ROCK FALLS – Students from three local schools attended a school assembly Monday that promoted love and opposed hate.
But hate made its appearance a few minutes after the students gathered.
A boy took the stage at Rock Falls High School in front of 1,300 students from Rock Falls High and Middle schools and Newman Central Catholic High School.
Shortly after he started speaking, a boy in the back row on the gym floor shouted, "Why don't you get off the stage, fag?"
The heckler was escorted out.
"That wasn't cool," one Newman student whispered to another.
"That was staged," the other said.
It was. Designed as a lesson.
The offender – one of the presenters – later appeared on stage.
"Who told me to shut up?"
A few hands went up.
"That needs to be done a lot more," he said. "Just food for thought."
The heckled presenter later told the audience that he endured much teasing when he was younger – much of it involving derogatory names for gays. He asked students to hug themselves and those next to them. Many did.
About the teasing, the presenter said: "I couldn't tell them to stop calling me names. I found an outlet to help me do that. That's my music. That lets you escape all your daily problems. You have to love you before you love everyone else, finding you and being OK with you."
With members hailing from the suburbs to Rockford, a 12-person teen ensemble called MWAH!, Messages Which Are Hopeful sang a number of songs during the early-morning assembly.
The performers brought up a number of controversial topics – Justin Bieber's antics, Trayvon Martin's killling, Phil Robertson's views on gays, and the criticism of an 11-year-old in mariachi attire singing the National Anthem at the NBA Finals.
The students seemed to like the ensemble's message – in short, stop the hate.
When one singer belted out Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," students clapped and stomped their feet. They applauded wildly afterward – from the khaki-clad Newman students on one side of the gym to the jeans-wearing Rock Falls students on the other.
Margo Jakobs, Rock Falls High's student assistance coordinator, invited student Mekayla Simpson on stage. Simpson had a troubled childhood at home. From ages 8 to 14, she was placed in 12 different foster homes.
"She felt that no one was listening to her and lost her will to live," Jakobs said. "She is now living with her grandparents. Although she has struggled with her own choices, she is trying hard to get her life back on track. Her grades are improving, she is active in choir and band, and plays softball."
Simpson got a standing ovation.
A number of people were honored as heroes at Monday morning's assembly, which was attended by students from Rock Falls High and Middle schools and Newman Central Catholic High School:
Cathryn Burger, an employee at Rock Falls High School. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last May. She underwent surgery last summer. Then she started working at the school. She had another surgery, with more expected to come. Her cancer is in remission.
Shayla Brown, a Newman student. She has had continual issues with a leg that just won't heal. "She has not complained about it whether on crutches or riding a scooter," said Margo Jakobs, Rock Falls High School's student assistance coordinator, who presented Brown.
Connor Schmall, a Newman student. In October, he was taken to Loyola University Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with Stevens Johnson Syndrome, a rare disease that affects the skin. He returned to school before Thanksgiving and worked his way slowly back into the classroom.
Kelcey Webber, a Rock Falls High student. 2011 was the toughest year of her life. She lost her mother to lung cancer. "Despite the circumstances, Kelcey's resilience and positive attitude carried her through. Kelcey's smile is contagious and can brighten anyone's day," Jakobs said.
Carmina Lopez, a Rock Falls High student. Born in Rochelle, she moved to Mexico as a child. When she returned to the United States as a sixth-grader, she spoke no English. A translator was with her all the time. By eighth grade, she no longer had a translator and felt alone and left out. During her sophomore year, she became a leader in BLIND, a local group of high school students that promotes diversity. Since, she has received awards from the Area Career Center and Rock Falls High School for being an outstanding student.
Gary Velasquez, a local member of the Air National Guard who is deployed overseas.