Natasha Bergman and Amelia Martzke are the leaders of a group of Grade 12 girls at LV Rogers Secondary who reach out to Grade 9 girls to help them navigate high school and teenage life. Their mentoring activities range from serious discussions with the younger girls to just connecting socially and having fun with them. Although the school supports their work, it is not a school program as such, and teachers have minimal involvement beyond occasional guidance by a school counsellor. This transcript of the Nelson Star’s interview with Natasha and Amelia has been edited.
Natasha: It can be pretty scary coming from Trafalgar, Wildflower, or Waldorf and going to LVR. It is a lot less controlled with a lot more freedom, and lot of [students] don’t know what to do with that. We started last year when we were in Grade 11 and brought together this amazing group of young women and started brainstorming ideas. We surveyed what the Grade 9s wanted. Sometimes they feel pressure to go to parties, they wanted to learn more about sexual health, and other things, they are stressed out about certain things, and we took those ideas and put them into a plan for what we wanted to do.
Last year we had a Grade 9 girls’ day out, so we took them all and did activities with them. We got to connect with them and see how they were doing, how their year was going, and every month we did something called girls’ night out, just something to take the place of partying, or a safe space to connect to others, and have a group where you feel supported.
We have done body mapping, about being mindful of what the media is telling us. Next month we are doing chocolate-making on the girls’ night out — how to make raw chocolate. Fun things to help support each other.
Amelia: Some of these girls really don’t have someone in the house or a friend they can talk to about personal things, so we created a thing called Talking Tuesdays, which was basically a designated a room in the school where they would come at lunch hour and we would have circle discussion chat, like how are you doing today, and getting deeper and intimate about those things, and creating a welcoming and open space for all of them.
Natasha: What a lot of girls don’t share is how stressed they are and what they are going through, and it is kind of breezed over, and they say, “Oh I’m fine,” and actually they aren’t. So Talking Tuesdays was about “How are you doing,” and they might say, “Well this week sucked for me, I got a D on my math test, my friends and I are fighting” and stuff like that, and it is not even to fix it, but just to say “What are you going through, and you have support.” It is not a therapy group, it is just where you can be heard.
We also do Goddess Cards. When they come into the school we give them a month or two to settle in and we go to the classrooms and we have these little chocolates with a card and give it to them we invite them to Talking Tuesdays and let them know they have support.
Amelia: There are always so many common themes, there might be four out of five people there on one day saying “I am so stressed and so tired and I am barely keeping my eyes open today.” There are common themes so they can feel they have this network of support.
Natasha: They are stressed about academics. A lot of them feel they have to have really high performance, just from themselves and from their parents or even just society, demanding straight A’s even if that is not their strong point. Boys have the same expectation.
Nelson Star: Were you as stressed over academics when you were in Grade 9?
Natasha: To a certain degree, but I feel it is getting younger and younger, the expectation to get higher and higher. The school really sets up Grade 9 as a transition year for them to get used to exams, and they automatically think they need to get 90s, and there was not that expectation when I went into Grade 9. I thought I could take that year to breathe and explore what I wanted and settle into myself but now it is a flurry of activity, saying, “Oh I need these grades,” looking at scholarships already, thinking they need to know what they want to do.
Nelson Star: What else are they stressed about?
Natasha: Mental health. It is about their home life or their families or friends or stuff that is going on that is personal to them, and the sad thing is they feel pretty alone in it, even though there may be two girls sitting next to them that are going through the exact same thing. So maybe they are stressed at home and it leaks into their school life and it makes them feel bad. It can lead to depression, so we talk about it. And with the academics we decided to have tutoring a couple of times a week. It’s just a circle. It is all connected, really.
Amelia: A few students do tutoring on Tuesdays and the idea is they are not geniuses that know everything but they are able to work through problems with them.
Natasha: The other big one is sexual health. Two student nurses came in to answer questions. We felt that although the sex ed at LVR is getting better, it was lacking in some spots, so we had three sessions with the nurses for our leader group, so we could share this and we wanted to develop our own skills and educate ourselves around this. And then we were able to go into some Grade 9 classes and share what we learned and let them ask questions, and we answered the best we could.
The teachers said, “Can we be there?” and we said, “No, you are not allowed.” I think for liability sake we had Miranda Terlingen in the room, the school counsellor, and she is so unique in how she communicates with girls that she feels like another peer.
Amelia: We did it in a fun workshop style, because we worked with someone from Outward Bound who taught us interactive fun games. The root of it is just starting to break these things down for the girls and have fun while we talk about consent. When we are working with Grade 9s for the first time they are not as willing to share deeper things. Later in small groups they will share. For example in my group I did not touch any of that, the girls were not interested, but other groups had other experiences.
Natasha: When they ask about consent I tell them it is really about how you feel, if you feel it is okay or not, and you have to let that person know. We have not really focussed on that because last year it was all so new, but this year we will try to go into some deeper things about that. We talk about saying no, and just feeling comfortable, because a lot of girls say it is just automatic to say yes, just to say yes no matter what it is. You need to build the girls’ confidence that saying no is okay, standing up for yourself, then other stuff starts to follow, so other girls see that and then boys start to sense that, and if you stop putting so much pressure on the boys to have such a strong masculinity that is sometimes twisted in some ways, they will start to have confidence in themselves too.
Amelia: In the training we had with the nurses we talked about gender problems and sexuality and one interesting thing was about myths. We brought that into the workshop with the girls. For example, “everyone is doing it,” and things like that, that you hear all the time but are really not true, creates a lot pressure for girls and for boys.
Nelson Star: Would you have wanted this when you were in Grade 9?
Natasha: I would have loved it. I have had a few girls say “This is to cool.” The best thing is when I am in the hallway I connect with those girls, I say hi, and they just know me. It was not like they came up to me with all their problems. I was just someone they could say hi to that they knew, someone a lot older.
Amelia: Many of the girls would never discuss anything super personal with us, but we are a face in the hallway that they know, and that starts to break down that gap between the Grade 12s and Grade 9s.
Natasha: Grade 9s think grade 12s are scary. That is a huge thing. I remember being in Grade 9 and thinking that.You avoid them, you kind of skirt around them in the hallway.
Amelia: Because they were so cool and you could never be like them.
Natasha: And we wanted to break that down and say don’t be scared, come up and say hi to me at my locker, and I get a lot of that and I really love it. That is one of the best parts for me. I love that they might say, “Oh, yeah, I know Natasha, she’s cool and I can talk to her.” Because what grade you are in can be such a status thing or a box that the younger students are afraid to go out of. We are trying to focus on breaking that down.
Amelia: I have done a lot of other big projects, but this is the only one I talk like this about. I am so much more passionate about this subject than any of them. I love sharing it with people, and it feeds my soul to work with these girls. It is also just my own personal interests — I am interested in going into health education and global health and women’s health.
Natasha: I am going into the humanitarian spectrum, I want to work with refugees and with displaced people. I’m applying to Quest University for that. This whole thing is my passion I love helping people and working with others.