Beyond this winter
A few weeks ago, all of our hearts were pierced again, to learn of the death, by her own hand, of a Palo Alto student. She was a senior. We mourn her passing; we have mourned them all. We would all say some consoling words, if we could only think of them, to those who knew and loved this 18-year-old girl best, who knew of her despair and sought to help her. Theirs is the bitterest cup, full of bewilderment, full of sorrow and frustration.
We understand their sense of futility. We had all hoped we were doing enough, and now we wonder anew if we can ever do enough, or even know what to do.
We have all been trying hard. Palo Alto's clinicians — sleep doctors, family practitioners, psychiatrists and other therapists — are working daily with the repercussions of the past 20 months. Project Safety Net is laboring to weave its protections. In police cruisers, our officers keep up their after-hours vigilance toward youth. Our schoolteachers bear the extra load of their students' sadness. Every worker in the district, from maintenance staff to board members, librarians to nurses, counselors to coaches, feels each new pang. And the district's parents, worried daily for their children, are shaken by this latest loss.
As a community, we're still gathering together the pieces of our expanding, mysterious puzzle. The inquiry into the causes of our teenage deaths, begun last fall by the Stanford School of Medicine, is ongoing. The study will consider whether each of these deaths was singular, or whether perhaps they all partook of our culture somehow. All of us should think of pitching in. All who can contribute, whether friends, family, neighbors, teachers, coaches, or counselors, should add any useful piece of evidence they have — memory or fact or observation — to the assembling of the puzzle. Our best chance to answer our haunting question "Why is this happening?" lies in this study.
Palo Alto's moms and dads, understandably, are more than ever anxious to know what their teenagers are thinking, know their secret lives. But it's in the developmental nature of teenagers to stake out a separate domain from their parents, as a useful step — and often the only step they can imagine — towards the independent identity they know they'll need, with adulthood rushing toward them. Every parent fears intruding on a teenager too much, or too little. As much as is consistent with safety, let your child be your guide into his or her concerns. If, because of a barrier of silence, you feel heartsick and fear you're losing your child, that's all right; be patient. Mother Nature is at work to give you back an adult.
Our high-school counselors, not long into second semester, will have a chance that's all their own to offer guidance. As the ones who possess an overview of our kids' schedules, activities, lives, when the counselors meet with students to go over registration for next year, they can encourage kids to "play within themselves," take on realistic course loads, balance sleep and play and school, and talk through a few of Project Cornerstone's "41 Developmental Assets" with their parents in order to mull over how well, or not, things are developing. And those counselors who pass out copies of "On Being Unchosen by the College of One's Choice," a reassuring, charming essay by American writer Joan Didion, will be helping our kids to make curricular choices based on hope, not on fear.
Moms and dads, don't let your child think of herself as defined by grades and SAT scores. Don't think of him this way. Don't measure your child by his minutes of playing time on the field or court, or whether she gets the loudest applause at the piano recital, or by the length of his résumé. It is best that we all consider ourselves, and each other, and especially those in our care, from the point of view of what good we may add to the world, how meaningful our work is to us, and whether we can adjust to the unexpected, tolerate uncertainty, be patient and faithful, independent and dependent, collaborative and daring. It takes longer to assess these things than to note a GPA, but it's worth it. Is your child learning as the years go by, along with the rest of us, to love? And perhaps paramount is that our teenagers should have feelings of self-worth — that they feel good about themselves.
If your child cheats in school, wonder first why. Yes, cheating is not ethical and calls for consequences, but it is fostered by the pressures that our young people bring to school and find there, and is many times, in my experience, a cry to be heard. To students' dismay our schools are troubled by a culture of cheating, which we grown-ups have yet to check; and so it's understandable that they become susceptible to the artful dodge, even though it always comes at the expense of their sense of integrity and self-confidence. Their sense of self-worth is also harmed, of course, when they're encouraged to let others write their college essays for them.
If you're a parent, guardian, aunt or uncle, read some of the best books about the inner world of teens. Start with Mark Salzman's hilarious and fond memoir of his own suburban 1970s youth, Lost in Place — a tale of teenage misadventures with the cello, kung-fu, marijuana, automobiles, Zen, and grown-ups. You'll suddenly be reminded of everything that you yourself, long ago, worried about and were ecstatic about and then immediately brought you down.
In two letters to parents during our crisis, our district Superintendent has wonderfully sung the praises of sleep and of play. Sleep that knits up the unraveled sleeve of care; and play that brings families together in games, frivolity, nonsense — and halcyon relief from each tiny choice implying consequences for the Future. These lifegiving commodities, play and sleep, are in short-supply among our teens. We must supply them.
With the second semester starting, midyear fatigue here, and some teachers learning 100 new names and faces, it would be churlish to expect our teachers to reflect on practice. All we educators can be as sensitive about all tasks we impose. With our texts that deal with loss or murder, bloody revolution or genocide or war, we know that the trick is in how and when we teach these things; and we've all got good-sized bags of tricks, which we can share. No child, in any case, should have to lament as one girl did last school-year — only three days after one of our deaths. A sad-sack sophomore, trudging between class periods, appealed to me, "I've just come from a class discussion of the scenes of torture in 1984, and I'm headed for a class where we're watching "The Killing Fields."
As much as our kids can let us know how they're doing, though, in a larger sense they don't really know, and can't. They won't really know the nature of their present experience for perhaps 10 years, or 20 — and so we need to make necessary adjustments, now, for them. Unacknowledged has been our kids' special handicap: they've been competing for GPA's and SAT scores against a nation of high-schools that have not had our trauma. It's as if, in the race toward college, our teenagers have been the only ones lugging 100-lb. boulders. It's been enough of a jolt for many of them, on their first forays to the nation's campuses, for college visits, to find the name of their high-school already known, and not happily known, to tour-guides, parents and students from far away, and admissions personnel.
Because our students know no other high-school experience but this one, theirs, and because teenagers tend to feel as if everything's happening for the first time (and in fact, it is), our teenagers take this experience to be the norm. It is not. For their emotional well-being they need to hear this from us — and have us make adjustments to what we expect and ask of them.
In the broadest sense, we should bear in mind that to be a teenager is perhaps always to be anxious. One has been wrenched from the haven of childhood and the next looked-for haven, adulthood, seems distant. One is fording a fast-flowing river, and neither shore offers prospects for immediate relief. No wonder each step threatens to seem a matter of life-and-death. Not getting into a prized college can feel this way to a teen, or failing to win the game, or being taunted online, or having a friendship crumble, or getting caught at cheating, or being rejected in romance, or not getting an "A" in a course, or even not getting an "A" on this week's exam, or even today's quiz. We must do what is in our power to help our kids see things in other ways, and to know that nothing is the end of the world — not in the way they think it is. If we discover ourselves ratcheting up the inevitable anxieties of the teenage years, we must pull back. We must comfort our kids in their worries, making clear to them that there is no end to the world as they think there is, and there will be no end to our acceptance of how they feel.
When it comes to families truly in crisis, of course, no "tips" here or lists of reminders can help — and parents need to steer themselves and/or their teenager into therapy. Opening oneself to the help of a stranger will at first, of course, feel strange — because the therapist will refuse to participate in the family's private and familiar cycle of hurt, disappointment, demand. The first step is a scary one. But families must step outside their own "comfort zone" — which is really a zone of discomfort, of unhappiness — and seek help.
As a closing benediction on our individual, family, and community efforts, the last word, here, goes to a theologian: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."
The author is a Palo Alto teacher who also penned the essay "High school life: To whom it may concern," which published Sept. 3, 2010, in the Weekly.