Songwriter, Foundation for Respect Ability seize 'bully' pulpit

Young people sing praises of standing up for someone who needs help standing up

10/12/2011 12:00 AM

10/11/2011 11:52 AM

At Mooresville's Charles Mack Citizen Center on a recent Sunday afternoon, award-winning songwriter Steve Seskin led a chorus of youthful voices as they worked together to create songs about character, tolerance and understanding.

Seskin, who has written seven No. 1 hits, was in town to co-lead a workshop Oct. 2 hosted by the Foundation for Respect Ability, a local nonprofit devoted to stopping bullying in all forms.

With a well-used guitar slung over his shoulder, Seskin strolled the room, soliciting ideas from 27 fifth- and sixth-graders from throughout the Charlotte region whose schools had nominated them to attend the workshop.

After a brief how-to lesson on songwriting, the students jumped into the day's task: Write a song that would encourage tolerance and respect among all people. They faced an early deadline: They would perform the song that resulted from their work in a live concert at 5 p.m. that same day.

Seskin told the children, "Normally it may take me 30 or 40 hours to write a song. We're doing it today in four."

Excited students called out ideas to Seskin, who quickly captured them on a board and put them to music.

"How does this sound?" Seskin asked the students after combining a certain verse with music.

"We need to sound it out longer," answered one.

"This word doesn't sound quite right to me," called another.

Eager hands waved in the air as students provided a steady stream of input.

With each suggestion, Seskin would try a few musical options, using various keys and chords and searching for the right artistic metaphors, until the group settled on a preferred version.

Seskin's co-leader for the workshop was Sid Krupkin. Krupkin, a professional musician who has performed with Peter Yarrow (the "Peter" in the famed folk group Peter, Paul & Mary), is the education and artistic director for the Foundation for Respectability.

Cornelius resident Arlene Berkman started the foundation, modeling it after an organization called Operation Respect. Berkman, a retired teacher, said young people are losing their ability to understand how words can affect, and sometimes hurt, another person.

"Computers and keyboards don't allow for a human response," Berkman said. "The kids can't see how their words are affecting others."

When she decided to take action to help students embrace tolerance and respect, she knew it would be built around music and arts.

"As a teacher, I saw many well-intentioned programs designed to help young people, but many of them did not really engage students or teachers," she said. "Music and arts get everyone involved in a way that a program in a notebook can't."

Diane Benson is executive director of the foundation. "Our mission is to empower children and adults to become 'upstanders' instead of 'bystanders' in all situations were bullying exists," she said.

During the past year, the foundation has provided concerts at area schools and workshops for parents, educators and community leaders, Benson said. Locally, the foundation is providing pilot programs at Pineville Elementary School and the Woodlawn School in Mooresville.

As they moved into their second hour, Seskin and Krupkin encouraged the students. "All right, we've got to finish this chorus," Seskin said, eyeing his watch. The students sang along with the professionals as they recorded the latest version of their song on a laptop computer.

At the 5 p.m. concert, the students performed their newly created song. Adults in the audience tapped their feet and sang along as the energetic Seskin led the students in their catchy chorus:

You can sit and watch it happen, or you can choose to take some action.

Stand up for someone who can't stand up for themself.

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