Four years ago, Riley Barnes was having a truly miserable freshman year at Schenectady High School.
He had been bullied for many years. He didn’t want to go to school anymore.
Now, the teenager is a vivacious, confident senior, who not only goes to school but stays afterward eagerly. The bullies are long gone.
What happened? The Blue Roses Theater Company.
In the student theater company, the lonely freshman found a place for himself — and once he felt like he belonged, the bullying and teasing he occasionally encountered stopped bothering him. To his surprise, bullies abandoned him for better targets once he no longer reacted to their slurs.
“I belong to a group of people, to a community,” he said. “My personality changed for the better. I didn’t care what people thought. Before, I was letting it get to me.”
Barnes was profiled in a Daily Gazette story in 2010, when school officials began to restructure the ninth grade in response to large numbers of failing students. Barnes didn’t fail, but he echoed the complaints of many: The huge school was overwhelming, bullies wielded great power and some students — particularly the shy and quiet ones — felt adrift and unnoticed in the crowd. He said then that he didn’t want to return — and he had such a bad time that his parents said they considered relocating.
School officials have changed the ninth grade in many ways, trying to ensure that other students won’t feel as overwhelmed and alone as Barnes felt. But what worked for Barnes is what the school had all along: A wealth of different programs, from designing architectural drawings to the dozen performing arts venues.
“That’s the best thing about Schenectady. Other schools in the area, they don’t have the programs,” Barnes said.
He came back to school his sophomore year determined to change his circum-
stances by seeking out kindred spirits. He made a friend, and she urged him to join the theater company with her.
“I was like, ‘I don’t even like school, I don’t want to stay after school,’ ” he said. “I did it to make her happy. I was really nervous. When I first walked into that room, my face was all red and I was shaking.”
But when he met the other students, he realized he’d finally found the place where he fit in.
“They were like me. They were down-to-earth,” he said. “I made so many friends.”
He is now about to perform a play that in some ways parallels his own life. This semester, he is the lead in the play “Superior Donuts,” in which the main character decides to stop running and finally face a problem head-on.
The man supports a young friend and employee who is threatened by a violent group. The play runs Feb. 27 to March 2.
While many high school students said they could relate to the young employee, Barnes connected with the donut shop owner who decided it was time to take a stand.
“I was trying to turn away from being bullied. I didn’t do anything about it, I let it happen,” he said. “You gotta fight back. Not literally fighting, but you have to make a change. I was waiting for things to change.”
As a sophomore, he stopped waiting for friends to appear and the bullies magically disperse. Instead, he devised a plan: “Surround yourself with people you know are like you. It’s about who you befriend and who you involve yourself with.”
He isn’t the only student to have found safety and acceptance in the Fine Arts wing of the high school.
“The scene shop is our safe haven,” said senior Oriana Miles, the stage manager for “Superior Donuts.”
She and other students often have lunch there with theater teacher William Ziskin, talking about whatever is on their minds. She fled there the day of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
“I was a little bit broken, and enraged,” she said. “He said, even though we intellectually know evil happens in the world, experiencing it is a loss of innocence.”
Somehow it made her feel better to tell him how she felt and for him to tell her that he felt terrible, too.
“His feelings and mine were sort of in parallel,” she said. “It helped.”
She credits him with making her and others feel safe enough to be themselves.
“He’s awesome. He engages us in this way. He understands you,” she said. “Even though he’s old, er, older. He just understands you, you know? It’s kind of this thing. I just know if I had a problem I couldn’t handle, I could just go to him.”
Others found the theater company before they even walked into the building.
In eighth grade, Cory Logan tried out for a play to be performed at the beginning of his freshman year.
He didn’t get in.
“But I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “When I saw my first show in eighth grade, I thought, ‘This is wonderful! Why am I not a part of this?’ ”
So he started high school by joining the theater company, as well as band, field band and the Serenaders Choir. He signed up for acting and dance classes in between his difficult International Baccalaureate courses.
He found his own group so quickly that he said the crowded school hardly bothered him. Logan also benefited from the restructuring at the high school, designed to ease the transition for freshmen.
At first glance, his acting classes don’t seem to have much connection to the advanced classes he’s taking. But he begs to differ.
“Mr. Z is really good at telling you that there’s deeper meaning,” he said, referring to the way Ziskin teaches students to analyze scripts as they figure out how to play the characters.
The same skill has come in useful in coursework and everyday life.
“I’ve come to find out there’s more than what’s on the surface,” he said. “You’re more aware.”
Ziskin said the Fine Arts wing provides a nurturing environment for students who need an outlet for self-expression.
“We all do,” he added. “But perhaps more so for teenagers. They’re finding their voices. We hope you get better and deeper and more interesting.”