“It takes a much stronger person to lift someone up than it does to push someone down.”
That was the message members of the Toronto Argonauts shared with more than 400 Islington Junior Middle School students Monday morning at a Huddle Up Bullying Prevention Program school assembly – and it was a message well received.
“We learned that bullying should not happen whatsoever. Don’t stand by, stand up and defend,” said 12-year-old Samer El-Galmady, a Grade 7 member of Islington JMS’s Huddle Up Committee. “If you see any bullying you should try to stop it because it really hurts people.”
Now in its 12th year, the Argos’ Huddle Up program reached more than 35,000 students last year, inspiring and empowering youth to combat bullying in their schools by sending Toronto Argonaut players, cheerleaders, and program staff out to work alongside and encourage students.
At Monday’s assembly at Islington JMS, Argo’s defensive back Matt Black looked on as Samer and his fellow Huddle Up Committee members – a total of 10 student leaders chosen to create in-school initiatives for their fellow students – announced the winners of a school-wide anti-bullying poster contest (each of whom received a football signed by Black), performed anti-bullying skits, and even performed a couple of anti-bullying raps for their classmates.
During the hour-long event, students also heard the personal bullying story of Jason Colero, the Argo’s director of education programs.
At 4’11” and 85 pounds, Colero was the smallest kid in his high school – so when he went out for the senior boys’ football team in the ninth grade, he was bullied mercilessly.
It started with name calling in the locker room, and quickly escalated to physical bullying on the field and in the hallways. Colero’s football equipment and clothes were stolen. He was locked in his locker. He was teased and put down every day.
No one did anything to stand up for him or stop the bullying.
“In my head, I couldn’t deal with it anymore. The stuff you read in the newspapers (about bullying) was what I was going through,” he told the students. “The toughest part about it was no one was with me...
“You see, while everyone else was thinking about going to the movies, I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking about quitting the football team – and that was the very least thing I was thinking about. I can’t even tell you what else I was thinking about.”
With the support of his family, Colero mustered the courage to go back to school on the final day of football tryouts, only to be bullied yet again. Two of his teammates tried to force him to sing the national anthem in front of the entire school at lunch. Colero ran to the gym, chased by his two harassers.
There, he ran into another teammate – Mark, a popular tenth grader who turned out to be Colero’s ultimate saviour.
“He told the bullies, ‘okay guys, that’s enough. You’ve had enough of him. Settle down’ – and they listened,” Colero recalled.
“What Mark did is something I ask every one of you to do at least once in your life: when you see someone alone, when you see someone that’s being bullied, they need somebody to talk to, they need to know that they’re not in this alone. Mark turned to me after the bullies had left and said to me ‘I’ll see you at practice tonight.’ What Mark did was incredible. I showed up at practice that night and made my high school football team. All it took was him showing me that I belonged.”
Black, a Northern Secondary School alum who grew up in downtown Toronto, also shared the story of one of his childhood best friends, who succumbed to what Black calls ‘the bully of life’ – peer pressure.
While Black was playing football on a full scholarship at Saginaw Valley State University, his best friend Jay – ‘a good person who made bad choices’ – was serving a four-year stint in prison for dealing drugs, all because he fell in with the wrong crowd and bowed to peer pressure, Black said.
“I really, really, really hope you guys understand the message that I’m trying to send you today about not just being followers, but to have the courage to stand up and do what’s right and the courage to say ‘I’m not going to bow down to peer pressure,’” Black told the students Monday. “Throughout life, you’re going to have a lot of tough decisions that you’re going to have to make.”