GREENVILLE — When Tabitha Schaub put on her backpack for the very first time, she did so like everyone else, full of wonder, excitement, fear and every other emotion that goes through a young child’s mind as they take their first steps into the world of education.
The 16-year-old junior from Lakeview High School made friends, learned from teachers, played on the playground and eventually made her way to where she is now as she prepares to enter the world of adulthood.
But like many students, Schaub’s experiences weren’t all great ones, and now she is part of a group of nearly 100 students from all seven public school districts in Montcalm County that is trying to make a difference in the fight against negative attitudes and create a positive culture that can help other students avoid certain experiences such as what she went through as a student in middle school.
“My middle school years were a living hell for me,” Schaub said Tuesday in front of high school students from throughout Montcalm County during a training session at Greenville High School for the countywide Cool to be Kind program. “In seventh grade I cut all my hair off. I shaved it all off and had really short hair.”
A simple change of style, a haircut, was all it took for students to unify against Schaub in a negative capacity.
“I was called a dyke, a lesbian, a loser, a freak,” she said.
Schaub said she wore baggy clothes because that’s what her family wore on a regular basis.
“I was called ‘fat.’ I was called ‘whale,’” she said. “I was called all of those names that you could possibly throw out.”
It was then that Schaub said she lost faith in herself.
“I shut everyone out and now it’s hard to let people back in,” she said. “I didn’t care, really, that people would look at me until I would get home, where I would sit and cry. I would contemplate suicide constantly.”
But what it took for Schaub to come out of her spiral, was the desire to help another student in need.
“I had to be strong for my other friends, because that’s how they were too,” she said. “I had a friend who decided he was gay and he called me crying telling me he had a loaded gun pushed up to his (head) and he was ready to pull the trigger because no one cared for him. No one wanted him around.”
Schaub said she could no longer look at herself in the way that she had been, something had to change.
“I told him, ‘I want you around. You do mean something to me.’ I said that, even though I was feeling the same way on the inside as he was.”
Schaub told her story Tuesday with the mindset that she can help at least one other person turn their life around with an attitude to go out and help others in need as well.
And she wasn’t alone.
17-year-old Greenville High School junior Jared Loomis tried out for the football team as a freshman simply because he wanted to fit in.
But then he found a greater passion, and joined the cast of the school play, “The Sound of Music.”
“I was made fun of a lot,” he said. “I was called ‘the gay sailor boy,’ because one of my uniforms was a sailor outfit.”
The bullying toward Loomis didn’t stop there.
“My freshman year, there was a Facebook page put up,” he said. “It said, ‘Jared Loomis is a disgrace,’ and there were 84 people from our school that joined the group.”
Loomis said he didn’t know where to turn to handle such a situation.
“There were nights where I would get down on my knees, pray, and ask God, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’”
But Loomis was helped by a close friend, Emily Smith, an 18-year-old senior, who helped comfort and guide Loomis through his troubles and overcome them.
In both situations, all it took was a friend who cared.
The stories that Schaub and Loomis shared are just two examples of thousands of untold stories of students who undergo some sort of bullying or judgment while in school, and now students in Montcalm County are preparing to rise against it.
Tuesday marked the first time students from every district met together, and professional speaker Laurie Stewart said she couldn’t have been more proud of what she witnessed.
“This was the first time we all met as climate teams together,” she said. “Today the purpose was to address personal leadership skills. There are so many amazing kids here with so many gifts and talents.”
Stewart said she is confident with what she heard Tuesday that a change can indeed occur, and students will learn to be more positive toward each other.
“Our goal is for kids to just be themselves,” she said. “To see them be able to then spread this message themselves, it’s so important, because they listen to each other so much better than they listen to anything else. I want to use any god given gifts that I’ve been given to help other people. I want this to be long-lasting and sustainable. That’s what we’re working on, together.”
Montcalm Area Intermediate School District Executive Assistant Penny Dora is also hopeful that the new countywide initiative will change the negative culture that can sometimes plague students in public schools.
“Today is just the beginning of something really big that is happening with the Making it Cool to be Kind initiative in Montcalm County,” she said. “Today was the first of many trainings that our student teams will do together as they learn the importance of building positive relationships and creating healthy environments.”
As the students performed group activities together, coming up with strategies to use in future student-led assemblies, Dora said the power of the student mindset cannot be matched by anything any adult could say to a student.
“It was very powerful to see almost a hundred students, representing every high school in Montcalm County, together in one place, talking about how they want to make a difference,” she said. “There are some strong student leaders who are committed to making their schools a place where everyone is accepted for who they are without ridicule.”
The two-year program is still in its infancy, but students in Montcalm County are now finding ground to walk on in an attempt to make a permanent change.
“Many of these students have been bullied themselves and most of them have seen others treated in mean or hurtful ways,” she said. “They made the decision to be part of this movement because they want to be empowered. They want to learn how to affect change. It was truly an amazing day for these kids.”