MUNSTER — You can be the hero — the Batman or Spiderman in someone’s life — just by sharing a lunch or opening yourself up to new friendships.
That was the message BMX trickster Matt Wilhelm shared with students Thursday afternoon at Wilbur Wright Middle School.
Wilhelm treated all Wilbur Wright students in grades six through eight to a show of both impressive bicycle feats and life lessons learned in two hour-long assemblies.
Wilhelm, a Guinness World Record Holder and America’s Got Talent semi-finalist, shared his own story, growing up a skinny kid with asthma and a speech impediment in Oak Lawn.
He was allergic to everything from grass to milk to dogs — but it wasn’t those unusual traits that led to one of Wilhelm’s most memorable moments in his middle school years. It was his ears.
Developing an early love for BMX, Wilhelm was at a local dirt jump when a group of kids approached him.
“What’s your favorite movie — 'Dumbo?'” the kids teased.
They circled around Wilhelm and pushed him down the hill.
“Every single one of those guys in middle school that used to make fun of me, I can remember their names, their faces and how they made me feel.”
But it was one friend’s invitation afterward that changed everything.
“I heard about what those guys did to you,” Wilhelm said the friend told him. “Just so you know, you can always ride with me.”
Wilhelm, taking breaks from his lecture to perform BMX tricks like The Hitchhiker and The Dump Truck, implored the students to do the same.
“Chances are, if someone in your class gets laughed at and made fun of, they’re going to need someone to stand up and have their back,” Wilhelm said.
The professional biker first made his mark competing in the annual extreme sports competition, the X Games. Wilhelm routinely shares with students how in his first X Games he didn’t place among the top contenders. In fact, he finished dead last. But with practice, he came back the next year and took the bronze metal. He’s now a three-time X Games medalist and two-time United States National Champion.
“The things that make you different often are the things that get made fun of,” Wilhelm told the students.
“I never thought what made me different would become a good thing.”
Wilhelm now travels across the country delivering this message. After more than a decade of practice, Wilhelm performed on one of America’s largest stages — becoming a semifinalist and YouTube competition winner for the popular NBC reality show, “America’s Got Talent.”
He led 465 school assemblies last year, speaking directly to elementary and middle school-aged students about the value of speaking up in the moment bullying occurs.
“It’s a really fun, entertaining way to keep the kids engaged, but then also to get through that message,” Wilbur Wright Middle Principal Andrew Sargent said.
“They’re all going to remember little bits and pieces at a really important age.”
Sometimes, Wilhelm said, students approach him after his show, opening up about their own challenges with bullying. More than once, he’s directed students to school counselors to help them seek continued guidance after his show.
He said he finds the challenges facing kids today especially challenging given how today bullying in school can follow students home through social media. He said it inspires him to keep speaking to students to share a story of bullying with a positive outcome.
“We all have bad days,” Wilhelm told the Wilbur Wright students. “Just know there’s always something much greater waiting in your future.”
Sixth-grader Sofija Obradovic said she’s never directly experienced bullying but that Wilhelm’s performance has inspired her to stand up for herself in situations where she may typically rely on her twin sister.
“It’s sometimes hard for me to stand up for myself,” Obradovic said. “It makes me really inspired to do that.”