BOSTON — "They think they know it all already. And you know they don't want to hear it that much. But eventually, you know, we get through to them, then they start to open up and talk about it. Like the first time they're a little bit on the wise side."
Jimmy Rose, a 17-year-old senior at Brookline High School near Boston, is talking about the seventh-graders with whom he discusses drug and alcohol abuse.
It seems as if everyone is telling kids not to do drugs anymore. Nancy Reagan tells them to Just Say No. Sports figures film commercials on how drugs ruined their lives. Movie previews feature actors talking about the deadliness of crack.
But Boston schools are letting kids tell kids the facts. High-schoolers like Rose are called "Peer Leaders," and receive training in how to make presentations and lead discussions on everything from what high school is really like to how to decide whether you want or need to drink or get high.
Teachers leave the classroom when a team of two Brookline Peer Leaders arrives for one of four discussions they will hold with each of the seventh-grade classes. This makes talking about questions like "Do people come up to you in the hall and try to sell you drugs at high school?" and "Does everyone drink there?" a lot easier.
Peer Leaders show films about decision-making and play games that test how much the kids know about alcohol. In one game, the class is divided into two teams that score points for knowing the answer to questions like, "Does a shot glass of whiskey have the same amount of alcohol as a 12-ounce can of beer?" (Yes.) One of the most surprising things that kids learn, Rose said, is that alcohol is a drug.
Those students who become Peer Leaders make a commitment not to drink or use drugs for one year. Gini Goulet, who coordinates the program at Brookline High, said she has let kids continue in training but won't let them make presentations when she suspects them of drinking or using drugs. Goulet hopes that the facts students learn in training will convince those who break their commitment to stop.
There have been a few Peer Leaders at Brookline who have used drugs while they were supposed to be straight, Rose said.
"I would think that they would want to do this program to try and stop using," he said. "And I think that, even if they did do it, they would try to be responsible because you never know who is out there. Like, say you would bump into somebody's younger brother or sister and they saw you. And then, if you were making a presentation in their class, they would kind of think you were a hypocrite."
Sheila Ravnell is a Peer Leader at Copley High School in Boston. With her matching yellow and white rugby shirt and skirt, she looks as if she belongs on the cover of Seventeen magazine. Silver bangle bracelets clink together as she shifts an armful of notebooks.
"I was really lucky, because the kids I grew up with didn't do drugs," Ravnell said. "And I'm still in high school with all of the kids I went to elementary school with."
Learning how to listen was one of the most important things Ravnell said she learned from the Peer Leader program. And her new skills paid off when she had to help a friend with a problem.
"There was a girl I know who was thinking about suicide," Ravnell said. "So I asked her, "Do you think these problems are going to stop after you leave?' The way I was showing that I was concerned was by not sarcastically saying something like, "Boy, that's dumb.' And it ended up that she worked out the problems with her family that were making her want to commit suicide."
The most important thing about listening, Ravnell said, is "the way you present yourself. Sometimes, when you're listening, you just say, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh,' or you're scribbling on a piece of paper. They really taught me how to stay still and make eye contact."
"At first everyone is saying, "Oh, oh, who's this?," said Carlos Diaz as he talked about the first time he walked into a homeroom to lead discussions as a Peer Leader. "But I'm a bit loud, so then they start to listen."
Diaz is a junior at Cathedral High School in Boston's South End. Asian, black, Hispanic, and white students all attend this parochial school, and eventually a Peer Leader will visit each of the homerooms.
"When you're first given all of this information, it seems useless," said Diaz. But he found himself looking things up in his notes when he couldn't answer some of the kids' questions about drugs.
The best part about being a Peer Leader, he said, "is when someone comes up to you afterwards and says, "Oh, that was great, it was really good.' And that makes me feel good."