Turning the page on scars of bullying

Paige Rawl was like other teenage girls. She played soccer, competed in beauty pageants and carried pompoms as a cheerleader.

But when her middle school classmates found out Paige was born HIV-positive, she was bullied so badly that she eventually dropped out to be homeschooled and later attempted suicide.

Rawl, however, turned her bullying experience into a positive journey.

When she was 14 she became the youngest person to be certified through the American Red Cross as an HIV/AIDS educator. She also testified in the Indiana General Assembly to help pass an anti-bullying bill that went into effect July 1, 2013.

Rawl, now 22, wrote a memoir about her life. That book, “Positive,” is this year’s Brown County Reads community book selection.

Rawl is now a college student majoring in entrepreneurship and business. She is working toward starting her own organization for HIV education and anti-bullying advocacy.

“As part of the Brown County Reads program, Brown County Schools students will have the opportunity to hear Rawl’s story in person and learn about the impact bullying has on teens and how to respond to it.

“If there is a way to connect with students, we want to support it, and this book was a natural fit to do just that,” Brown County Public Library Director Stori Snyder said.

“Because she’s not that much older than they (the students) are, her message is likely to have more of an impact. She’ll be relatable to them.”

Rawl will speak to junior high and high school students April 4 at the high school’s auditorium.

Rawl will then meet with the public from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the library.

“Our hope is that it provides students with a much more active way of thinking about what they may be experiencing in school, being bullied but also potentially participating in bullying behavior,” said Patricia Krahnke, president of Brown County Literacy Coalition.

“This isn’t just something that people talk about in an abstract way or experience in an abstract way. They really experience it on a very deep level, and the bullies are experiencing it in their own way, in their own personal challenges. … Both of these experiences can have a lifelong impact.”

For the past five years, the library and the literacy coalition have invited the community to read and discuss a book together. Last year’s books were “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.”

The program also features a meet-and-greet with the author. Last year’s author, Michael Sims, spoke with students at Sprunica Elementary School before talking with the public.

“A reading program like this gives everybody the opportunity to learn and as a community. Just by reading the same book, you have a shared experience across socioeconomic levels, cultural levels, social levels,” Krahnke said.

High school foreign exchange student Naima Faarax is helping spread news of the program among high school students, along with librarian Brian Galm. Faarax is an honorary literacy coalition board member.

Faarax is from Somaliland and is a Muslim. She said she initially worried about being bullied due to her religion when she first came to Brown County and the United States but that she has not experienced any bullying while living here.

However, that doesn’t mean bullying hasn’t gone on in Brown County Schools or other schools throughout the country, which is one reason Faarax is working to get students to read the book ahead of Rawl’s visit.

Copies of the book are available in the high school library for students to check out, and at the public libraries in Nashville and Cordry Sweetwater for adults.

Downloadable audiobook and e-book copies are also available in OverDrive through the Brown County Public Library’s website, Snyder said.

“I think it’s something that will encourage a lot of kids in here,” Faraax said about the book. “That’s one of the reasons I am doing it, because I want everyone to feel comfortable with who they are and feel welcome, not pressure. I like education, and if coming to school is a pressure for me, I wouldn’t feel love for education … I wouldn’t want to go school because of all the bad things happening to me (if I was bullied).”

Krahnke, who is also a substitute in Brown County Schools, said bullying is “absolutely” an issue in the schools all over.

“You hear students talking about they heard something, they saw something. I had a student just tell me the other day they actually witnessed somebody bullying a special education student,” she said.

“The kids see this, and some kids are very, very tough about challenging it in the school, but there’s a lot bullying that goes on. It’s not just in Brown County, it’s everywhere.”

Brown County Reads

The 2017 Brown County Reads book selection is “Positive” by Indiana resident Paige Rawl. The community is encouraged to read her book before she comes to Brown County on Tuesday, April 4.

During the school day she will speak to junior high and high school students.

From 7 to 8:30 p.m. she will give a presentation at the Brown County Public Library.

Copies of the book are available at the Nashville and Cordry Sweetwater library branches and can be downloaded in ebook form from iddc.overdrive.com.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.