Northwestern's other student union
Marisa Bast had played to bigger audiences. She hadn't played to any more difficult to win over.
Heckling fans and skilled opponents, after all, are nothing compared to an auditorium full of seventh-graders with idle hands.
The Big Ten doesn't have many of the newest or biggest college softball facilities in the country, but Bast, a senior third baseman on Northwestern's softball team, has nonetheless felt the gaze of thousands of eyes on her before. Athletes learn to push aside that sensation, to forget the stares and tune out the noise. But as she stood on stage in the auditorium at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Ill., wireless microphone in hand, Bast had to hope those eyes, and the wavering attention spans attached to them, didn't tune her out.
"I don't know if you remember anything about what it's like to be an 11-year-old, but when you put 75 of them together, it's not an easy job," Dr. Allina Nikolopoulou said. "She was amazing even with that."
The psychologist at Haven for more than a decade, Nikolopoulou knows of what she speaks. She has seen the eyes wander and bodies fidget as even well-intentioned messages sail over the heads of the intended audience. That wasn't the case here. As Bast and some of her fellow student-athletes from Northwestern spoke about civility, respect, communication and all the things that, if missing, leave a vacuum bullying too often fills, the kids listened. As the visitors opened up the conversation with games and questions, the students spoke up.
If the message wasn't entirely new, the messengers were. And a message only matters if it's heard.
Bast will finish her time at Northwestern as one of the most prolific run producers ever to wield a bat at Sharon J. Drysdale Field, a player who ranks among the program's career leaders in slugging percentage, total bases and RBIs, among other markers of offensive excellence. In part because of her team's four wins this season against ranked opponents, games in which Bast went 7-for-11 with three walks at the plate, the senior will play her final game in the NCAA tournament, an event that went on without the Wildcats in three of the past four seasons. Northwestern (33-16) kicks off play in the Seattle regional on Thursday.
She even has her own bit of folklore, one of only six players in 33 seasons to hit a ball onto the roof of the building housing Welsh-Ryan Arena, which looms high above and behind the left-field wall in Evanston.
The statistics are impressive as softball legacies go but none had anything to do with what Nikolopoulou told Bast's parents upon meeting them for the first time.
"I told them I would vote for her when she runs for president of the United States," Nikolopoulou recalled.
That it may have been a bit of playful hyperbole doesn't mean it wasn't sincere.
Softball facilitated it, but what Bast did with her time in Evanston is better measured by her performance in that auditorium than on the field.
Without her, there would still be a pretty good softball program. There wouldn't be a program called "Wildcats Stand Up And R.O.A.R.R.," the last an acronym for "reach out and reinforce respect."
From its inception as an idea hatched this past summer between Bast and Northwestern assistant athletic director for community relations Maureen Palchak after a parent relayed the story of her son's experience with bullying in a local sixth-grade class, the program has grown to enlist more than 30 Northwestern athletes from sports as varied as football to fencing. In small groups, they visit local elementary and middle schools and teach a curriculum they collectively developed, sometimes in a larger setting, as Bast experienced, but more often in individual classrooms.
They don't just assist in delivering someone else's message; they teach their own.
"We wanted to do something that would empower kids to stand up for themselves and for their friends and their classmates and peers," Bast said.
An All-American kicker on the football team and recent graduate, Jeff Budzien didn't know Bast when he first heard about the new anti-bullying program. But he was one of several Northwestern football players who a year earlier had visited Gabe Freeman, the student whose mom reached out to Palchak and planted the seed for what would become R.O.A.R.R. Intrigued when he then heard about the idea of a program that attempted to address the issue on a wider scale and an ongoing basis, Budzien attended a few of the planning meetings and was surprised by how smoothly it ran.
Even in a room full of her peers, Budzien noted, the normal rumble of conversation and laughter faded away of its own accord when Bast spoke.
"She's just one of those people that is so sweet that people gravitate to her," Budzien said. "She just has that something about her, that people will listen to her. You can't really put a finger on it or an adjective; it's just that she is that type of person who is really special."
A typical visit in a school starts with each Northwestern athlete who is part of a given visit breaking off with a group of three to five students. Each of those mini-groups, in turn, is tasked with finding three things they all share in common, whether it is something as generically simple as liking a certain kind of pizza or as specific as that they all have an older sibling who plays basketball. Once the whole group reconvenes, the curriculum continues with games designed to promote conversations about what constitutes bullying and what students can do about it, but that initial ice breaker, as Bast called it, is in some ways the overarching message.
Packs prey on the one thing that makes a person different. Similarities emerge when we see individuals.
"Everybody has something in common with each other," Bast said. "That's actually how friendships usually start. Sometimes it's really hard to find things you have in common, and sometimes it's a little easier. But all of us have things that we like that we have in common. You can get to know your peers if you make the effort."
Even if it stops short of friendship, the next rung down the ladder is civility.
That any variation of the word "bullying" is absent from the program's name is intentional, and not just because it made an acronym more difficult to manage. It is an anti-bullying program, initially inspired by an act of bullying, but it is equally about conflict resolution, something that will directly affect everyone at one time or another.
That larger perspective is appreciated by those who deal with the issues on a day-to-day basis.
"Because it's the hottest topic for the media, the word [bullying] is used very willy-nilly," Nikolopoulou said. "One of the things we try to impart to our children is that a conflict between two children is not bullying. We have conflict between students, that's part of what life is. And in middle school what happens is they're very different in development from kid to kid. And they also mix with kids they don't know because there are four elementary schools that feed into our middle school. So their friendships change a lot."
For conflict to reach the level of bullying, Nikolopoulou said, remains rare. But it does happen, and not just to those who might fit some outdated stereotype of personal meekness or physical weakness.
In the middle of her seventh-grade year, Bast changed schools because she was bullied. It was about the time in life when the asexual reality of childhood gives way to adolescence. As Mike Bast recalled, the spark might have been something as small as boys at the private school his daughter attended still wanting her to play sports with them. She had, after all, always one of the better athletes for her age. Jealousies flared and the same girls Bast had counted as friends turned on her. It wasn't physical, but it was persistent and pernicious.
"I don't think kids understand how much it impacts other kids," Marisa said. "They think maybe it's funny or they're teasing or that gossiping is just the norm, but it actually does affect all kinds of people all the time."
It went on and on. When she came to her parents one night and told them she couldn't take it any longer, they saw it as something more than a spat gone awry.
"We could see how this was affecting her emotionally," her father said. "She was also a year younger than all those kids, and when you're young anyway, that one year can make quite a difference, especially emotionally. When we were seeing how it was affecting her, it made us really sad."
She transferred to a public school and never looked back. She earned prep-All-American honors in softball, as well as a bevy of academic accolades, and headed to Northwestern.
The link between her experience with bullying and her efforts in the Evanston community may not be as tangible as one might imagine. She said the specifics of her own experience faded from the forefront of her memory over the years, awakened fully only after she began the program this past year. In fact, when she initially went to Palchak for help making some sort of community outreach, she had in mind something along the lines of a health and wellness or nutrition initiative. Only after sleeping on the idea for a night did she embrace the other suggestion.
Still, consciously or unconsciously, it's difficult to imagine the two points aren't connected by some kind of line.
"I don't know if somehow deep down inside it kind of just resonated and helped her as she was deciding what to do," her father said.
She understands she and her fellow athletes aren't going to save the world. She gets that every classroom is going to have the kids who are more interested in their phones than anything strangers have to say about kindness and respect. Yet she believes the message still reaches the majority, and she will consider it a success if it helps even one person. If you can accept that math, you can make a difference.
It doesn't hurt that the messengers in this case come clad in purple in neighborhoods where that matters.
"Let's say this; Marisa is much hipper and cooler than I am," Nikolopoulou said. "They're definitely all much hipper than we are, and they were reinforcing this message or having this unique twist on the message, which is you have to try and make things better."
That is sometimes as true for those teaching as anyone. Bast's teammate, roommate and friend, Paige Tonz was among the first who served as a sounding board for her friend's ideas, even before school started in the fall and the full group of interested athletes assembled to come up with the curriculum. A fall internship meant Tonz was unable to participate in the first round of visits to schools (the program has currently visited seven schools in the Evanston and Chicagoland area, with more in the works), so it wasn't until it was well underway that she got to see for herself what Bast was so excited about.
"It was just so cool to see these kids were actually learning things, and they were responding," Tonz said. "Any time you asked them questions, they were more than happy to raise their hands and talk. There were always tons of hands up and they wanted to say what they wanted to say and contribute to the discussion. That was really neat."
In part because of her experience with the program, with seeing the reaction in person and things like the cards students at some of the schools sent in appreciation, Tonz now hopes to pursue professional opportunities in community relations.
"I don't think I ever really realized what kind of an impact we can have on these kids," she said.
For her part, Bast enters the real world this summer as an analyst at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. She will be around and involved, but she hopes to pass on the torch of leadership for the program and see that it continues long after she is no longer part of the community, perhaps long after the next great softball recruit pushes her name down or even off the page in the record book.
That it will have a lasting effect in at least one way was clear when she invited her parents to come watch one of the early visits.
"We just sat back in the back of the class and watched her go to work," her father said. "I tell you what, we couldn't have been more proud. We were also kind of amazed, like 'Holy cow, who is this girl?' Because, really, we've just seen every year her confidence build up, just how she's grown and matured. This year has kind of been the culmination of all the hard work she's put into it and the young woman she's developed into."
Softball played its part in that, but what it means in Evanston goes a long way beyond how far she can hit the ball.