Brea Mathieu speaks at an anti-bullying panel at the Geiger School in Lewiston on Friday evening about the bullying she was subjected to in middle school. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – Three teenagers on a stage at Geiger Elementary School on Friday night talked about the horrors of being bullied. 

On the same stage was a trio of adults, one of them long past retirement age.

It turns out the stories they told were very much the same. Bullying, as it happens, has been around a long time. 

The Lewiston Youth Advisory Council program titled A Call for Kindness was an emotional one. As the students shared their stories, dozens in the audience fell utterly silent. For many, those stories were unpleasantly familiar. For others, they were simply eye-opening. 

Ryleigh Emmert, a Lewiston High School student and member of the Youth Council, talked about her years of attending schools in complete isolation. She was picked on. Shunned. Tormented daily. 

“When I was younger, I didn’t tell people,” Emmert said. “I kept it to myself. I kind of just thought, oh, the world is against me. I felt that I had no power in my life and that others had power over me.” 

Hope Rubito, a student and chair of the council, broke down in tears once or twice as she was telling her story. Other students called her fat and ugly and stupid, she said. The torment was so great that in the eighth grade, she attempted suicide, the thought of going to school even for one more day just unbearable to her. 

Student Brea Mathieu described for the audience how she was physically and emotionally abused for many of her early school days. She, too, was picked on, called names and alienated. 

“I just wanted to give up,” she said. I didn’t want to go to school anymore.” 

If the students thought that the trauma of bullying is for children alone, they got a stunning surprise by the following speakers.  

Dottie Perham-Whittier said she still bears the emotional scars of the bullying she experienced decades ago in school. She described groups of kids ganging up on her and shoving her face-first into a puddle. Then there was the time she was jumped by seven girls who stole her school books. 

“These are things that really stick with you,” Perham-Whittier said. 

Jeanne Raymond, 83, had similar stories – ones of violence and fear that followed her through her school years. 

“It’s really awful,” she said, “living that way every day.” 

Chantel Pettengill, now a day care provider, described the same sorts of physical and emotional terrors now decades behind her. 

“The school bus ride,” she said, “was torture.” 

Each of the panel members found a way to overcome their experiences with bullying. For Pettengill, it was karate.  

“The lessons I learned followed me throughout the rest of my schooling,” she said. “Have the mind-set to move forward. Don’t let the bullies win.” 

For others, it was more of a kind of spiritual awakening during which they learned that they were not the only people being treated in such ways. That discovery – that other people actually cared how they were doing – was life-changing for many of them. 

“You are not alone, and that’s a really special thing,” Rubito said. “It doesn’t last forever.” 

“I want people to know that it’s OK to be scared,” Mathieu said, “but you’re not alone.” 

The program wasn’t meant to be just a place to share horrific stories. The city, the schools and the Youth Council want to do more to combat bullying. In attendance Friday night were teachers, parents, city councilors and school officials. 

School Superintendent Todd Finn was there, and he was moved by what he had heard. Bullying has got to go, Finn said, because among other things, it inhibits his students’ ability to learn. 

“How can you learn math if you’re afraid of being made fun of in class?” Finn asked. “How can you learn science when someone’s picking on your clothes or your weight? You’re so worried about what folks are saying and thinking that the brain can’t possibly learn.” 

Finn is on it. Gone, he said, are the days where schools would simply react to each incident of bullying – including the more subtle versions, such as racism – by simply doling out punishments and moving on. 

“That reactive approach is that we’re going to punish the bully, who will be gone for three days, five days, 10 days or 20 days,” Finn said. “And the bully still comes back. And then they bully more until it becomes kind of normal. And then people say it’s just kids being kids.” 

Finn, who has worked in school systems from North Carolina to Vermont, said he has seen bullying in all its form everywhere he has gone. Instead of simply reacting to the problems in Lewiston, he said the key is to institute a system of social and emotional learning. 

“What it is is a different way of looking at things,” he said. “What the new bullying program is in Lewiston, it’s not a bullying program at all. It’s a program that teaches people how to treat each other from the very earliest ages – from day one to day 2,288 when you graduate.” 

Finn, in his first year on the job, was motivated to take on the issue of bullying after he had a sit-down meeting with Rubito. The meeting shook him, he said. It made him determined to do something about it. 

“That’s your legacy,” he told Rubito, who broke into tears. “I want you to know that. It’s a big deal.” 

Also on hand Friday night was Bowdoin College graduate Carolyn Brady, the current Miss Maine, who continues to work with children through schools and the Girl Scouts of Maine. 

Karen Lane, of Green Dot L-A, told the group that forums like the one held Friday night are crucial to putting an end to bullying as much as possible. Spreading knowledge, she said, is how to get that done. 

“Everyone here is doing one of the most important things you can do,” she said. “You’re spreading the message that violence isn’t OK.” 

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