ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Life can be brutish and cruel; just ask a middle school girl.
Here’s Madison Hodgen: “In sixth grade, there was a girl that was picking on me. I had PE with a girl and she just picked me out of all the kids and she would threaten me and she would make up things about me. It was every other day. She would get up in my face and say bad things.”
And Devan Quintana: “In sixth grade, I had really crooked teeth and they would make fun of me and they would call me really bad names.”
Mackenzie Allen: “There was this one girl that picked on me when I was in sixth grade. It was because we were friends at the beginning of the year but she started being mean to teachers. She would start going up to people at break time and be like, ‘I dare you to cuss out this teacher.’ And so I just stopped talking to her. And so she would make fun of me for it. She’d be like, ‘You’re a wimp’ and call me all kinds of bad names.”
Madison, Devan and Mackenzie were talking to me about bullying. Listening to their stories, I can hardly believe any girls get out of sixth grade with their self-esteem intact.
But these girls have. The three, along with Madison Munger, Haley Flanagan and Reaghan Allison are members of Girl Scout Troop 151 in Albuquerque.
They were batting around ideas for a project last year when the topic turned to bullying and Hodgen told her tale of systematic needling in that gym class. From there, the stories flew. Those stories developed into a Silver Award project (the highest level a middle school Girl Scout can attain) that involved researching how bullying works, how it’s different (and more damaging) than simple teasing and how it can happen to just about any teen or tween or even younger children.
Justin Bieber? The Scouts found out he was bullied when he was in school with gay slurs because of his interest in music. Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton? She was harassed in an upper-crust boarding school because her clothes weren’t up to snuff.
Troop 151’s project culminated in two full-size billboards on busy Albuquerque streets. The billboard space was donated by the New Mexico Girl Scouts organization, and a local photographer stepped in to donate a photo session.
The billboard at Avenida César Chávez and Broadway pictures all six troop members with this message: “Each day 160,000 students miss school due to bullying. Which one of these kids will be absent tomorrow?”
In describing to me how their bullying project got started, Munger said something in passing that really surprised me.
“We all started talking about how we had all been bullied and had been bullies and so we wanted to start a project about it,” she said.
All of these nice girls had been bullies?
Allen: “There was this group of kids and they would go around calling kids these really horrible, horrible names. I mean, like honestly, adults don’t use the language they were using. And they were being nice to me, so I was kind of being friends with them. So I’d be just like, ‘Whatever, I’ll do this.’ And I ended up calling people all types of really bad names, like profanity words. I felt really bad. I’d laugh at it at school but then I’d get home and be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, did I seriously do that?’ ”
Quintana, who was the victim of the crooked-teeth offensive before she got braces: “I kind of got tired of it and I started talking back at them and calling them bad names, too. As soon as I got home, I was like, ‘What have I done? Like, why would I do that?’ That’s not me.”
Originally, the troop members thought they could put their research together and do school assemblies, but they realized that would be hard to juggle with their own school schedules. And billboards get the message to even more people.
The second billboard, on Fourth Street north of Menaul, calls attention to a Girl Scout program called “Be a Friend First” or BFF.
“If someone’s getting picked on, you should try to make friends,” Haley Flanagan said. But that’s easier said than done in the treacherous world of middle school. Flanagan said she felt the social stigma of doing that when she hung out with an unpopular girl. “I was getting picked on by people saying you shouldn’t be friends with her or spreading rumors that she’s pregnant,” Flanagan said.
“There’s always the fear that they’re going to pick on you too for hanging out with them,” Allison said.
Who are the bullies?
“The in crowd,” Munger said.
“Or it can be the kid who feels, like, really lonely themselves,” Allison offered.
“They want to impress the popular crowd by putting other people down,” Munger added.
“I think they’re trying to make themselves feel better by putting other people down,” Hodgen said.
While boys tend to suffer physical violence when they become the target of bullies, girls are more likely to be cut with words – face to face, behind their backs, on Facebook or AskFM.
I wondered what it feels like to be targeted like that and asked Hodgen what the effect was on her when she was in sixth grade.
“I think it’s fear. Fear for the next day,” Hodgen said. “Because you never know what they’re going to do.”
“Sometimes,” Munger said, “they make you feel so bad about yourself that you start believing what they’re saying about you and you think you shouldn’t be alive.”
There was a box of Thin Mints on the table, a reminder of what Girl Scouts are best-known for. Quintana said she doesn’t advertise her Scout involvement at her middle school and she was nervous about being featured in the media for the bullying project because being a Girl Scout can also single one out for harassment. “It’s not entirely cool,” she said.