DALTON — Adolescence and the life of a teenager can be as fun and liberating and it can be awkward and downright cruel.
To help their classmates take a moment to examine those experiences and their roles in it, without sitting in class, a student leadership group called The Wahconah Ambassadors teamed up with former "American Idol" contestant and fellow Bay Stater, Casey McQuillen, to present a concert of music and storytelling Wednesday afternoon under the theme of "resilience." The concert was a stop on McQuillen's "You Matter" school tour.
Standing in front of the Wahconah Regional High School auditorium filled with a few hundred students and teachers from all walks of life, McQuillen opened up her songbook — one based on her middle school diary — and presented a show of solidarity with today's youth.
She talked about the pain and depression she experienced when episodes of her journey were televised in 2014 for season 13 of "American Idol."
"All these people, my friends and family, were congratulating me, telling me I was going to go Top 10, Top 5, and all the way, but I had a secret," she said. The show's audition round episodes are all pre-recorded, so while she did make it past the first round and into the Top 48, McQuillen was already cut when the new season was airing to millions on television.
Though she said she felt like a failure, she told students that her friends, family and fans still supported her, long after her "secret" was revealed. She said she didn't need a hit television show to determine her destiny.
"I was the only one who viewed me as a failure," McQuillen told the students.
She also recounted how her insecurities emerged long before gaining international recognition. The singer-songwriter, a Berklee College of Music alumna from Andover, talked about how in middle school, kids tend to "start getting really mean" and how social clout becomes less about "how many Fruit Roll-Ups you have in your lunch box and more about your appearance."
She talked about how these issues affected boys and girls, giving anecdotes about a male friend who had a childhood disease that affected his appearance and who was severely picked on for it. She also detailed how she was the target of a pack of "Mean Girls," bullies who taunted her looks and called her "gross."
She dedicated her song, "Enough" to people in the school who need to hear it on "days when people don't understand how hard it is to be you."
McQuillen then told students that in a culture of Snapchat and Instagram, where people selectively share the highlights of their weeks, and not the everyday experiences — like being sad or simply doing laundry in your pajamas — and that they should not let judgements or their perceptions of the lives of others sway their own lifestyles and expressions.
To conclude the concert, she got the entire student body to its feet to sing to Alicia Keys' hit, "Girl on Fire."
The Wahconah Ambassadors, a club funded by Berkshire United Way, plans to continue carrying on McQuillen's messages of being able to overcome bullying and life's challenges through poster campaigns and talks at the school.
"We hope students will be more aware of how to be resilient and put the image in their mind that they can overcome whatever challenges they face," said sophomore Emily Cullett.
Previously, the Wahconah Ambassadors, led by Nakeida Bethel-Smith from the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield, have focused on other youth issues, such as teen dating violence and stress reduction.
For more information about establishing a teen leadership program in your school, contact Nataly Garzon at Berkshire United Way at firstname.lastname@example.org.