To a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old seems impossibly cool and unapproachable.

Except when everyone is wearing trash bags and tin foil.

At Columbus Academy on Jan. 17, six older teens, most of them seniors, helped 17 sixth-graders to prepare for the Trash Bag Fashion Show, a cutthroat battle of the sexes that the boys win most years.

Bridges & Connections, an extracurricular activity the Gahanna private school has offered for about a decade, holds the competition as one of its monthly activities. The goal is to help middle schoolers through the transition to high school life by creating bonds among younger and older students.

The teams had 30 minutes to turn a stack of Wall Street Journals, duct tape, foil and black and white garbage bags into runway-worthy creations.

Senior Vince Allen, the group's leader, went over some basic instructions, and the two groups split off.

After the girls left, Allen got real with the boys team.

"This is my last year, and if we don't win, I'm gonna be upset," he said.

He advised the boys to partner up and help each other.

Then the classroom erupted into a frenzy of plastic sheets and newsprint going this way and that, every male participant tossing together whatever would fit.

"I'm not going to be able to see for an hour," said one boy trying on foil goggles.

"What are you even going for? Is that a skirt?" said another.

"I don't know. Maybe."

Out in a corner of the hallway, the girls sat in a circle, calmly planning out their fashions.

Usually, seventh-graders and some eighth-graders participate, but basketball season is likely keeping them away right now, said teacher and adviser Andrew Bezant.

Every month, the Upper School students plan something new. The best-attended event is the October meeting, which features a bonfire and pumpkin decorating.

Aanav Karumsi, 11, was there for his second time.

"It's really fun, and you get to meet new people," he said. "And the seniors are really nice."

Ellie Jeffers, 16 and a 10th-grader, has been helping with the middle-school students since last year. She participated when she was in sixth and seventh grade.

"Middle school is a time where adults look at middle schoolers as a crazy bunch of kids that are tough to manage," Jeffers said. "And they can be, but there's a lot more to them than that. It's kind of fun to watch them grow up and see what they become."

The girls finished up their outfits and began to practice their catwalk routines.

"We just went for a black-and-giraffe -- I think this is a giraffe -- dress," said 11-year-old Emma Reynolds, spinning to model her black plastic dress with animal-print tape.

"That's cute!" said teacher Katie Castle. "I'd wear that!"

The boys were less effusive about their fashions.

"I have a hat and I'm wearing this," said Dorian Bristol, 12.

On his head was a twisted Seussian invention, and he'd taped newspaper pages to his front and back.

Seniors Chase Kallmerten and Carson Nichols wore giant foil medallions with dollar signs and taped random financial terms and stock charts onto their trash-bag ponchos.

Once time was up, the runway walk-off took place in the hallway.

Allen announced the judges' decision: The boys were creative, but the girls beat them on planning and execution. Girls win!

Bezant calls Bridges & Connections a "continuum of investment in the younger students."

"They get to see another side of the high schoolers," he said.

But the older students benefit, too.

"They get to remember what it was like to be these kids' age and do silly things," Bezant said. "It's good leadership experience. They make mistakes. They don't buy enough snacks. ... They have to learn how to handle the younger kids and show patience."

sgilchrist@dispatch.com

@shangilchrist