BARAGA - Some of the biggest, baddest looking guys around came to the Baraga Area Schools library Tuesday, and they were there to teach students about bullying.
How to prevent and stand up against bullying, that is.
The men, athletes and musicians from the STAND Strength Team, got students' attention with feats of strength such as breaking baseball bats over their knees and tearing big-city telephone books in half, and held it with a positive message focused on self-respect, respect for others and standing up to bullies without resorting to violence.
The team had performed before a school assembly on Monday. On Tuesday they talked with smaller classes of fourth through eighth-graders. They'll be in the L'Anse Area Schools today, and making several Houghton County stops later in the week.
"A lot of us have already been bullied or labeled, told you'll never amount to anything," STAND road manager Mike Devantier told an eighth-grade class. "The world is like that. Don't listen to the lies. You are unique. You each have something you want to offer."
Devantier asked students to share their own stories about bullying, and heard one student's memory of a day when "this guy, way older, came and took my shoes, filled them with sand and threw them into the weeds."
Devantier explained that while the natural reaction to that was probably anger, it's important not to let that anger drive a person into their own negative actions.
"We don't want you to hate that bully. That's what he thrives on," Devantier said.
On the other hand, he said. you shouldn't let yourself be taken advantage of.
"You have to confront a bully at times, not physically, but with words and with numbers," he said. "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
STAND founder Terry "Shrek" Nalian expanded on that idea with seven anti-bullying principles he asked each student to adopt, which included not bullying others, showing respect for everyone, standing up for others being bullied, getting an adult to stop bullying situations, and influencing others to act respectfully as well.
"This is how you become a world-changer," he told the students.
Eighth-grader Joey Roy said after the program he thought it would help students in the school treat each other better.
"They really do a good job of explaining how you should treat someone how they would want to be treated," he said, as well as "how bullies feel, and why they're like that."
Roy's teacher, Lisa Collins, said the STAND team got students to share and begin to learn from experiences they normally keep to themselves.
"For some students to give their stories, that's a lot. We don't have that in the classroom," she said, adding that "every school needs to have opportunities like these. It makes not only the bullies aware, but everyone."
Nalian, who founded STAND about 15 years ago, said the team has focused on a variety of youth issues over the years before turning to bullying when it became a national priority. STAND now has two teams of performers, and makes over 300 appearances a year.
He said his dedication to children comes from his own unhappy childhood, when he was shunted into special education classrooms and told he was functionally illiterate, functionally retarded, and never likely to amount to anything. At home, he lived in an abusive household, with a violent, alcoholic father.
When he was finally able to rise above these challenges, he said, he dedicated himself to helping others.
"I was beaten and bullied, and that's why I do what I do," he said.
Baraga third- through 12th-grade principal John Young said he feels Baraga has made progress against bullying in recent years, with special events like the STAND program complementing a state reading and behavior program and one-on-one mentoring programs to improve the school culture.
The Baraga Community Foundation and its Youth Advisory Committee have played a big part in that improvement, he said. The Community Foundation sponsors and organizes the STAND events, and the YAC "has made it their mission to really be involved in peer-to-peer mentoring," he said.
Eric "Santiago" Miller, who performs with STAND's Beforethethrone band, said he sees himself making a positive difference with the group.
"Every day I see someone moved to tears," he said.
Matthew "Animal" Luke, perhaps STAND's top bat-breaker and phone book ripper, said he's seen all sides of bullying - a victim as a small child, later an unhappy bully himself, and finally as part of the solution.
"I've learned you can get farther in life making right choices than being negative and making bad choices," he said.
To learn more about STAND, go to standstrengthteam.org.