FAIRFIELD — Talking about bullying and the emotional distress that can be associated with growing up is not always fun. But for Beverly Hills-based performer Bill Russ — or Retro Bill, as he’s known — it’s the challenge he’s dedicated his life to.

This week, Retro Bill has stopped in the Fairfield area to deliver a total of seven lectures to students at each of School Administrative District 49’s schools. His visit will culminate with a special event open to parents on Thursday evening.

Motivational speaker Retro Bill spoke about ways to recognize and deal with bullying and pressure to use illegal drugs during a presentation at the Williamson Center in Fairfield on Tuesday. Retro Bill told students that at times it was important to rely on the help of others. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

On Tuesday morning at 8:30, his first show of the central Maine tour, he spoke to about 650 high schoolers at Williamson Performing Arts Center.

SAD 49 Superintendent Reza Namin said booking Retro Bill cost the district a total of $7,000, which includes his travel expenses. The funding was “carryover” from a federal Title II grant, according to Namin. Title II grant money generally is designated for “preparing, training, and recruiting high quality teachers and principals,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website.

Retro Bill performs hundreds of live shows across the country each year. He has hosted a number of national children-oriented events, including America’s Independence Day Celebration and Fireworks at Mount Rushmore and National Kids Day in Washington, D.C. According to an SAD 49 news release, “Retro Bill is currently the most in-demand K-12th grade student assembly speaker in the United States and Canada.”

Donning an Elvis-like hairstyle and black clothing with a distinctive neon paint spatter pattern — which he may soon turn into his own clothing line — Retro Bill made use of a number of props and humorous personas onstage Tuesday in Fairfield. At the core of his presentation, though, was the message that kindness matters.

“Just try to live your life by the simple circle,” he said, holding a hula hoop. “Treat others the way you would like others to treat you, ’cause what we give, we will receive. What we put out will always come back, which is why kindness in the end and respect will eventually bring you kindness and respect in return.”

Lawrence High School student Cheyanne Arno poses for a photograph by friend Leah Gordon with motivational speaker Retro Bill after his presentation at the Williamson Center in Fairfield on Tuesday. Retro Bill performs hundreds of live shows across the country each year. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

On the way to that message, Retro Bill shared stories with the crowd about children who have felt hurt or isolated by the behavior of their peers. He added in several personal experiences about being bullied, even as an adult.

“When you believe in yourself and your dreams, those that do not believe in theirs do not want you to believe in yours,” he said. “Because maybe that person does not believe that they can … achieve what they hope in their heart.”

He also noted that what one person might tease a peer for, another person probably finds inspiration in. Retro Bill urged the high schoolers in attendance on Tuesday to set good examples for their friends.

“Do we carry (the pain) forward,” he asked, “or do we step forward in our circle of friends and say, ‘Hey, man, don’t send that tweet. You’re not going to post that on social media. Why would you do that?'”

He suggested that the key to taking the high road is to “stay focused on your to-do list, your dreams, your goals, where you are going.” He prompted audience members to write down a list of short-term and long-term goals to work towards as a “little bit of Retro Bill homework.” What other people are or are not doing, he said, should not change an individual’s personal or professional aspirations.

Lawrence High School student Kalianah Young, left, and Kendra Merryman gave their impressions of motivational speaker Retro Bill’s presentation Tuesday at the Williamson Center in Fairfield. Merryman said she found the message to “keep on keeping on” helpful to her. In background SAD 49 Superintendent Reza Namin, left, and Sen. Scott Cyrway speak with Retro Bill. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

In moments when students feel down or depressed, or are even contemplating suicide, Retro Bill reminded them how important it is to rely on the help of others.

“My father’s a retired army drill sergeant,” he said in a more serious part of the speech. “I was afraid to tell my father when I had fear. He loves me with his life, but at times I didn’t feel as strong as my father. I felt if I told him I was hurting, he’d think I was weak. You’re not weak when you ask for help. It takes courage, it takes strength.”

Retro Bill pointed out a number of resources children and teenagers can turn to in the school district, including counselors, social workers and teachers.

“Most people don’t ask for help because they fear, ‘Oh, great, if I sit with an adult and talk about my issues, they’re going to think I’m weird. They’re going to think I’m crazy. They’re going to think I just can’t handle it,'” he said. “No. The reason a counselor becomes a counselor, the reason a social worker becomes a social worker is because they care, and in their own life they probably sought one out themselves to get advice and help to deal with their baggage in life. We all got baggage. We’re human, and it’s OK.”

Making use of a large suitcase — with a pattern matching that of his clothing — Retro Bill brought levity back to his performance with physical humor. “When you talk to these trusted adults, no matter how big or overwhelming an obstacle may seem — trust me, it’s got a handle and wheels on it somewhere,” he said, rolling the bag around the stage. There were audible chuckles from the audience.

“What breaks my heart — and I bet it does yours, too — is when I see a student turn to drugs (as a coping mechanism),” he said, later reiterating: “Don’t let anyone take your positivity from you. It’s your life, your dreams. Stay in the game.”

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, who has known Retro Bill for 21 years because of his work as the state’s D.A.R.E. America training coordinator, connected the speaker with SAD 49. Cyrway also introduced Retro Bill at the assembly on Tuesday morning. Retro Bill is a recognized D.A.R.E. Safety Buddy, meaning that part of his work includes preaching the mission of the national drug-prevention program.

Lawrence High School students raise their hands in appreciation of motivational speaker Retro Bill on Tuesday at the Williamson Center in Fairfield, where he addressed bullying and the emotional distress that accompanies growing up. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

“I’ve tried to have him come here and in other schools,” Cyrway said afterward. “He’s done speaking in Scarborough. We had him several times in southern Maine. We’re just trying to get him up here in northern Maine.”

Namin said that his decision to have Retro Bill present to the community was not because the district faces a particularly severe problem with drug abuse, bullying or mental health problems.

“I think every school has (those) challenge(s),” Namin said. “It’s just that we want, strategically, to really face it, to have a plan to address it. … The old, traditional assembly talk — face to face — was being moved away from schools, so we wanted to bring the conversation back.”

Namin said he was satisfied with Retro Bill’s first show of the week.

“I think it was really aligned to our purpose — bringing the presentation right into our students, talking to them about the social challenges, the depression, the bullying, the self-esteem,” he said. “I think we needed an inspirational speaker … and he’s very sincere and speaks from his heart.”

This school year is Namin’s first in SAD 49.

Retro Bill’s presentation at the Williamson Center in Fairfield on Tuesday was both colorful and positive as he used several props and a splash of color to help get his points across to students. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

After the talk, several students lined up to meet and speak with Retro Bill. Kendra Merryman, an 18-year-old senior, told the Sentinel that his message — particularly to “keep on keeping on” — was just what she needed to hear Tuesday morning.

“I’ve been having a really rough time at home and last night was just really bad and today coming in — it just really helped me out,” said Merryman. “It really helped me kind of relax.”

Another senior, Kalianah Yong, who is also 18, agreed.

“I liked the baggage (message),” she said with a smile. “Just drop it!”

Retro Bill’s local community show, open to parents and children in the SAD 49 district, will take place on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Williamson Performing Arts Center next to Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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