There was a moment near the beginning of the session on bullying when Jessica Avelar asked the combined class of about 50 fifth-graders to put their heads on their desks and close their eyes.
"Raise your hand if you've ever been bullied," said Avelar.
Just about every hand in the room went up. "Now open your eyes and look around," she said, as students turned their heads from side to side to see whose hands were raised.
It was a moment of realization and acknowledgement, meant to show the students that nobody should have to feel alone or ashamed when it comes to being bullied.
Avelar, 17, is a senior at Nashua High School North and happens to be the reigning Miss Gate City. She will be competing in the Miss New Hampshire Scholarship Pageant at the end of this month.
While bullying isn't her official platform, it's a cause that's close to her heart.
Despite her poise and self-confidence, Avelar had her own story to tell the students, about why it's important to stand up to bullies, no matter what.
"I was in a situation earlier this year with my best friend, who was being bullied. Someone was actually coming to her house and saying mean things to her. She was too scared to say anything to anyone about it, so I had to say something to one of the school police officers," Avelar said.
"Sometimes you will see something that's wrong, and even if it doesn't involve you directly, you can always tell a teacher or another adult who will help you out," said Avelar. "Friends can help you sometimes when you aren't brave enough to ask for help."
Her tone wasn't condescending or preachy. She was trying to reassure students that bullying is never OK. It wasn't all that long ago that she was herself a student at Charlotte Avenue school.
High school bullies usually get their start somewhere around middle school, which is why reaching out to fifth-graders makes sense, said teacher Jillian Brickley, who was Avelar's teacher seven years ago.
"Having Jess come in here with this message is wonderful. I think she has a great connection with them," Brickley said. "Bullying is no longer isolated to high school or middle school. You could see by the show of hands that these kids are more aware of bullying today. This is a message they need to hear now."
- Over half – about 56 percent – of all students have witnessed a bullying crime take place while at school
- A reported 15 percent of all students who don't show up for school report it to being out of fear of being bullied while at school
- There are about 71 percent of students that report bullying as an ongoing problem
- About one out of every 10 students drops out or changes schools because of repeated bullying
In the hour or so Avelar spent with students, she visited two combined classrooms, distributing worksheets to more than 100 students, who answered multiple choice questions about bullying – like what's the best way to respond to a bully (stand up straight and tell them to stop); and is bullying a normal part of growing up (no, it's not normal).
Avelar walked them through the answers.
Many students wanted to talk about their answers, or share stories about being bullied and how they handled it, even how being bullied made them feel.
"One time I got knocked down by a bully, and I was scared," said a boy sitting near the front during one of the sessions. "He was holding something in his hand, but then someone else came up behind me and told the bully to leave me alone, and so he left."
Another boy said he mostly gets bullied by an older sibling at home. Several girls knew the answer to a question about who is most often a bully: boys or girls.
"Girls can be just as mean as boys," said one girl.
The presentation was part of , organized in conjunction with the city's Public Health and Community Services Department. Students were given specially made packets with a bracelet with the slogan, 'Be a Buddy, not a Bully," and sent on their way, bolstered by Avelar's message.
"I just want you to know that there's always someone you can talk to – your teacher, your parents – they're here to help you," Avelar said. "Always remember that."