The girls in Club Real Girl, our after school program, have me rethinking the power of gossip. We started Club Real Girl by asking girls about their interests and obsessions. One idea kept reoccurring: girls talking behind each other’s back. So we started our program by exploring just that.
Twenty-four fifth and sixth grade girls worked in small groups to create five tableaux portraying different gossip situations. We then explored the internal voice of each of the characters in these scenes: the gossipers, the bystanders and the victims of gossip.
As the characters spoke, patterns started to emerge. At GLI we generally teach that gossip’s impact comes from its damage on the victim’s reputation. When her reputation is suffers, her relationships change, and therein lies the real impact—not the words themselves (sticks and stones…), but what those words do to reputations and relationships.
The “A-ha” moment to me came in hearing the internal voices of the victim characters. The victim in each of the five groups echoed a similar thought pattern: she was believing the gossip about her. She was starting to think that her shoes or accent were weird, that she was, in fact, a loser. She wasn’t able to brush it off as “just rumors.” The gossip actually affected the most important reputation in her life: her reputation of herself.
This idea terrifies me. If a girl believes the rumors, then her situation can’t change with a new group of friends, or a new school. She’s internalized the damage. This made me re-think the suicide of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, MA last month. Her story has stuck with me because our camp was in that town for three years, and two of our alumnae are her classmates. I wonder if Phoebe took her own life because she couldn’t face another day of bullying at her school, or if she, like our after school girls, started to believe the rumors, that she really was the horrible things that her classmates called her.
What Phoebe suffered is too complex and sophisticated to boil down to a couple of end-of-class talking points. These girls are too smart for that. They know this is not “girl stuff,” that it will not just go away without action and courage. They are in this Club because they want to do the right thing. They want the skills and the confidence to take action.
Now we have just four months to work together to learn about not only gossip, but also ourselves: what defines us, and how we keep that definition strong against the words of others.