Rachel Huset uses high school assembly to fight insensitivity
It’s not too often that Forest Lake High School officials pull every student out of class for an assembly. Considering that was the case on Monday for the school’s annual Veterans Day program, it is impressive that another cause merited an all-school assembly on Nov. 6.
It is even more impressive that a student inspired, created and facilitated the morning program. Senior Rachel Huset’s gift for compassion and desire for fairness brought her under a spotlight in front of a microphone and 2,000 students and teachers last Wednesday.
The daughter of a Forest Lake elementary school teacher, Huset discovered early on a knack and passion for helping others. She stayed in day care for an extra year, through sixth grade, just because she enjoyed assisting the provider by supervising the younger children.
Just as she entered her teenage years, she began looking after a young girl with disabilities from her church. The relationship and responsibility has grown over five years to the point where Huset can spend a whole weekend with the girl, now a third-grader at Forest View Elementary School. This experience led Huset to explore more opportunities to interact with those with disabilities.
Ultimately, it led her to address her peers from a stage in the high school gym. Huset had heard about a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” while volunteering at a Special Olympics basketball event this summer. The initiative aims to eliminate use of the word “retarded.” The message hit home for Huset.
“I realized that it would actually benefit our high school because you hear it all the time,” she said. “People don’t realize it. … It started with telling my friends to stop saying it.”
The more she talked with Special Olympics employees and school district officials, though, the bigger her plan grew. She heard about a grant opportunity from The Education Foundation of the Forest Lake Area the day before applications were due and whipped up a winning proposal. With hard work and help from Special Olympics and the school’s Open Minds Club, what started as plans for a small event during homecoming week turned into a full-fledged assembly.
“I was really nervous leading up to it,” Huset said. “I never spoke in front of more than 30 people before.”
In the spotlight
The 17-year-old opened the assembly by talking about her experience with Emily, her 8-year-old friend.
“She means the world to me, and I want everyone to love her and accept her just as much as I do,” Huset said. “She is my inspiration for this campaign. My initial goal was to start this campaign so that when Emily gets to high school, she will be loved and accepted just the way she is.”
The Forest Lake resident then laid out her plan to end the R word.
“This word has absolutely no place in our vocabulary, and that is why I’m working to eliminate it,” she said. “People with disabilities should not feel like they are not accepted or not wanted, and the R word creates that environment, whether you know that or not.”
Words affect attitudes, and attitudes affect action, Huset said.
“Put yourself in their shoes,” she said. “Imagine not being able to speak, like Emily. Or not knowing what to say when a person comes up to talk to you. Or getting laughed at because of something you said, but you can’t understand why it’s funny or if they are laughing at you. These are just some struggles a person with disabilities may encounter on a daily basis. Now imagine those struggles on top of going to a school where you feel like you don’t belong and having to deal with that day after day.”
After a guest speaker and musical performance, Huset let some of her friends from the Special Olympics basketball program, which she started at the school, nail home the message.
“I bet some of you play sports, too, just like me,” Mike Shaw said. “Please don’t say the R word in school because it’s rude. Thank you.”
Next up was Zach Anderson, who Huset said had been approaching her in school to say how nervous he was but also how excited he was that everyone would know his name.
“I have a learning disability and Asperger’s,” Anderson told the crowd. “All that means is that my brain works a little differently than yours. But I’m just a regular teenager that wants to be treated just like all of you. When someone says the R word, it makes me feel like you don’t think that I’m a regular teenager.
“When you say it, I think that you think I am dumb. I am a hardworking student that gets As and Bs, so I’m not dumb. I’m a Link Leader, I’m a basketball player, I’m a friend, I’m a teenager, just like you.”
With the program drawing to a close, Huset had one more ace in the hole. Yoko Yang, a student with disabilities who wore the crown of homecoming king this fall, took the microphone to the crowd’s delight. He encouraged his peers to pledge not to use the R word.
“Please sign the banner at lunch,” he said. “I know I will.”
Speakers often fail to get through to high-schoolers, and even assemblies can turn into social hour, but Huset’s campaign appears to have staying power.
Steve Massey, the high school’s principal, said Huset’s program easily met the high standards set for such an assembly.
“You hope that students will rise up and take the lead in these type of things because you know the power of what can happen when they do,” he said.
Brett Gravelle, a senior and hockey captain, said most students, including himself, did not even know what the assembly was about heading in. But they left impressed, he said.
“People are really trying to stop using the word,” he said. “I think a lot of them have used it repeatedly and didn’t know what they were saying.”
Seeing a fellow teenager run the program and hearing from the popular homecoming king helped win over the student body, said senior Bailey Norby, a basketball captain.
“We haven’t heard their perspective,” she said of those with disabilities. “It really got to us because they are just regular kids trying to fit in.”
Norby noticed a friend using their phone during the assembly. Another student tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to pay attention.
“Everyone was really engaged and wanted to hear what they had to say,” Norby said.
Huset, too, picked up on her audience’s attentiveness.
“Being at different assemblies at the high school, you always hear people whispering in the background or not quite paying attention,” she said. “They were so respectful. I was blown away.”
Huset’s favorite piece of feedback came from a classmate who had not talked to her since junior high. The student thanked her for having the guts to speak out and said he had thrown around the word without realizing the effect it had.
Taking on such an endeavor has Huset considering a career in event planning. Whatever the work focus, though, she wants it to be for a company that shares her beliefs. Huset has an internship with Special Olympics lined up for the summer and hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point next fall.
“As stressful as it sounds like it should’ve been, it wasn’t,” she said of the assembly. “I absolutely loved every part of it and planning it.”
(Editor’s note: Look for video from the assembly to be posted here later this week.)