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Rabbi cites 'grief, dread, confusion' of suicides

Original post made on Jun 5, 2009

With loving memories of Gunn senior Sonya Raymakers, who died at the Caltrain tracks Tuesday, clergy members and friends at her funeral urged parents and children to consider anti-suicide pledges.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, June 5, 2009, 7:41 PM

Comments (98)

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Posted by Maya
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 5, 2009 at 11:18 pm

I am so glad the Palo Alto Police are out there in force. It shows they care. Bless Sonya Raymakers. She sounds like a beautiful person. May she be making some sunny rays wherever she is!

Kids touch our hearts, they are so vulnerable...as we all are! Be well everyone and many hugs!


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Posted by baffled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2009 at 12:49 am

I feel very sorry that a 17 year old person took their own life. I, and probably most of us here on these boards know nothing about her. I guess it is a sign of how hopeless and concerned people feel, but I find these things like asking for 7x24 monitoring of the railroad lines, or suicide pledges to be absolutely bizarre.

I am past the high school age a long time now, and I know it was tough for kids growing up with I did and I think it must be much harder for kids today in almost every way. I would not want to grow up in this world the way it is today, after 8 years of the most divisive culture wars and a society that pushes people too hard and allows no reflection or community.

We may think we have a community, but there have been studies that show that while a mere 20 years ago when you asked people how many friends they had, real friends, confidants, the average person said they had 3. Today that number is 0.

It's not my problem anymore, but the direction our country is going in is not good. Despite people acting tough we pay a price for living this way. Somewhere the phoniness needs to stop, we all know that, but it's like taking the money out of politics, we all know it needs to happen, but there is no way to do it.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 12:58 am

Baffled,

Monitoring the crossing when we may be having an issue with contagion suicide attempts makes sense. Suicide is often an impulsive act. Restrict access to the suicide spot and you do see a reduction in suicides.

I think it makes sense to do it while school's in session and kids are crossing the tracks. It's not going to be 24/7 because there aren't trains much of the night.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 8:03 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Bar
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 6, 2009 at 8:45 am

My daughter is a Paly freshman. She's intelligent, funny, spunky, cute, and like many Palo Alto kids, has already travelled to many countries. What's amazing to me is that she has absolutely no close friends, or friends at all, in either Paly or Palo Alto. I can't imagine she is the only kid having this problem. I wonder if there's a connection between the apparent difficulty of kids in Palo To form friendships and this tragic wave of teen suicide.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 8:54 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 9:12 am

I think the monitoring of the tracks until school is out is a good idea. These students shouldn't be exposed to any more trauma if it's preventable. At a time like this, we all need to reflect on what's important in life and take care of each other. That is what's called a community. I'd like to think we live in a good surrounding with good people. Let's be good to each other. Some of these posts are being read by kids/students. Let's be sensitive to that fact when we post.

Peace


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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 6, 2009 at 9:31 am

Bar, I hear you. I honestly believe that a big part of the difficulty in forming strong friendships is the lack of free time. If our own kids aren't bogged down with homework or extracurriculars at any given moment, then there's a good chance their friends are. It limits many of the friendship to casual at-school acquaintances, which is sad. It took my daughter a couple of years at Gunn to form stronger bonds with a handful of lovely friends, and I am so glad she did.


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Posted by Jackie
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 6, 2009 at 11:52 am

I feel so much sympathy for the suicides (and the attempt) that has happened. I remember talking to a friend and she asked, "How could someone do that? Why would someone even think about doing that? That's so selfish." I merely shrugged and walked away. As I walked I thought about her question. Such a wondering question to many people was not so hard for me. When something's pondering your thoughts or when you feel like there's no hope left, suicide seems to be a legitimate solution. You already feel as if you aren't doing any good for the people around you because they haven't showed to you that you make a difference. You think that this world just isn't the place for you. I know exactly how it feels to have these thoughts render in your mind. The stress, the depression, they all add up into one big pile of emotions that doesn't seem like its able to clean up. But, I luckily got some help. I talked it out with some people and adults. They told me that this would all pass. I didn't really realize or believe that it could possible happen until one day I found myself doing better. And the next day even better. I found that they were right. That things will pass. Being a sophomore at Gunn High School, I began to feel less stressed about the future that was ahead of me. For I hung onto those lingering words, "It Will All Pass."


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Posted by still baffled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Jackie, one surely has to wonder what would put someone in a state of mind to deliberately take the action. I don't understand it, but one thing I seem to intuitively know or feel is that is surely is not selfish. You were smart to just walk away from someone who said that. I would be tempted to argue, but I think the attempt would be a waste of time.

I have had my down moments but I have never really felt suicidal, but imagining those who do or have, when I hear people say it is selfish it really irks me as the ultimate insensitivity of still blaming someone after they have felt so bad they resolve they had to leave the planet - it just seems really hateful and evil to say that. Part of the thought process that most likely causes the problems to begin with. Bullying people seem to want their victims not to escape.

I could understand it if one faced a terminal illness, ie. really had no hope, but I think it possible that people are driven to suicide by the idea of wanting to live so bad and not having hope. How do people lose hope, and how do they absorb an attitude of being able to look beyond a painful present?


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Suicide can be selfish. It can be vengeful. It can be angry. Remember, it is an act of violence. An old term for it is "self murder".

I don't say this to abnegate the suffering of someone in a suicidal state, but to point that while a suicide is a victim, he or she is also a perpetrator. This can get lost in our pity, sorrow and grief.

In a fundamental way, it is wrong because of the suffering it creates and all the hope and possibilities it takes away. In that sense the suicidal state is not precisely selfish as fatally self-absorbed--one is trapped in one's mind and suffering--a room without windows or doors.

Jackie, I'm glad you're here. That you sought help and gave yourself the time to feel better.

Still Baffled,

The two best depictions I've read of the mindset of the suicidal state are William Styron's Darkness Visible and A. Alvarez's The Savage God.


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Posted by Still Baffled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Ohlone Par, books? .... written by the living ... for some reason ... may be selfish? I don't know? I think whatever point you are whomever are trying to make you should use another word than selfish. Selfish implies gain, and maybe the only thing a suicidal person might gain is some kind of control of their situation on their own terms. Maybe that is self-centered, but selfish ... no. I really do not get why it is so important for some to say this over and over. Are the people who say this different from others in that they have experienced a suicide that has hurt them personally and made them angry at the "victim". I don't get it?


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Still Baffled,

Both books are written by people who attempted suicide. Alvarez almost didn't make it. Someone found him--he was in a coma.

I am using the word "selfish" to get away from an overly romantic view of suicide. Some wonderful people have tragically killed themselves, but so have some unpleasant ones for unpleasant reasons. In some cases, there's "I'll show you." aspect that ignores the fact that the "I" won't be there to show anyone anything. There are "You'll pay for this" vengeance suicides--and it's in the notes that the "intent" of the suicide is to make someone else suffer.

This isn't to say that depression's not at the core of these suicides, but the move from depression to actual suicide can include anger and impulsiveness.

And it isn't to say these factors were involved in the recent deaths, simply that the irrationality in suicide goes in all sorts of directions.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Teen suicide is very selfish. It bascially says that my pain trumps the pain that I will inflict on others. Teens can be very self aborbed, but the adults need to take over the situation. We should be taking a very tough stand against it, especially by assigning the shame that it deserves. Instead, we are glorifying it, by caving into the memorialization of it. It should be no surprise that other teens decide to do the same thing.


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Posted by Down Town
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 6, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Look at the way young people are raised nowadays, and on the pressure put on them to be uber perfect, perpetually overshcheduled and ultra successful. Happiness, peace and contentment seem to have been lost somewhere in the shuffle. In light of that, are the recent suicides so surprising? Life is about so much more than having a mountain of money and being oh so perfect.

The media is not helping matters by constantly broadcasting that trains are an easy and convenient means of killing oneself. It just gives ideas to those who would have never even considered of such an option otherwise.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Kevin,

I don't think we should make it an issue of "shame." Shame over depression and feeling suicidal is something that keeps people from admitting or seeing that they need help.

Down Town,

What also strikes me about the pressure is how important we make what are teens do. Too much attention and yet not enough of the right sort.


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Posted by Karin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Karin is a registered user.

Kevin, how can you say that? Suicide doesn't deserve shame, it needs help. When you're that depressed you CAN'T think about anything else and the pain you will inflict on those who survive isn't even on the spectrum of the pain you're experiencing. No one ever talked about Ben's death a few years ago and his friends suffered so much, they had no where to talk. It's as if his death wasn't even recognized, like it wasn't even valid. Sonya was my friend and these online threads have helped me and I know they've helped others. Why do you want to take that away from us?


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Down Town,

You have no evidence that suicide is about pressure to be uber perfect, although it is a legitimate issue to discuss in this and other contexts. You seem to have bought into the psychological-industrail complex's rationalization.

Plutarch had much more to say about a suicide cluster in Greece, back in the day. Web Link

The women, who just couldn't seem to get over their compulsions for suicide, were shamed into suddenly ending it by adults who simply told them that they would be shamed, not memorialized.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Kevin,

I don't think you can make that kind of jump--the Greeks had very strong views about the disposal of the dead that we don't share--Antigone, anyone? And honor.

We do know that suicide attempts can be cries for help--and we don't want shame to keep people from asking or getting help. There are conditions--bipolar disease--for example that have a physiological basis that can be stabilized with medication. A lot of mental illness first becomes apparent during adolescence. Shame means that kids may try to hide something that's going very wrong inside their heads.

Just from Karin's post and some others, it sounds like people don't want the ramifications to be ignored.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 5:24 pm

OhlonePar,

There are many cries for help in this world, but the vast majority do not end up in suicide. Suicide has been romanticized and glorified and memorialized. We adults need to remove those attributes of modern suicide. We can start in Palo Alto by refusing to memorialize and publicize it.

Teens need (and want) to feel a sense of honor, but the adults are not leading the way. It is time.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2009 at 5:51 pm

One aspect that isn't being discussed is the message that we are teaching young people nowadays that "if it feels good to you, just do it". The message that comes across to many young people is that they shouldn't worry about what others think, it is their lives that matter and if it hurts someone else then it doesn't matter as it is you that is important. Whether it is divorce (I can't stay in this marriage even if it is going to hurt my kids) or abortion (it is really inconvenient for me to have a child now as I have so many other things going on in my life) or money (if I have the money which I worked so hard for I should be able to spend it exactly as I like and if I have problems when I retire, or when I get sick, then I am sure the government schemes - medicare, medical, welfare - should be there to help me out).

The real lesson should be answering the question "am I my brother's keeper?" and the answer is "yes" and "am I responsible if I cause distress in the lives of those close to me?"


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 6, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Kevin,

The problem is that these suicides were very public. They were witnessed. We do not, in fact, publicize "private" suicides.

That the vast majority of cries for help aren't suicide attempts doesn't mean we should ignore the cries for help that are.

The main effect, by the way, of making suicide a matter of shame is that suicides are simply disguised---i.e. someone accidentally killed themselves while loading a shotgun is a classic.

The U.S., by the way, does not have a high suicide rate when considered globally--as of 2008, we were around no. 42--well, below eastern Europe and east Asia. We're wedged between Iceland and Luxembourg. Worldwide, the rate has been climbing over the past 50 years.

Resident,

I think, in a sense, you're talking about our emphasis on the individual. That same emphasis on the individual, I think, can be very isolating.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 8:30 pm

OhlonePar,

These suicides were MADE very public. Even on Caltrain tracks, most suicides are reported in a matter of fact way. However, teen suicides on the tracks are made into a memorialized shrine. This is wrong, and it is also tragic, because it feeds a potential frenzy. Teens need to understand that their suicides will be ignored, both becasue it is a shameful thing, and the adults will refuse to add to the emotional frenzy.

The PA city council and Caltrain should immediately declare that that all attempts at memorializing the crossings will be opposed. The police will be sent back to their normal duties. All flowers and signs should be removed and disposed of in the dumpster.

Our schools should never lead a memorial assembly or encourage any attempt to acknowlege that suicide is a way that emotional pain can be rationalized.

Teens: I support you, in a very fundamental way. I don't care if you think I am an ogre. You have assumed the weaknesses of the adults that should be leading you, but are not. You should be rebelling against this weakness, instead of acquiescing to it. You can take the day, or you can shirk in the shadows. Imagine your own imagination, then accept the many failures that will lead you there.


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Posted by Baffled Again
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 6, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Rather than realize these "primal" situations bring out a lot of deep feelings, I read through hear and I read a lot more of the know-it-all stuff by quite a few people. If we, or any of us, knew it all, we would not have these kinds of situations. Calling the victims selfish, calling those who want to express something inappropriate. Harking back to ancient Greece for lessons on how to childrear? Why not let them crawl at birth on a very steep and dangerous cliff.

Sounding like we are or can program kids by putting or not putting a memorial up for one young woman? Maybe there is some value in looking at other cultures, even ancient ones, because the one we are building here more or less at the random dictates of the markets and what is the most cheap, and the most predatory of human frailties, doesn't seem to be leading us in the right direction, or any direction at all but constant bickering and noise.


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Posted by Former Gunn Student
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 9:51 pm

These suicides are such a tragedy, and yet I can't help but think the overachiever and stressful atmosphere at Gunn is partially to blame here. I mean, just look at the snippet from this month's Gunn Spotlight:

Web Link

Taken from page 2 from here:

Web Link

So now they're telling kids they are a failure at life if they don't do something important with their lives (read: take 12 AP classes and get into Stanford) in their very own newsletter? And they're wondering why kids are dropping themselves left and right?

There's a reason I used to call Gunn the "meat grinder". The image I posted sums it up perfectly.


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Posted by Be Careful about the message
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 6, 2009 at 10:47 pm

The message that is strongly coming across in most of these discussions is (a) there is too much pressure on the kids (b) its ok not to be the best - or a similar message.

Pressure exists in all walks of life. A child feels pressure when entering kindergarten, a child is under pressure when entering a middle school .. the pressure intensifies and continues.

Important aspect is - recognize your child's potential and do not push the child towards unrealistic expectations. There are very few children who reach for the stars without a little loving nudge from the parents. Majority need a little nudge - which also is a statement that the parents are committed to stand by the child through thick and thin.


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Posted by PA Teen
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2009 at 10:53 pm

We will never know exactly why this young woman wanted to end her life. It is hard to imagine how such a bright young person with so many opportunities and experiences ahead of her could feel that life was no longer worth living. As a teenager born and raised in Palo Alto, there are two factors that I have personally felt and that I am sure have contributed to the unhappiness of many of my peers.

1. The aforementioned pressure to succeed combined with an incredibly narrow definition of what success is. When only one future is shown to us as acceptable, it becomes difficult to even imagine anything else.

2. The (again) aforementioned disconnection that I believe is largely a result of an increasingly technological world. People are using social networking sites to SUBSTITUTE instead of SUPPLEMENT their real-world relationships. Many teens, especially the younger ones, who are growing up with it as a normal and integral part of their lives, are susceptible to the gap between reality and virtual reality.

Any given suicide may indeed be a selfish act, but it is not an isolated incident. It is a direct result of our environment and social paradigm. The blame does not lie with the parents and innovators who have created this world - they were only trying to make the world a better place for their children. The Palo Alto teenagers who have seen the darker side of this hypercompetitive capitalistic mentality will, I am sure, be affected by it and I hope we will spend our lives fighting it by working hard, living well and being happy. There is nothing else we can do.


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Posted by Maya
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 6, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Dear All:

I'm just curious and I hope this doesn't seem like an insensitive question, but what does such deep depression feel like that you want to kill yourself? I think intrinsically we are wired to survive, so maybe this isn't the right forum to ask the question, but I'm not sure I understand the need to commit suicide...I can only imagine it is a physical feeling combined with environmental influences. Maybe America needs to be a more empathetic society, and not be "survival of the fittest" mentality. After all, look where it got the greedy ones on Wall Street...Maybe we should all be more simplistic in our lifestyles and get down to basics of life. Just doing nothing is actually doing something, especially when you sit in silence and listen to nature and then contemplate your life for the positive?


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2009 at 12:25 am

Kevin,

No, the suicides were public. The train engineers saw them. People in nearby houses heard the train whistles and sirens. They know the sounds of when there's been a suicide or accident. The passengers's journeys were halted by them. People in cars waiting to cross the tracks witnessed them.

Public.

These kids were known by other kids. The first place I saw the names of the victims was online--posted by other teens. They knew.

One of the victims texted a suicide message.

Do you think a teenager can die and other teens won't notice? You think people can see someone wait for a train to hit them on the tracks and not notice it?

You're being unrealistic. I don't buy that denying the act of mourning will solve the issue. Are *you* going to tell the families that they have no right to have memorial services? Because that's what you're suggesting kind of requires.

Maya,

I mentioned a couple of books above by writers who've been suicidal--Darkness Visible by Styron is short and eloquent. The Alvarez is longer, but the last chapter is his own description of his own suicide attempt.

I don't think it's the American way of life per se--like I say above, we're not particularly prone to suicide. And not all suicides are alike--the ones that happened here aren't like suicide bombers in the Middle East.

But on some level it's simply lasting emotional pain that you come to believe will never end as long as you live.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

From what I have been reading here and from some of my experience of other parents in Palo Alto, I am afraid to say that it is not always the schools that are providing the stress but the parents. Many of the kids posting here don't want their parents to know how they feel, many of them seem to be afraid of their parents. Whether they are afraid of letting their parents down or afraid of their parents reaction by their failures to perform well at school or because they just do not want to do what their parents have planned for them.

I have heard from parents myself that they want their kids to go to certain schools and study certain courses so that they can eventually become a doctor or a lawyer and be successful, when all the kids want to do is get a BA in English and then become a kindergarten teacher. I have heard from kids that they don't want to become engineers like their parents because their parents never seem to do anything fun but spend all their time working at their office or on their computers at home and never do anything fun. I have heard that parents get upset when their kids don't want to spend vacations doing Europe's history but would rather stay at home and hangout with friends. I have heard kids say that they don't want to be taken to yet another museum, but would love to learn to windsurf.

I know one Paly grad who has never learned to ride a bike because her parents have always taken her everywhere. I know another middle schooler who is never allowed to go anywhere by herself but must always be taken by a responsible adult. I know kids who have been hanging out with my kids whose parents call and tell me to send them home because they need to do their 1 hour music practice before starting homework, even though they have been here less than 20 minutes.

I am afraid to have to say this, but many of our kids are not stressed out by the schools, but stressed out by the parents.


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Posted by A Palo Alto parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2009 at 9:08 am

Parent, as a Palo Alto parent who has had to fight what I call (only half jokingly) the Palo Alto Brain Wipe continually since my child was in Kindergarten, I can tell you there are a lot of parents out there who are not only not pressuring their kids to live up to external validation, but who spend a good deal of their time trying to offset the constant and unrelenting pressure put on their kids by the schools.

I'm not the only one like this; over the years I've talked to many other parents like myself who just want their kids to have a good, healthy growing up experience and found they've gotten them into a sick, hopeless cycle of feeling their best is never good enough. I wish I could do it over somewhere else, but we've gotten through it and made the best of a bad situation.


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Posted by Another Palo Alto Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 7, 2009 at 9:32 am

please tell me how to meet those parents. I feel very alone trying to raise my children (now middle school) to be independent and resourceful and empathetic and happy in this environment. I have met lots of parents who talk the talk but to meet their kids it's clear they don't walk the walk.


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Posted by Unitarian Universalist parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 10:49 am

Another Palo Alto parent,
Have you considered looking for a local church to provide a values-based community?

The first principle of my church (which is based on covenanting to uphold seven humanitarian principles) is to honor and respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We try to walk the walk of appreciating children for themselves, valuing kindness and respect over particualr achievement...one of my teenage sons says our church is a good place for youth to be able to express themselves fully.

I still cannot talk my older son out of taking 5 AP classes next year, but at least he, and us his parents, are not freaked out that he is (gasp) not getting all A's this year...

I want to emphasize that this is really separate from the question of why these two individuals ended their lives. Knowing these families, I sincerely don't believe they pressured their kids or could have done more than they had already done to help their kids. As Rev. Morgenstern said at Sonya's funeral, "There is nothing that any one person said or didn't say that could have prevented these tragedies."


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Posted by yapap
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 11:04 am

Re:

"there are a lot of parents out there who are not only not pressuring their kids to live up to external validation, but who spend a good deal of their time trying to offset the constant and unrelenting pressure put on their kids by the schools."

There are private inconspicuous schools in the area that try to teach without excessive pressure. One K-8 school in Palo Alto that balances social/emotional growth with academic growth is Keys School in Midtown.

Perhaps those school communities provide a population of like-minded parents?


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Posted by Nick
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2009 at 11:26 am

We keep getting the following messages hammered into us that ours is a society of individualists, only the strong survive, take care of yourself, don't concern yourself with others, your possessions are sacred, don't let anybody even think of taking them away from you, collective endeavors to benefit and improve the entire society are "Marxist" and "un-America", don't complain and always remember that you are not your brother's keeper. Our country attcks and invades another for no reason, causes the death of a million people and the displacement of another 3 million, and we keep telling our kids that ours is the greatest and most moral nation on earth. Is it a wonder that in such a self-absorbed, hypocritical, ultra-competitive society, even if the underlying reasons for the latest suicide were different, so many teens sink into despair and self-destruction?


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 12:07 pm

OhlonePar,

There are many suicides on the tracks, and they all involve stopping of trains and traffic. However, they don't evolve into shrines at the crossings. Go look at the Meadow crossing, it has flowers and messages ("honk if you love"). Will the school also hold another memorial event, as they ahve done in the past? When there was a suicide at Paly a few years ago, teachers actually brought their classes down to the site to hang up flowers. Another suicide happened on those tracks a short time thereafter. This will continue to happen, until the adults start acting like adults.

Nick,

That was a real laugher! Cuba and Sweeden and France all have higher suicide rates than the United States. There are many countries with higher rates than the U.S. You are looking for a meta-phenomenon that is not real.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm


Here is a link to the WHO guidelines on this matter

WHO Media Guide for Suicide ReportingWeb Link

The report provides evidence based insights and best practices.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Kevin,

The kids put the flowers up--we're talking private, not public actions. Though I agree with you in that I don't like those memorials at that site. I don't know if you were reading the Forum after the first Gunn suicide, but there was a witness to the suicide who asked that part of the memorial be taken down (a balloon) and she met with some definite adolescent resistance.

I think any memorial gatherings should be balanced with information about depression and mental illness.

About suicide rates, it's important to remember that suicide among the young has skyrocketed over the last 45 years. Honestly, I can't see a huge effect from the system of government. Though, with the exception of Cuba, suicide rates are pretty low in Latin and South America. They're higher in eastern Europe and east Asia (Japan, Korea, China). There's little data from Africa.

Here's a map:
Web Link

I'd say part of it, though, has to do with where there's an aging population--the highest rates of suicide are among elderly men. Or maybe countries with siestas are countries where people get enough sleep . . .

That said, I think we do have an issue with stress, sleep deprivation and high, narrow expectations in Palo Alto. We don't have an average suicide rate among young people in Palo Alto. I'm with the other parents in that there are parents who put a tremendous amount of pressure on their kids. You see posts from some of those extremists--ones who think anything but an engineering degree from a top-tier college condemns you to a life of shoveling fries at McDonald's. They dismiss any concerns about too much pressure as a form of coddling that results in weak, fat Americans unable to handle the realities of the global economy.

I doubt their kids talk to them about feeling overwhelmed or stupid or inadequate--let alone uninterested in math.

We create a system where the majority of our kids are not going to feel that they're "good enough" and while the vast majority of them go on to college and to productive lives, there's a certain level of systemic misery inflicted upon the kids here that's kind of pointless--i.e. you can learn to be an engineer even if you don't take calculus until college. (gasp!). You can have a happy, successful life if you never darken the doors of any building at Stanford. You might be much happier at a small college instead of the Ivy League.

By the way, here's the thing about top-tier colleges--yes, they give you an advantage in the job market--but only for about five years. By then, people don't care where you went to college, they care about the work you've done.

And you'll do better work if you enjoy that work.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 3:30 pm

OhlonePar,

I happen to agree with you about the fact that going to an Ivy is not all that important. A happy life can be had by paying attention to detail, and doing one's best, then accepting the consequences. There is no magic formula, it mostly comes down to how one accepts perceived adversity, and how he or she responds to it.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Back to the shrine at Meadow. This is land that is controlled by either the City or Caltrain. The adults should take down all the flowers and signs, as rapdily as they appear. Until such small steps are taken, we will just be replaying this story every year. We are currently caught up in the paid psychologist/counselor model of dysfunction, and the near celebration of it. We need a much more robust model, one that celebrates the freedom of possibilities that kids are capable of, and teaching that experienced failure is a very good thing, not something to be sad about. We are not teaching resilience, we are teaching fragility.

Even with the deeply biochemical mental illness situations, we do no favors by memorializing suicide, becasue it only provides a siren to go in that direction.


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Posted by baffled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2009 at 4:40 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The flowers and signs are just people expressing themselves, and I really doubt they have much to do with someone deciding to follow suit or this scenario getting "replayed". No one is memorializeing suicide, and just because one or some might think so does not give them the right to define other people's actions, we still do have freedom of expression in this country.

As to what is getting taught ... if we knew how to teach at all we would not have most of these problems in the first place.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Kevin,

When I talk about the stress at the schools, I'm responding to what I hear from kids and what's getting written about here. As a community we seem to have high expectations for our kids, but we don't teach them resilience. Our kids aren't particularly independent. They live highly structured lives for the most part.

There is, because I think you're wondering about this, a correlation between adolescent academic success and suicide. Also with long-term sleep deprivation (serotonin levels drop).

I don't think it's a matter of academic pressure in and of itself, but sort of a toxic mix of things--including some biological factors--though for obvious reasons, there's no such thing as a suicide gene.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by PointOfVIew
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Just a point of reference:

It is commonly believed that top-tier diplomas help primarily in the first five years after graduation. That is true in the U.S., but not, in general, in other countries. In many countries, a top-tier diploma helps significantly throughout life in a variety of ways.


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Posted by virginia warheit
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 7, 2009 at 6:12 pm


The kids patrolling the tracks are right!

1) With ten to twenty deaths each year (year after year after year!) the Caltrain track clearly is a preferred suicide site. This is at least half the suicide rate of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is considered the #1 preferred suicide site in the world.

2) It is well known that suicide often can be prevented, and that an essential component of prevention is monitoring and restricting access at preferred suicide sites. Patrols at the Golden Gate Bridge have prevented/saved 2 out of 3 attempted suicides.

3) A combination of electronic surveillance and monitoring, active patrol and physical barriers could secure the Caltrain track and make it inaccessible to most if not all suicides. This is not, as they say, brain surgery. It just is not credible to say it can't be done.

4) The first step is to publicly recognize the Caltrain track as a preferred suicide site; then it would be reasonable, and unavoidable, to demand the current patrols continue indefinitely until permanent protection is in place.

This danger has been "the elephant in the (Palo Alto) living room" long enough. It is time to see it for what it is and put a stop to it.

See the following articles:
Web Link
Web Link
Web Link


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Posted by MeMe
a resident of another community
on Jun 7, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I am a native Palo Altan who went to Paly in the early '70s when suicide by commuter train was absolutely unheard of. What has changed in 35+ years?

In the '60s and '70s just plain folks could live in Palo Alto. The adults in my world who lived in Palo Alto were a telephone installer, an insurance broker, a post-office employee, a travel agent, a chemist, a neighbor who did something for Southern Pacific, even school teachers and librarians. They occupied many of the houses that have since been torn down and replaced with overbuilt McMansions by Silicon Valley executives cum millionaires. To be sure, Palo Alto was college oriented, but that was about it. In those days none of us felt particularly pressured by our parents, teachers or "the system" to get an engineering degree from MIT and rise to the rank of CEO of Cisco Systems, Apple, Intel, Hewlett Packard, etc. In those days it was all about getting out of Vietnam (and the draft) and learning what marijuana smoke smelled like in case your kid was smoking joints!

There is a very lengthy thread here

Web Link

in which people reminisce about growing up in P.A. in the '60s and '70s, spending summer afternoons watching James Bond movies at the Stanford theater, playing softball in the streets until after sunset, riding bikes everywhere and buying yummy treats from the local merchants. Train tracks were for squishing pennies and used batteries under the wheels of oncoming trains. Throughout all of these posts is an air of innocence, of kids enjoying these simple kid pleasures and coming back as adults to post about what wonderful times they were. Is all of that innocence gone nowadays? Is it all about pushing your kid to become a violin virtuoso on the way to being admitted to Harvard to become a doctor/lawyer/engineer, with no time for riding bikes and going to the movies and scavenging treasures from the baylands? Is there a mindset of overachievement tied to the new wave of arrivals who have come to make their fortunes in Silicon Valley?

We did lose one of my classmates to the trains. He was riding his bike eastbound at the Alma street crossing, trying to cross the tracks during evening rush hour. He waited for the southbound train to pass and started to cross the tracks but didn't see the approaching northbound train.

I'm not saying I have any answers or even grand theories. I'm just telling you how it used to be in Palo Alto not so very long ago.


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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 7, 2009 at 7:42 pm

MeMe -- your post really gets to the heart of the matter, and actually put a lump in my throat. Even if one's own kid isn't pressured to conquer the world, most of their friends are, so there is no one to share those adventures you reminisce about. They're all sitting alone, staring into computer or iPhone screens, as the beautiful world passes by beyond their walls.


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Posted by 70's paly grad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2009 at 8:33 pm

MeMe, what you said is true. I know because I was at Paly in the early 70's as well. The whole world has changed and it did it right under our noses, because the Paly students of today is the next generation or close to it. People have changed in attitude, the good, righteous and thoughtful have been replaced by the clever and fast. All things seem to be revved up to the figurative cutthroat level.

Neighbor, the answer to the beautiful world passing by seems to be to develop it and get rid of it. When I was at Paly there were horses grazing at the intersection of Page Mill & El Camino and when you drove up into the hills you did not see houses all over the place. Houses that cost a major amount of money all over Palo Alto, but people who cannot seem to pay for the city to be reasonably managed and maintained.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 7, 2009 at 8:57 pm

PointOfView,

Yes, in other countries--some of which have extremely high suicide rates tied closely to test scores as a result--where you go to college is everything.

It's not like that here and I think it's a good thing. I think our country succeeds, in part, because of that flexibility.

At the same time, though, working in the U.S. does require a certain resilience. Workers are not coddled here. We don't have the job security of many countries and we have less vacation time. Failing or working for a failure, getting back up and starting over are kind of the name of the game for a lot of people.

I don't know how well we're equipping our kids for that reality.


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Posted by Parent of a Gunn student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 7, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Keys School is not the only lower-pressure schooling alternative in this area. Unfortunately, these are all private schools. Much as some might like to believe otherwise, for many of us in Palo Alto, the cost of private schooling is simply not an option, particularly if we intend to somehow try to fund college for our kids in the future.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 10:32 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by shlam
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 7, 2009 at 11:12 pm

in my opinion(imo)the police are wasting their time on the tracks, because if someone really wanted to commit suicide there are sooo many other ways to do it. But at least it's giving them something to do rather then bust teens for smoking marijuana cigarette trees, or drinking alcoholic beverages, or smoking cigarettes containing nicotine.


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Posted by agreed
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 7, 2009 at 11:15 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Debra
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 8, 2009 at 12:49 am

I'm a therapist in Palo Alto, and I'm responding to the comments in this thread and comments on another thread on this subject. Therapists are mandated to maintain confidentiality except under certain circumstances.
1. A minor is being abused
2. An elder or dependant adult is being abused
3. The client indicates he/she is a danger to others
4. The client indicates he/she is a danger to self.

If a client indicates danger to self or others, there is a series of questions we must ask. When it appears that action needs to be taken, it is taken right then and there. Regarding a suicidal comment, if the client's explanation indicates he does not have a plan, timetable or the means, then the action might be signing a Safety or No Suicide Contract. If a client should say something like "if you make me go to school I'm going to kill myself" a therapist would have to inquire to determine if it is a valid threat, or a child just trying to get his/her own way. I've had this experience. Sometimes kids do say such things. I've had situations where a teen indicated to me he was going to harm himself and I got the parents involved. Another time a parent was called and the child was taken to a behavioral health hospital and was there for 3 days and returned home. We are mindful to not overact, but we will act based on what the client tells us.

Regarding the question about minors and consent: If a minor aged 12 or over consents to his/her own treatment, a therapist can see that client only in a few situations such as abuse, or suicide, or something very serious when notifying the parents would put the child in danger. There are other factors, but this is a brief overview.

To students reading this post, please please please reach out whether you think the service is confidential or not. Professionals will not exploit you just for calling and talking. If it sounds as if you're in danger, then they will do what they have to do. I've read on these threads a concern about caller I.D. and confidentiality. I don't know anything about whether they have caller I.D. or not, but your safety is most important to them. That is why they are there. And if you're desiring to make a call, then somewhere within you, your own safety is important to you too.

To those of you who are criticizing the memorialization of these young people. Please stop. One common denominator in all those who have attempted suicide is: NO ONE EVER TRULY LISTENS TO THAT PERSON. Parents, professionals and peers may listen, but no one ever HEARS what the person is really saying. Once we hear a suicide threat, we must act at that moment. But, after the crisis is over and the person returns to therapy, this is where the work for a therapist begins. It is listening to the deeper message or theme the person is expressing. And sometimes it can take a long time.

Blaming and pointing fingers doesn't help to resolve the crisis or situation. And criticizing the way anyone grieves or tries to process this terrible tragedy doesn't help either.

We need to be patient with one another. These are our children and we need to be approachable, so these young people can get the help they need. Suicide is a very complicated subject, and people act for their own individual reasons. But I do know from professional experience that we need to stop yapping at these young people and start listening to them.

I hope my comments help.


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Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 8, 2009 at 1:29 am

MeMe,

Great post. Kids simply don't have time to be kids today. I feel sad to think that they are missing those wonderful, brief childhood years of daydreaming, eating ice cream, playing in the neighborhood (I never see kids playing in my neighborhood) and or just sitting in each other's bedrooms chatting. My friends and I played each day after school and when we were older we talked for hours on the phone. We were not encouraged (forced?) to take music or other lessons. We attended school without thinking about college (unimaginable today!) and our parents were pleased if we passed our classes, very happy if we got good grades. There was no pressure to do anything except go to school, do our homework (not as much then!) and do our household chores. And we mostly all turned out okay. The ones we lost along the way were from accidental drug overdoses. There was not one suicide in my large high school.

I dearly hope schools and parents will take these terrible tragedies to heart, and take some pressure off Palo Alto's kids. And I hope teens will not feel they must go to an ivy league school to be happy and successful. The world needs more than lawyers, engineers, and doctors.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 8:56 am

I find it odd that private education is being touted here as an option for lower pressure schooling.
I have a child at a private high school, and I can assure you it is outstanding and offers many benefits.
I see private education as offering MANY types of educational, social, religious, etc. differences, -- these schools all vary -- and we are associated with a boarding school -- but be careful if you assert they offer lower pressure schooling...that is not accurate in my opinion.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 9:26 am

The competitive environment for our kids is going to greater than it was for any of we parents.

That is just the economic and social reality and will be for the foreseeable future.

Our kids will have to learn resilience to thrive in this competitive world.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I am relieved that Packard and PAMF have offered their psychiatric services to address this issue in an evidence based manner.

From todays Gunn emails
Psychiatric services for teens and kids suffering due to Gunn suicides have opened at PAMF and at Lucille Packard. They have agreed to open to teens, kids and families affected by these tragedies regardless of insurance (fees waived if needed). Phones are:

At LPCH, the family should call 650-723-7704, Rachel Warren or Nora Martinez, LPCH Child Psychiatry Clinic.
At PAMF, the family should call 650-853- 4726 and speak with an intake coordinator in the PA Division


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Posted by Future Gunn Mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:33 am

The day of the third suicide attempt, my son, a 5th grader at Briones, told me after school that a friend told him that a Gunn student was going to kill himself on the tracks that night. I felt so helpless -- should I take it seriously? Should I say something, and if so, to whom? Even if the attempt that evening was completely unrelated to the rumor circulating at Briones, I was shaken. We started a conversation about suicide, and tried to convey that, yes, teen years can be difficult, but that we become better equipped to handle problems as we grow up. Today, I'm just hoping he can survive HS.


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Posted by ArtsAreCore
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:57 am

MeMe,

I also grew up in Palo Alto, in the 50s and 60s, and so can relate to much of what you're saying-- but there's also an element of nostalgia in the memories, a blurring of time that conveniently forgets the very real problems that existed-- There may not have been suicides on the tracks, but I had friends who attempted suicide, and one who succeeded. I had my own bouts with depression that required medication. I was one of the lucky ones who screamed for help in various ways until I got it.

There will always be depression-- in past decades it was less well understood, and hushed up, and/or ignored in the hopes it would just go away. Now, thank goodness, there is a growing awareness that depression is not the same as "being sad"-- it's a terrible illness, something that can grow gradually or come on suddenly, something that can be related to life events, or have nothing to do with them, something that can be periodic, or make a home in the psyche for a lifetime of pain. We still need better understanding of it and how to recognize it and how to treat it-- each case is unique, but there are patterns, and new drugs for different situations that are WAY better than the ones I took. I personally know of several teens and adults who are literally here today because of the drugs that helped them deal with clinical depression.

So, yes we can wax nostalgic about the good old days in Palo Alto-- but let's not cloud this issue with false images of the past or the present. Depression has always been around-- and, regardless of new pressures or ways of life, it must be acknowledged and dealt with...

That being said: I went to Gunn, and we used to cross the street into an orchard at lunchtime-- no longer there, of course-- and drink cheap wine under the fragrant trees... Ahhh, youth...


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Posted by Oldtime PA
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 8, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Born and raised in Palo Alto, went to Gunn in the 70's and lived a normal life that includes being an executive at a Silicon Valley firm. My childhood in Palo Alto was very memorable. Growing up playing sandlot baseball in the parks, going to the movies, going to Lake Lagunita at Stanford, swimming at the public pools in the summer, etc... Times at Gunn were simple then; went to class, did the homework that led to decent (not great) grades, had great friends, played sports, then went onto a very good college, with a stop at Foothill JC first. Yes, Foothill was not laughed at back then, but gave me the GE needed to get a very good Bachelors degree, then Masters.

The pressure then was beating your friends in Little League, Babe Ruth, and hoping that you could have a job long enough to afford a car. If you wanted a car, you'd have to buy it yourself. Parental involvement was support, and I knew very little individuals who had parents detail out their schedules.

I have 4 children who also grew up in Palo Alto and went through Palo Alto schools and it has changed tremendously. No longer are days of sandlot games, and time to just do the simple things in life that mean the world to an adolescent. The pressure mounted on these kids is simply sad, and they are kids still, so many have a very difficult time trying to cope with it, yet they still try. By the time my fourth child got to high school, I didn't care one way or the other if he took AP courses or not. So, he didn't take any, got very good grades and got into a top university in California.

You know, if these kids want to do something in life, they'll do it, just like our generation. My sympathies to Sonya and her family, God bless them.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 12:26 pm

I wish there were plans for a third, smaller, high school in Palo Alto, instead of expanding Paly and Gunn. The assumption is that everyone wants to send their kids to those schools, but I would rather have my kids in a less stressful environment and I bet I'm not alone.

Adding more students to the existing high schools is only going to increase the stress certain kids will feel to be the valedictorian or whatever, and make other kids feel even more anonymous and lost.




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Posted by mom2
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 8, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Stop publishing the suicide story. It leads to copy cats. It's like letting high school girls who just had babies onto campus so everyone can see the cute newborn. Teens get ideas. Also, why do Gunn and Paly continue to teach Romeo and Juliet to all freshmen? Suicide glorified. Why not a Shakespearean comedy instead?


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Posted by Bob
a resident of Woodside
on Jun 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm

People can come up with all sorts of reasons for something this awful that happens, however the main thing to do is pay attention to your kids. Just because they appear to be doing well on the outside they will have issues. I believe parents need to concentrate more what there kids want to be and not on what looks good to the outside world. Pay attention to your kids.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 2:27 pm

parent,

Funny I was just thinking about the same thing. Maybe this is where we need to have a charter--at the high school level--something small, using part of Cubberly. Or even a couple--an IB program and a project-based program.


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Posted by Pro Junior College
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Junior colleges can be great. My siblings and I all attended them first, and we are all professionals, well adjusted, with meaningful lives. This snobbery against them is so elitist and detestable, no wonder your kids are suicidal. Junior college is a great option.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Mom2

Just talking about that over the weekend with a Paly grad and a few others. Romeo and Juliet and all the other high school required literature are all downers. How about changing the curriculum and having literature that inspires and brings joy into the lives of the students rather than showing the dregs of human nature. Midsummer Night's Dream, A Comedy of Errors, Jane Austen, The Miracle Worker and Helen Keller, stories of heroism against adversity, rather than the morbid lot they read now.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Debra,

Just saw your post, thanks for answering some of the questions around here. And, yes, there's a lot of talking around instead of listening. If you're online late-at-night you'll see a wide range of posts from the teens here--frequently in violation of posting guidelines--that are then removed without a trace. There are clear reasons why the Forum has to remove them, but it does seem a bit symbolic--do we want to listen or do we want to control?

Resident,

I really don't think reading Romeo and Juliet encourages suicide at this point. (Heck, I've read the Sorrows of Young Werther, which did spawn a rash of famous suicides--and was kind of bored by it. Really, there's too big a gap for these works to have that kind of effect.) Great tragedies can be cathartic--we're denying a level of human experience when we limit ourselves to things that are only uplifting.

Because life isn't like that. Terrible things happen and we don't smile through the tears. We live through them anyway--that's where resilience comes in.

There's a place for uplifting stories and comedies, but tragedy also has its place--because that's what life is. I don't think either Comedy of Errors or Midsummer's has the depth of emotion that R & J has. And because R & J is very much a play about adolescents, I understand using it to teach Shakespeare in high school. I think it's more readily understood on a certain level than is Julius Caesar, which I'd love to see done in business suits as a sort of corporate takeover.

I've had periods where I sought out glum writing because the last thing I wanted to read was something perky when my life was going to hell. Finding a work that expresses your emotional state can be a relief and a release.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 5:14 pm

We have confidence that the level headed, evidence base approach of the PAMF and Stanford Packard Childrens Hospital, who have offered open psychiatric interventions to PAHS students will prevail and end this tragedy, let us give them our full support and praise for their efforts--Well Done

Psychiatric services for teens and kids suffering due to Gunn suicides have opened at PAMF and at Lucille Packard. They have agreed to open to teens, kids and families affected by these tragedies regardless of insurance (fees waived if needed). Phones are:

At LPCH, the family should call 650-723-7704, Rachel Warren or Nora Martinez, LPCH Child Psychiatry Clinic.
At PAMF, the family should call 650-853- 4726 and speak with an intake coordinator in the PA Division

Great response to a crisis in our community by both local organizations


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 6:11 pm

OhlonePar,

That Romeo and Juliet reference is a little too close to the truth. The romanticising of that tragedy by WS is a continuing pull to young lovers to sign pacts, and to follow through on them. The continuing memorialization of such tragedies only fuels the fires for more and more of them, as well as suicide more generally.

We should not be letting the "professionals" continue to lead us astray on this serious issue. We need to be teaching resilience by allowing failure, and getting back off the mat with a bloody nose. Until this happens, there will be many more suicides in Palo Alto, followed by more "professinal" advice, followed by more suicides, a vicious cycle.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Kevin,

Romeo and Juliet is a classic of English literature, right? English speaking countries have lower rates of suicide compared to most of Europe and much of Asia.

There is no suicide pact in Romeo and Juliet. It's a stupid mistake--a terrible bit of irony. In a sense, the play is anti-suicide because if Romeo hadn't freaked out and killed himself, the two would have gotten away to live happily ever after.

A lit class where you really discuss the ambiguities of the play and the flaws of the character is actually a great way to deal with the issue. R&J are rash and impulsive as well as passionate. But there's a terrible price that they pay for their heedlessness.

But by the time most kids have made it through the thicket of verse they're not heavily identifying with R & J. Opera doesn't tend to drive people to suicide either and operas are rife with suicides.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 8:23 pm

OP

I take your points about literature, but I do think there are too many morbid choices and not enough uplifting choices in the curriculum. Having spoken with high schoolers and heard which books they have to study, they tell me that they get too many downers.

Romeo & Juliet is something which sounds good to give to adolescents, but really it is more than just a romance with suicide. The feud between the two families is also a very integral ingredient which we often forget.

Midsummers Night Dream brings depth when you investigate the comparisons between drugs - particularly something like LSD and other hallucinatory drugs - and the differences between the real world and the imaginary (or nowadays called the virtual) world.

The Merchant of Venice is probably one of the cleverest Shakespearean plays with some very subtle sub-plots embedded into the main plot. But, of course this could be called anti-semitic which would never "do" in Palo Alto.

I suppose I should not say that we should only teach the uplifting, but we should get a better balance.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Resident,

Yeah, these days there are issues whenever Merchant is even performed.

I don't know the Shakespeare curriculum in the high schools. Back in my ancient day--Midsummer's was the first Shakespearean play we read--8th grade. Romeo and Juliet was ninth and Macbeth was AP English (and, to me, the most interesting of the three, but it is the most complex as well).

I've no problem with a mix--there should certainly be comedy as well as tragedy. (I'm okay with skipping the histories . . . though I've seen a couple of brilliant performances of them.)

Hmmm, I think I need to get some tickets--to London and the Royal Shakespeare Co.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 9:14 pm

my impression also (from 5 cumulative yrs of PAUSD HS with 2 students -- both transferred to private HS to complete their HS years...) is that the PAUSD MS and HS literature choices tend to be racially charged or else real downers. Why? I think it should be easy to broaden the selections.


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Posted by student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 8, 2009 at 9:47 pm

There are plenty of English courses that provide literature that is a joy to read, it is simply up to the students to sign up for those classes.

Mythology
Creative Writing
Film Literature
Shakespeare
Escape Literature (sci-fi,etc)
Multicultural Literature
Women's Literature

just off the top of my head...


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 9:50 pm

OP

Yes, Merchant is definitely my favorite. It is a pity that Shylock is jewish, because if he was black (we have to say black because he is Italian) that would be equally charged, but his character has to be from a minority to make the play work. But, I love the sub-plots because they are so ahead of their times. The roles of men and women, the fact that Portia can't choose her own husband even though her father is dead and he has left a method to find a worthy husband, the fact that she has to disguise herself as a man to pretend to be an educated lawyer, plus the servant/master relationship and the lovers tokens, all give this particular play so much more than many of the other plays just don't have.

I am not so keen on Macbeth as you appear to be because it is so dark, but Hamlet is another tragedy which I do like. I agree with you on the historical plays but anything Kenneth Branagh has done has been an improvement on the stage plays I have seen.


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Posted by Interested
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Isn't it interesting that we spend so much time trying to find someone to blame for something we shall never understand fully....


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:34 pm


Any HS kid or parent should call the Stanford Childrens Hospital or PAMF phone numbers I provided above to get evidence based professional advice if they are worried about this matter.

Do not wait to make the call, they have made a generous offer of psychiatric help and they know what they are talking about and know what to do.


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Posted by another parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Val,

You make some good points -- especially about that "they will be begging for the sort of adult we send out into the world." but i dont think this has anything to do with Gunn High School, per se. The school only teaches and follows the curriculum set up by the school board, which is made up of community members. We have lived in 4 different communities across the nation over the years, kids have gone to both private and public schools, and I have YET to meet a more dedicated, committed and overall exemplary group of teachers and administrators. and most imortantly, my kids would concure!

Perhaps these recent, horrible tragedies will open up a true dialoge about education at Gunn and how it can evolve to meet the needs of our changing world.Imagine being a graduate of college, trying to get a job now. As the world becomes increasingly global, natural competition will emerge from more places -- and opportunities will arise where there never were before. The education of our children needs to evolve to meet the needs of today's society and of tommorrow's reality.

I'd love to hear what the Gunn teachers think of this --- pass/fail, out of the box instruction and classes. I imagine they'd embrace this idea. lets unleash both the kids AND the teachers, get the PARENTS on board. open it up to as many interested students and teachers there are. Bet the numbers would be much higher then any predictions. You could start this as an optional track. Maintaining the high level of advanced instruction Gunn is well known for but teaching it in a more engaging, creative and collaborative way. A few very progressive schools in SF are structured this way. The kids get an end of year GPA report, bc colleges still require GPA, but are not told the specifics of what earned them which marks, they are only told pass/fail. They do not get any letter grades until Senior year. The list of college acceptances is impressive in its depth, breadth and quality -- rivals - and surpasses- ANY on the peninsula.(including PAUSD).

Whatever the outcome, opening up the conversation is key - as is doing more then just talking will be also.

Thanks --perhaps if we ALL try to smile more, give the benefit of the doubt more freely, truly treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated ourselves....imagine giving our kids such a wonderful place to be.

keep at it Val, good luck to all of us and prayers to the families of Sonya and JP.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:33 am

resident,

Merchant does have the woman's issue in it in a way none of the other plays do, but it's just been so overtaken by the anti-semitism issue that it's loaded, in a way that Othello, however, is not.

Macbeth interests me because it has such an interesting pair of antiheroes in the middle. You're made to empathize with Macbeth and in some ways, he's very modern. He acts out of ambition, not passion, but is too smart to fully lie to himself. Good man gone really, really bad.

Hamlet's hard for me to see clearly--too many bits of it were familiar before I read it. But if Macbeth's a ruthless mid-career executive, Hamlet's the angst-y college kid. Hmmm, so is Hamlet's Father's ghost a drug trip, then?

Okay, back to the topic.

another parent,

I think there's something in what you say. It's not the curriculum per se--it's how it's approached and the expectations that are had of students. It's clear that there's a tremendous emphasis on external measures--grades, test scores, numbers of AP classes, where one's admitted to college--and not nearly enough on the internal rewards of learning itself--and of learning about one's self in the process. There's not time enough to sleep let alone explore one's own odd interests--not if one's going to get into the Ivies.

It's a situation that's not unique to Palo Alto--it's happening a lot of places. Meanwhile, you have high schools all over the state falling part. I think the pressure comes in part because of this--there's a widening gulf between the have and have-nots of high schools.


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Posted by student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:58 am

Don't blame shakespeare.
Don't blame our HS or the APs.
Don't blame teachers. Depression starts inside and manifests itself into every part of your life. Stress can become a fuel for pain, but it starts INSIDE. While I don' t think it can be prevented from starting, I know you can't end it by cutting out AP classes and eliminating classic literature.


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Posted by YSK
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 9, 2009 at 5:55 am

Ohlone Par: you make the point I have been trying to make. A lot of these parent postings are too controlling, and give these kids very little credit. If you read the kids postings, you will see that as a common theme. That's not to say don't be a parent. My girls had curfews all through h.s. (reasonable, by Senior year 1am, weekends), had to check in regularly and had to know I could pop up anywhere they may be at any time. I also maintained a right to search their backpacks, bedrooms if given a valid suspicion that I may need to do so. In having these guidelines and rules, there was mutual trust and respect established. The kids had room within those guidelines to make their own decisions. Out of both of their large groups of friends, they were in the 2% of kids with similar rules and curfews. The kids who had none were to a kid governed by the same ideology: get those A's and high B's and essentially do as you please. What kind of message is that sending? It makes the kids a almost a commodity. I had many kids from very well to do homes tell me right in front of my daughters when they did complain once in a while, you are lucky to have such an involved parent. I remember more than one telling my kids right in front of me they would trade their larger houses and financial superiority (to us) in a heartbeat for more quality parent time and closer family living. It's tough to have it all and spend the time with the kids, especially now. But I made the decision to do with less so I could spend the time and believe me, I cherish those memories and wouldn't trade one minute of them for a bigger house or European vacation or more expensive car. Not one precious minute.


Years ago Palu had a Brother from Santa Clara University give a few talks on good old fashioned parenting, the kind that many of us who attended high school in the 70's had. They should invite him back. His advice was excellent and effective.


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Posted by YSK
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 9, 2009 at 5:57 am

Paly. Paly had the speaker.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2009 at 9:19 am

OP

I once saw a review for a performance of Merchant where Shylock was changed from a jew to being black and several of the other characters were also black. The reviewer noted that this showed the character in exactly the same light regardless of what ethnic group he came from. In other words, it was the character rather than the ethnicity that was despicable. As a modern interpretation he felt it worked extremely well. But, I agree that the antisemitic aspect does pose a problem and unfortunately the other rich aspects get overlooked.

Macbeth is only too modern with the striving for power and ruthless behavior. I find it better reading for those with maturity and experience in the adult world. I know that on my first reading as a teenager I just didn't get it at all. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

The ghost of Hamlet's father being drug induced is something I hadn't really thought about. But, I certainly think that the madness of other characters were drug induced. Perhaps a reread here is in order too.

But, getting back to how this affects our students is something we should question and point out at the time of study. After all, "The Catcher in the Rye" has supposedly been the cause of John Lennon's murder and the book is still on recommended reading lists and perhaps even studied by some of our classes.

I think one student made a good point by listing all the different classes that an English student can choose betweeen. The point often is that from the class catalog it is difficult to know by the course title exactly what literature will be studied. Perhaps listing out the literature titles within the catalog might be helpful when it comes to guiding parental and student decisions on which English course to take.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 9:25 am

Student (from Gunn)
Your list of courses sounds better than I thought.
I had two kids who attended PALY - am a little out of date, but I do not believe PALY offers the array of English courses you are describing. Perhaps a current PALY parent can update us on that.
We found surprising differences between the two high schools. Especially the language programs.
Also, I know Gunn had AP European History - which my kids would have loved and which was offered back when I attended Gunn some years ago- but PALY didn't.
Nobody is blaming Shakespeare.
Nobody is saying a particular literature course is responsible for depression. Still, I have noticed through two generations of high school experiences here that the reading selections were in fact real downers. This might contribute in a minor way to an alienated or depressed teen.
It wouldn't hurt to be more balanced and have more uplifting materials on occasion. They DO exist in this world.
I DID find Lord of the Flies to be an absolute downer, though.


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Posted by Family Member
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 11:26 am

This morning I noticed the signs and flowers at West Meadow had been removed from the fence. The signs about JP were very touching and the family would appreciate keeping them as a memory of the love JP inspired. Does anyone know where it is and how we might obtain it? Thank you.


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Posted by Elle
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

My daughter graduated from Paly ten years ago and went on to UC Berkeley. I'm a single mom who wanted my daughter to have the great educational experience I believed Paly offered. I struggled like crazy for that. She had been an underachiever with no self-confidence at her other school, but at Paly she blossomed.

She is very shy and was even more so as a teen, but she met kids who became great friends. I mean buddies for life. A couple of the teachers believed in her and that gave her much-needed belief in herself, also a gift for life.

I didn't care about grades at all. I asked her just to find one class or even one project per year that she could put her heart and soul into. Her grades were okay, but she did a couple of projects that she is still proud of, that connected her with other people in a meaningful way.

I recall well how impulsive kids are. When I was 13, I took an overdose of aspirin because some nasty girls kicked me out of the car pool to a silly little social club. It's lucky my parents didn't have Nembutal in the house. I know... where were their parents to oversee their daughters' cruel behavior? Probably clueless as to what was really going on. I know mine were. I would not have confided in them for the world, because of my shame. I'm 62 now, but my life could have been cut short for no reason at all. Would there have been anyone to blame for that? Me? The parents who never suspected because i went to great lengths to put on a good front? "Society?" There's nobody to blame. Judge not.


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Posted by literary amateur
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Romeo and Juliet, A Lesson Before Dying, All Quite on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird - lots of premature and undeserved deaths in these freshman/sophomore pieces


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Whew, a lot of different directions now.

student, thanks for continuing to hang out with us. I agree depression starts from within. On the other hand, it can be exacerbated by externals--ranging from lack of sleep to a sense of isolation. I think it's quite possible to go through high school and be too busy to form deep friendships. In some ways, the social net is wider spread--hundreds of Facebook friends--but it's also more atomized. (You hang out online instead of in-person.) We're physical beings and I think that gets dropped.

There are basic physical things that help control depression--enough sleep, a schedule, regular exercise, (sex--but you didn't hear that), even diet. Many signs of depression are physical ones--disrupted sleep patterns, overeating, undereating, stomach aches even. To some extent treating the symptoms helps control the main mood disorder. Not in all cases and severe depression responds well to medication, but for those with a predisposition toward depression, healthy habits are vital.

YSK,

Yeah you were around one of the late nights when some of the students decided to bounce about online. I did wander why they're in the habit of posting at 1 a.m. on a school night. You've explained it to me--as long as they deliver, there's an odd lack of attention. And I figure there's much more activity going on online at other sites. And it does seem that being able to have a real conversation with one's parents is missing from the equation for some of these kids. The night of the second suicide, some of them were posting on here waiting to hear if it was a fellow student--on some deep level, their parents needed to be up and with them.

My sense was that it didn't even occur to some of them--their job was to be self-sufficient and please their parents.

I don't think many parents are actually aware of what they're demanding from their kids. A lot of what gets passed is implied, not explicit. We pass on our own fears about losing jobs overseas, of not being able to compete in the global economy, of losing our homes. We make it clear that work is everything because, basically, we work in an area where many of us are expected to work all the time.

The extreme schedules of our high school students echo the extreme work schedules in Silicon Valley. The students, however, aren't in the same position of opting out.

Resident,

I don't think Shakespeare intended Hamlet's Father to be a drug-induced vision, I was just spinning some of your comments on Midsummer's.

Yeah, Macbeth isn't for kids--it's a play for adults. I read it as a senior in AP English, back when APs really did try to be college instead of honors courses. The older I get, the better I understand it. One of these days, I'll be ready for Lear.

Psychotic kills subvert works for their own purpose--I don't think you can blame JD Salinger, Jodie Foster or John Lennon for Lennon's death.

anonymous,

I'm trying to think of chipper works about teenagers--and I'm coming up with--Jane Austen.

I tend to think Lord of the Flies is overrated, but I read it as an adult.


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Posted by Give kids a break
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm

My sons both graduated from Gunn. It was a terrible and trying time. They had friends, lots of them, and were involved in sports and music, but the pressure from teachers and advisors to take the right classes and get into the right college was overwhelming for my two 'under achievers'. One of them went on to graduate from college, the other one is in junior college. The pressure is off and they are both thriving. They look back on their HS years as a pressure cooker that they survived only because of the friendships that sustained them. And because they had parents who knew that they would be successful in life without AP courses, ivy league colleges and 4.0 GPA's. The only pressure we put on them was to be kind, caring, hard working and honest. I have heard from too many Stanford students receiving psychiatric care that they were raised to believe their worth is measured by their academic accomplishments. By the time they get finished with all the AP classes and get into the ivy leagues, they have forgotten how to experience joy in life. They are exhausted, lonely and unable to form friendships. We, as parents, need to reinforce to our children that they must work hard in school, but if they work hard and get a C, well....congratulations on your hard work! Stop the pressure to be the best academically and give them permission to be happy and less encumbered. In the long run, the AP courses and high GPA's do no better in life than the 3.0 students. Proven.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm

OhlonePar,

I mentioned the Romeo and Juliet lovers' pact in a specific context, and you didn't seem to connect with it, so I will drop it. However, the memorialization and glorification of suicide is a big issue, and I do not think we can just sweep it under the rug of "we need to be heard".


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Posted by another gunn mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm

My 11th grader at Gunn just finished a Shakespeare class and loved it. He also had a wonderful teacher.
Some kids need more sleep, some less. Some kids take AP classes and get 4.0s and go to Ivy league schools and *are* content, thriving adults. Not all kids who do well in school are screwed up and miserable in life.
Some adolescents can get very depressed regardless of school pressure, where they live and so on.
People need to understand that kids have different strengths..some are academic and some aren't. Maybe the less than academic kid has parents who push them in sports. Maybe some parents push them socially. Please stop blaming the school system.


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Posted by another gunn mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 9, 2009 at 3:55 pm

One more thing about teens reading Shakespeare:

When I was 13 I wrote two haikus about growing old and dying. I wasn't depressed, just expressive.
My now 92 year old dad told me back then that he wrote poems about death when he was 13 also. BTW, my dad told me what got him through the hardest times of his life was his love of Shakespeare.
He is a WWII veteran with lots of medals. Shakespeare kept him going through WWII.


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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 4:00 pm



Shakespeares play about suicide was Hamlet, there is nothing new under the sun about the topic since then,--- apart from pharmacology which has taken quantum leaps in the last 15 years.


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Posted by mother of tuu
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 4:25 pm

mother of tuu is a registered user.

another parent,

Regarding the project-oriented program you describe, please see my post on the forum "Palo Alto kids and schools."

Not really related to the recent deaths, in my opinion, but it certainly could help some students.

May the families find strength in the community that has gathered around them in support.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Kevin,

Fact remains, Romeo and Juliet do not sign a pact. I don't think you can argue contagion suicides here. Suicide pacts date well before Romeo and Juliet--the Romans were invested in the idea of honorable and noble suicides.

Since we're not actually a particularly suicide-prone culture, I think we can quit worrying about the insiduous influence of great works of literature. There are far more immediate causes.

another gunn mom,

I think you hit on something--many teens become aware of their own mortality and fascinated by the subject of death. The vast majority of them don't come close to killing themselves.

The fact is we *do* die. Every single one of us--and that's something we come to terms with and one of the ways we do it is through literature.

While I know kids who thrive in a competitive academic environment--I disagree with your comment about sleep. They all need more sleep than adults.

I was thinking one thing that was possibly doable was to have a system of advisors who sign off on class choices. Maybe it could start out as voluntary. The advisor would have a sense of how demanding a course was and how much a student had on his or her plate and how able a student could handle a workload.




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Posted by Robbie
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Someone should go to the school to give the students a crash course in spotting suicidal behavior.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Be careful not to become condescending to those of us who are raising concerns about academic pressures to "perform" here. Some of us care about the entire community.
Nowhere have we stated that we do not value high quality education in the form of knowledgeable, fine teachers, solid curriculum ,etc.
Nowhere have we stated that our kids are not also achievers, like yours.
I am certain of a sometimes toxic atmosphere of parental and student competition. Be careful to not make statements related to the notion that some of us have kids who just "can't hack it" (5 APs at once -- for an odd measure currently in vogue) while yours can.
Students of all levels appear susceptible to possible depression, lack of sleep, etc.
There is a current race to AP BC Calc by junior year that requires special prepping year round and some don't choose to do this; this does not mean our kids are worth less than yours.
I have often written of being illuminated about the underground unethical parallel education system here, a multi-year system of parent-paid extreme tutoring/prepping (NO, I do not mean just going to Score) which results in advantage for certain students who are in this "system." Some of these students bragged openly in front of me and my kids about their advantages, which pay off in easy A's in high school honor's courses, since they already know the material, and multi-year prepping for prestigious Math contests (HS students take these if you are in honor's level) It is more a measure of parental canniness and planning, and family money, than aptitude and hard work on the part of the student! This disillusions me. I don't admire people who go out of their way to discourage others on the basis of false competition. I have found some of these kids can't carry on a decent conversation about some subjects they are supposedly expert on.
I am also seriously disillusioned by student graduation speakers plagiarizing their speeches (well documented, Paly 2008). These two went on to Stanford and Yale (or Brown). Oh, just "minor" plagiarism? I tell you, I wouldn't DREAM of plagiarizing anything, ethics are very important to me, and I have shared that with my kids. Others aren't nearly so concerned about that. Shades of gray.
Anecdotally, I have the impression there is more plagiarism and cheating at "the top" than among students at "lower" levels.
I would like to see a system where honorable, hardworking students who do their own work are recognized and rewarded.


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Posted by another gunn mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 10, 2009 at 10:39 am

To anonymous:
I totally agree with you bout the plagiarism thing. I never dreamed of doing this when I was in school. Ran it by my gunn student when it happened and he said he would never dream of doing it either. His comment about the paly graduation speakers in 08 was "how stupid and desperate" especially when one of the speakers volunteered to give a speech.
What I want to say is there are good hardworking students who don't cheat. Parents do need to recognize that their kids have different strengths and to support them in those strengths.
Some kids have a natural academic talent, others sports, some are more emotionally mature and so on.


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Posted by Jeff
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2009 at 2:36 pm

While we're speaking of such things, it's titled "A Midsummer Night's Dream," _not_ "A Midsummers' Night Dream" (which sounds kind of like a nocturnal emission at a slumber party, yeah?).


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 10, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Jeff,

So you want to emphasize the onanastic aspects of the work?


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