Thomas said he first sat down with Rachel when she was a sixth grader in March. They met six times over a three month period before the teenager “ran with it.”

“She came up with the tagline, she got her friends to volunteer a summer day, she met with me and other faculty members — and she did it all on her own,” he said. “To give up a summer day to do all of this is impressive...

“She did a lot of the leg work after meeting with me in June,” he added. “It’s amazing to see someone that young who’s driven, but also who has enough awareness to follow through with it. She’s made bracelets and ribbons and t-shirts, and now she’s made a mural and is going to perform her song to our sixth graders.

Raising awareness

When asked what method of bullying is harder for her and her peers to overcome, Rachel said online is the most challenging because of the anonymity users have through social media.

“You can’t prove who it is, even if you have a good idea who you think it is,” she said.

“They get power because you can’t do anything — there’s absolutely no way to respond to it,” she added. “When it’s face to face or on the bus, you can smile and act confident or tell an adult or a guidance counselor.”

Online there’s no such engagement, Rachel said.

“When it’s face to face, there’s usually other people to see it, or it can be see on camera so there’s evidence and proof that something did happen,” she explained. “When it’s anonymous, there’s no face, there’s no proof.”

She said the schools are doing a good job with cyberbullying. However, she would like for them to expand to allow kids to teach each other about the negative effects cyberbullying can create.

“The schools do their best with what they have but we have to have peers helping peers — it’s easier for kids to hear it from kids,” she said. “Adults don’t understand what it’s like to be cyberbullied, and that’s why it’s crucial for kids to share their experiences.”

One thing Rachel would like to highlight, if given the chance to lead a seminar at school on cyberbullying, is the misconception that it happens through Facebook.

“A lot of it’s on Instagram,” she said. “Not very much on Facebook or Twitter, at least not at the middle school level.”

Another site that adults might not be aware of, she said, is quizyourfriends.com, which is another outlet for aggressors to make nasty comments.

“You create a quiz about yourself and you link it on Instagram,” Rachel explained. “But people can write really mean things on there, like curse words, and those things really hurt.”

Through Instagram, the Hillcrest student says a lot of jealousy is created as are incidents of incidental bullying — where an aggressor doesn’t even know that he or she is acting like a bully.

“For example, someone could post a photo — maliciously or not maliciously — of a sleepover and sometimes that can be really hurtful to the kids who aren’t there or who weren’t invited,” she said. “It’s not always intentional, which means we have to figure it out because there’s a way that everybody can learn and less feelings can be hurt.”

One of the chief goals of Words Can Soar is to eliminate the harmful effects victims feel after they’ve been bullied, and to try to stomp out the negative feelings that churn inside every kid that are actualized in aggressive, bully-type behavior.

That’s why in addition to the mural, the program will be sewing a quilt at the library that includes personal anti-bullying stories from students all around town.

“We want to stop bullies from becoming bullies,” Rachel said. “That’s the best way to prevent it from happening.

“It’s just as important to take care of the person doing the bullying, and help them through whatever trouble is in their life that’s causing them to act out against their peers, as it is for us to look after the victim,” she added. “Nobody should be able to become a bully, and that’s why I want everyone to come together and be united in solving this crisis.

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Words Can Soar will be hosting an anti-bullying fundraiser at Rockin’ Jump, located at 25 Trefoil Drive, on Thursday, Sept. 24. The cost is $17 for two hours, with $5.00 going to her 501c3partner Free2LUV. There will be a raffle that will give away prizes like a pair of Calvin Klein sunglasses. All money raised from raffle tickets and being at the event will go to FREE2luv and help empower those that have been bullied.

A week later, on Thursday, Oct. 1, National Bullying Prevention Month will be launched, celebrating its 10th anniversary.