OLD TOWN — For many girls, the middle school years are marked with anxiety, self-doubt, and mounting pressure from peers, parents and the media — not to mention puberty and the emotional changes that typically accompany it.
Research suggests that self-esteem and aspiration levels plummet as girls enter their middle school years, notes Valerie Osborne of the Old Town Public Library.
“Studies show that as these young girls begin adolescence, they struggle to keep their balance, preserve their genuineness and vitality, and move on to emerge as confident and capable adults,” Osborne wrote in her proposal to create GirlsTalk, a unique three-year program which makes its debut here tonight with a dinner meeting.
“During this time, many pitfalls surround them: physical vulnerability, the closing of options, the emphasis on thin, pretty and popular; the ascendancy of social success over academic achievement, the message that the fields of math and science are the domain of males, the short-circuiting of ability that renders them powerless, the subtle insinuations that boys are really the smart ones,” Osborne said.
“Girls who accede to these messages are at emotional and academic risk, in danger of losing not only their confidence and their achievement, but also the very spirit of themselves,” she warned.
Osborne wants Old Town girls in this year’s sixth grade to know that they’re not alone. She wants them to know that there’s a network of successful women — all of whom have made it through their own middle school years — ready and willing to help them with the transition from little girl to teen-ager.
The program will follow girls through their sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade school years. Osborne hopes that educators will continue to track participants’ progress as they progress through high school.
GirlsTalk is aimed at promoting self-esteem and raising aspirations among local middle school girls through literature that portrays adolescent girls in a positive manner, and by matching each girl with a positive female role model from the community.
“It’s a good concept,” Osborne said. “Not only will it be good for the girls, but it builds community. I think it’s going to be a really valuable experience.”
Instilling a strong sense of place in young people is a challenge, Osborne said, recalling her own childhood. “We’d play outside from sunrise to sunset. You don’t see that like you used to.
“The structure of the family is changing. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse, but that it’s different,” she said.
On top of family changes, rapid advances in technology also are having an effect on the development of today’s young people.
Between now and June, the girls and their mentors will read and discuss “Sarah Plain and Tall” and “Cassie Binegar,” both by Patricia MacLachlan, “The Exiles” by Hilary McKay, and Sally Warner’s “Ellie and the Bunheads.” Similar books will be selected for the program’s second and third years.
But there’s more. The group also will attend at least one cultural performance a year, likely at the Maine Center for the Arts at the University of Maine.
“We want to expose them to a wider world,” Osborne said, observing that for some of the girls, these performances might be their only exposure to such experiences as hearing an opera and seeing a ballet.
Other events will include library sleepovers and “fun nights,” and an overnight trip as the girls complete the eighth grade. Possibilities include a canoe trip, a horseback outing, mountain climbing or a visit to a major city, Osborne said.
As one of the program’s measuring sticks, Osborne will ask the girls to complete a questionnaire to get them thinking about how they view themselves, what they see as their strengths, talents and other qualities, and how they think they are perceived by others. The forms will remain locked in a file drawer to be revisited at the program’s conclusion.
Not surprisingly, a book sparked Osborne’s desire to develop the GirlsTalk program.
In “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” psychologist and author Mary Pipher writes that popular culture has been destroying all too many adolescent girls.
The effect of that culture — particularly as it is portrayed in the mass media — is giving rise to some disturbing trends among girls, Pipher says, pointing to such self-destructive practices as body-mutilating diets, piercing, self-cutting, drug-taking, drinking and unprotected sex.
“It kind of sparked something in me,” Osborne said. “Having a daughter myself, I thought this is very, very interesting … I just said now, maybe, as a community, we can do something about it.”
The number of GirlsTalk participants has far exceeded Osborne’s projections.
“My expectation was that maybe 10 or 15 girls would sign up,” she said. To date, however, 43 of the 64 girls in this year’s sixth-grade class at the J.A. Leonard Middle School have signed up.
“I was overwhelmed by the numbers,” she said.
An equal number of area women have made a three-year commitment to serve as their mentors. They come from virtually all walks of life. The list includes a police officer, a nurse, a homemaker, a lawyer, a dancer, a city councilor, librarians and educators, college students, a real estate broker, an artist, a chemist and an optometrist.
MCA Director John Patches and Elaine Albright, UM dean of cultural affairs and libraries, have been particularly receptive to the program.
“They are making it possible for us to go to at least one performance a year,” Osborne said, by keeping tickets within reach of the GirlsTalk group.
The UM bookstore agreed to offer a good discount on the books, she said.
Osborne is piecing together a budget from private funding sources, but figures the program ultimately will run between $30,000 and $40,000, including donated goods and services. Because the idea is to offer the program at no cost to girls or mentors, finding the necessary funds remains a challenge.
The Friends of Maine Libraries and the Friends of the Old Town Public Library, the Maine Humanities Council, the Rudman Trust, Our Neighborhood Club and various individual donors already have committed funds to the project.
Osborne acknowledged that the girls might not think she, a 48-year-old woman, could possibly understand the issues they face, but in her meetings with sixth-graders, she has told them, “You know, the issues are the same as when I was your age, except the pressure is greater now.
“It’s not our intention to take the place of parents, to offer parental advice,” Osborne said, “but at the same level, here’s a group of women who have a lot of experience. If they seek us out, that’s a good thing.
“If my own daughter had an issue that was concerning her, I would feel so good knowing that there were a number of women in the community she could turn to for help.”