One night last fall -- in one of many similar conversations between Palo Altans that have taken place in the past year over dinner tables, in coffeehouses, at neighborhood parties or community meetings or in supermarket aisles -- I was talking to the mother of a teenage girl. Though I'm a teacher at Gunn, I didn't know this family or the student. I wanted to know how things were going for them, during that difficult time.
The mother, a short woman with dark hair, went to the heart of the matter.
"My daughter doesn't talk about it," said the mom. "She stays in her room, studying mostly. But I notice that, when she knows I'm in the kitchen, she finds more reasons every so often to make a trip out to the refrigerator."
The mom looked at me as if that said it all, and it did.
Knowing what a big deal it is to a teenager to signal a need for comfort from a grownup, and knowing how much parents long to know their kids' feelings, I felt as if my concerns had been answered and that this family might struggle but would be fine.
But the 11 months since then, last October till now, have felt more like two or three years, with all of us holding our collective breath.
Our thoughts have been tugged from their usual moorings. We've worried aloud to each other in stiff public rituals that felt inadequate to our feelings; we've worried aloud in more private, bewildered tones to our friends and loved ones; and we've worried alone -- and when all is said and done we're really not sure we've come up with anything better than a house at night and a devoted grownup and a kitchen refrigerator.
But we've all been thinking harder than ever about the well-being of our kids, and I, too, have studied them more closely and listened to them more carefully as they've trooped in and out of my classroom to learn and discuss, to razz me and, sometimes, to cry.
Most striking of all in them, I thought -- though this is one human emotion that is always hard to read in others -- was an undertow of fear.
Just as some people, by luck of temperament, are better able to endure some of life's harder trials -- poverty, illness, loss, neglect, injustice -- so some young people are better able than others to endure the rigors of high school. And, while it's a stretch, perhaps, to add passing through Gunn to this list of life's hard trials, it's not as much of a stretch as we would like it to be, I think.
For one thing, at Gunn or anywhere else, it's hard to be a teenager -- with your body morphing out of control, your mind expanding at the speed of light, and the future seeming to rush toward you but taking forever to arrive.
We all remember, or try to forget, how intense this time was. Nowadays when I have coffee with kids I taught 10 or 15 years ago and ask them how their lives at Gunn were, many exclaim, with a "whew" that conveys the immense relief of distance and hindsight: "Terrible! The worst time of my life!"
They tell me of sacrificing their social lives to maximize their GPAs, of never feeling as if they were quite good enough, of having friendships that fractured -- and they can't recall finding any joy, or at least very little, in the work assigned them.
Since those students graduated, however, it has become even harder for teenagers to make the trek through high school without feeling daunted. Things have changed and -- again, with variations for individual temperament -- things have gotten worse, tougher to handle.
The summit of achievement seems to be higher, the trails to reach it fewer, the crevasses more frightening, the blizzards thicker, the equipment more complex, and Sherpas (despite the added cost to mom and dad) required in greater number. And even to contemplate the race to the top is to squint upwards through the mists of higher rejection rates at universities and colleges and through the dimming dream of an inexpensive, state-sponsored higher education.
To compete in this climb, more and more students feel they must take more and more APs, get better and better semester grades, better and better quarter grades, better scores on this week's psychology exam or the daily Spanish quiz.
They feel they must take the SAT more times, take SAT preps, add more athletics and achievements and summer internships to their resumes, apply to a greater number of colleges, and make earlier requests (junior year, not senior) to teachers for letters-of-recommendation. They huddle with more college-prep coaches and tutors, see less of their friends and family and spend less time simply being young and confused and enthralled and alive.
And now, there's to be no thawing of the ice cliffs even in summer. For the first time, the Palo Alto Unified School District offered not one semester-session per summer but two -- enabling kids to raise course-grades of B+ to grades of A and to get the lighter-weight academic requirements out of the way, all so that during the regular year they can pack in even more APs.
It's enough to make students want to curl up in their climbers' tents, all year long, and never come out!
But as if coming out of their tent every morning to resume the trek of summiteering weren't enough, when they look around for some acknowledgement from the grownups of how worried and battered and daunted they feel, they find the first thing adults want to know is how far the student's made it up the mountain.
Even as our kids are making this climb -- on ever less sleep -- they're packing technology that adds to the load. Every evening, worried that they might otherwise be left out of the social loop, many kids struggle to get off Facebook and get down to homework. Reading "A Tale of Two Cities" in their bedrooms is interrupted by the craving to instant-message or e-mail or text. (The average modern teenager swaps 2,272 messages per month, according to a Nielsen survey.)
And classmates are swapping not only the latest social news but each others' GPAs and grades and SAT scores.
At school the next day, one girl can't concentrate on a documentary in social studies because of an upsetting text received during brunch from her boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. For other students, carrying an exciting class discussion about the id and the super-ego out into the hallway during passing period isn't even a consideration because the phone is blinking. Lingering after the bell to ask a teacher about a thorny line in Shakespeare isn't possible because a student's got to text her friends who are making an off-campus run for coffee. Participating in a classroom discussion at all is out of the question because, after feeling the cell phone vibrate, a teen asked for permission to "go to the bathroom."
And the exhausting feeling amid this blur of distractions -- the same world the adults live in, the one they're providing -- is: You dare not miss a thing.
So the climb of high school might be dizzying, or even depressing, or terrifying, or make one despair. Still, with a good sense of humor or a sense of proportion and somehow the sure knowledge that one is loved and trusted and believed in by someone, students do make it through.
Any number of kids, in fact, have a natural resilience, an innately strong temperament, that offers them their own emotional safety net.
But not every student has the support and resources he or she needs.
We still don't know, at least not yet, why five Gunn students ended their lives in one of the most violent ways possible. (More than five have tried to.) I stress this lack of knowledge, even with everything said above. I have no knowledge, none, of why these young people met this fate.
Not knowing, we've tended to lean toward one of two convictions -- either that the schools, Gunn in particular, brought these deaths about, or that what brought these deaths about was mental illness.
In a third, more temperate theory, many of us have settled on another explanation: that it's not unlikely that suicide is joined to mental illness; and mental illness can be exacerbated (or at least not alleviated) by stress, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed by life's demands; and that can come about in relation to school. This third theory is more inclusive and less hasty, but it's still vague. In reality, we still don't actually know. (Or, since suicide always remains, in part, a mystery: We haven't come as close to knowing as we could.)
So I breathed a sigh of relief at the announcement that our city's Project Safety Net -- an organization with a valuable, it-takes-a-village approach to developing a "mental health plan for overall youth well-being in Palo Alto" -- in conjunction with the Stanford School of Medicine is embarking on "psychological autopsies" of the deaths. It will release a report, "Investigation of Teen Deaths by Suicide in Palo Alto, 2009-2010," in March.
At last the question underpinning all of our conversations -- "Why is this happening?" -- is being acted upon. I encourage every one of us who knows a telling, useful detail to take part.
The Stanford interviewer promises to consider "environmental" findings as well as "psychological" ones. So I have good hope that the interviewer will ask the question most germane to our purpose as educators: "Can you think of anything that the schools did, or didn't do, that may have helped or hurt?"
Venturing now, though, from still-unknown causes of the suicides to the ways in which we -- the school district, Gunn and the community -- have coped, I can make some observations. And I want to caution that it's understandable we've been only human and imperfect in our responses.
First, the attention at school to the day-to-day weight of grief and loss has been uneven: teachers sometimes encouraged to depart from business as usual, sometimes not; workloads sometimes reduced, sometimes not; teachers coping on their own with situations for which nothing has prepared them: an empty desk suddenly present in the classroom but 20 or 30 students still assembling day after day, as if at a memorial service that cannot end.
Second, our handling of the vexing problem of "drawing too much attention" to the suicides has been equivocal: students forbidden to congregate at school in sorrow (their chalked tributes, sometimes, hosed away) but permitted to decorate much of the campus with upbeat messages of hope; a leadership policy of "no comment" to the press, but with exceptions.
Third, our stance toward youths' mental troubles has been awkward: a wish to reach out to students with psychological problems but leaving it up to them to come to Adolescent Counseling Services on campus rather than having the counselors visit classrooms; a desire to help troubled students feel safe but without due attention to some students' mockery of those who are absent from school due to personal problems or to some teachers' and coaches' anger at and impatience with the suicides, as well as their discomfort in handling public reactions.
I believe, too, that our hopes of "de-stigmatizing mental illness" are well-meant but misplaced. Every time "de-stigmatizing mental illness" has been linked to the problem of suicide, the stigma has been increased -- since the unavoidable suggestion, especially in the minds of young people who know so little of such things, is that mental illness equals suicide. Happily, we know this is far from the case: Mental illnesses don't usually end in death; they are mostly managed, cured and endured.
Depression, certainly, doesn't inevitably lead to taking one's life. Yet, to the extent that our discussion has paired mental illness and suicide, this pairing has frightened teenagers and -- in the difficult task of knowing their own mental health needs -- rendered them much less likely to "go there," both in their thinking and in action.
Even if they can reckon with the imposing, adult-world sounds of "psychologist" or "mental illness" or "Adolescent Counseling," the walk to the door of professional help on campus feels like an awfully long and scary one, with all one's friends and classmates, surely, looking on -- and in one's mind the thoughts drumming: "There must be something horribly wrong with me" or "My god, I won't be able to do school."
De-stigmatizing mental illness may, in fact, always elude us. When the mind falls ill, the causes and cures are more elusive than with other complaints. As Shakespeare wrote, "He suffers most who suffers in the mind." It is for this reason that the sufferers of mental illness deserve our most tender compassion and, especially if they're teenagers, our dearest concern.
So what can we do? What can we do better? What can we do at all?
There's a basic truth of all our lives that we all sense, even if we can't prove it on a spreadsheet. If we know someone loves us, we have a clue to loving ourselves. If somewhere someone cares about us in such a way as we can't deny, we can care, too. If someone wants to listen to our feelings, we can begin to listen to them, too.
Because of the frenzied world our teenagers live in -- swollen with over-emphasis on external success -- they more and more need the corrective of our caring. Rather than more grades and scores and achievements and playing time in sports and awards to tell them who they are, they need us to admire them for their humor, their strength of character, their trustworthiness, reliability and creativity. They need affirmation of their resourcefulness, idealism, patience, insight into themselves, and ability to care for themselves and others.
They need especially to be granted a hearing for their very justified anger, irritation, boredom and fear.
They don't need more curricula about how to be healthy or happy; they need to be heard. (Exhort a typical Gunn teenager to "Think positively," and she is apt to make the mistake of despising herself for her depression or anger, or he is apt to try to outperform his friends by expressing only upbeat thoughts!)
They need to be seen less in the light of our fears and dreams for their future and more for who they are now.
Teenagers spend the lion's share of their school day with other teenagers and with their teachers. Packed in rooms where a single adult is running the show for a solid hour, these young people rightly expect that the people in charge will not only teach but care about them. It's the tangible signs that the teacher cares for the student -- for his or her passion to learn, to grow and master, as well as for the student's day-to-day moods -- from which the young person extracts a sense that he or she counts and has capabilities.
Yes, teenagers need their friends to affirm this too, but their friends aren't custodians of the keys to the future; we grown-ups are.
It is best that these teachers care deeply -- and that the school structures its day, arranges its student-loads and class-sizes, respects teachers' time, removes administrative burdens and rigmarole, gives them supportive counsel, and grants them classroom freedom, all so that they can care.
What our young people need most of all is to be listened to and heard and treasured by their parents. And right now if parents are asking themselves, in a bit of a panic, "My god, what is it in my son or daughter that I should be treasuring, listening to, hearing?" -- then, good news: You're in the most terrible and most wonderful moment of your parenting career. Terrible, because you ought to know and don't. Wonderful, because you're asking just the right question.
And if you're puzzled over what comes next, just ask your teen: "What do you want me most to know, right here and now, about you?" If your child says not a word and stalks away, then just remember that adolescents are rightly, proudly protective of their deepest selves (just as all of us are), and for them, sometimes, distance is the only port in the developmental storm.
If, on the other hand, your offspring answers you by saying, "Ohmigod what a stupid question!" consider yourself well-trusted to have heard such an honest feeling and say, "Can you help me out then, perhaps, with a less stupid question to ask?"
And if your teen shoots back, "Ohmigod, you're two for two!" then be proud of your young person's nimble, silver-tongued, sarcastic wit and say, "Ah, got it! -- right now you most want me to know that you think I'm an idiot!" Then go apart somewhere, take a walk and try to remember what it was like for you to be a teenager. If your memory fails you, as it may, and the grim and ecstatic turmoil of that time refuses to yield itself up, then return to contemplate again -- knowing now how much you don't know -- this singular teenage mystery in your household.
However if, in the first instance, your teen responded simply -- and there have been actual reported cases of this! -- "Mom, Dad, I want more than anything to grow up to be a good person" -- then just go get the pizza, go buy the ice-cream and celebrate without ceasing.
Recently Project Safety Net released a 68-page report filled with myriad recommendations for helpful steps and discussing stress, resiliency, coping, anxiety, adult-student ties and developmental assets. In terms of the mountain of high school that I earlier evoked, they thankfully proposed Red Crosses, rescue sled teams, extra layers of insulation, and experts with binoculars.
But to complement these measures, we need a vision to reconfigure the whole mountain, lower the summit, make the climb less steep -- reducing our kids' ascent to a human, not super-human, scale.
Let me offer my own personal list, then, of Things We Ought To Do. In no special order:
■ Start the school day later on Thursday so that kids can catch an extra hour of sleep;
■ Have the Adolescent Counseling staff visit classrooms to say "hi";
■ Restrict the use of cell phones and other devices on campus during school hours;
■ Host a once-a-month, school-wide evening potluck so parents, teachers, students, administrators and counselors can mingle and hobnob;
■ Emphasize to new teachers, and enshrine in our culture, the immense worth of moment-to-moment affirmation of students (as expressed in Project Cornerstone's "40 Ways Teachers Can Show Students That They Care");
■ Unplug the round-the-clock, online feature that enables teachers to post, and students and parents to track, grades on tests, quizzes, homework and papers on a 24/7 basis;
■ Change summer-school curricula back from two semesters to only one (students' GPAs and AP course loads -- and most importantly, the kids themselves -- will survive);
■ Require parents of a student registering for more than two AP classes to sign a form acknowledging that this course load may result in detrimental losses of sleep, time with friends and time with teachers and may lower their child's resiliency, increase his or her anxiety and affect mental health;
■ Scuttle the "Titan Profiles" from morning televised announcements. These portraits of achievement are sometimes agreed to in order to please an adult but can also discourage our kids most affected by depression;
■ Move the counselors' presentation on how to approach college applications from junior year back to senior year;
■ Add a technology that monitors students' total nightly homework (with a function that gives teachers feedback on how long their assignments are actually taking) to the technology that tracks attendance and grades;
■ Institute policies that require special attention to homework loads in the immediate wake of any campus trauma (and require deferment of disturbing learning materials such as films or books that deal with genocide, war or torture);
■ Survey students to rate all teachers and coaches and administrators on how approachable they are (with the results communicated to the educators only upon request, in complete confidentiality, and with follow-up support and guidance or coaching made available);
■ Fairly and consistently enforce, and clearly communicate, rules against academic dishonesty so that our kids' anxieties about whether the academic playing-field is level are allayed;
■ Keep teachers' full-time loads at five classes rather than, as was proposed this past year, adding a sixth, once-a-week class period in which faculty are expected to bond with 20 more students and facilitate group discussions of personal issues;
■ Commit to the smallest reasonable class sizes so that teachers' energies are husbanded and every student has a maximum chance to be heard, recognized and valued.
These are my Things We Ought To Do, and I believe they would do much.
When all's said and done, although the solutions to our problems sound complicated, they aren't, really. We must remember a simple truth about our kids, one they insist upon -- which glimmers like gold from Project Safety Net's report. Findings from three sessions of a recent Youth Forum include the following, gleaned from more than 100 students: "Perhaps most germane to the work of PSN was the strong expression by youth that, in times of need or concern, they will only (italics mine) reach out to adults with whom they are familiar."
Outside of school this might of course be a parent -- though I've spoken with many students who have parents who are, physically or emotionally, "missing in action." Or it might be an uncle or aunt, neighbor, music teacher or religious leader. Within school -- though the kids from time to time see administrators, nurses, counselors -- this could be a coach (not in the off-season, though) but most certainly can be a teacher.
A sane, healthy life can be lived at Gunn if teachers can take the time to notice a student's downcast look and find a discreet moment, perhaps while passing papers back, to kneel and murmur something such as, "You look a little sad ... or a little tired, I can't tell which," and then have the time to listen (perhaps step together outside the classroom or stay after the bell) when, as often happens at such moments, the student bursts into tears.
And, by the same token, a sane, healthy life can be lived at Gunn if students can take the time -- amid exchanging texts and e-mails and phone calls, writing essays, solving math problems, playing on a team that has practices at 6 a.m. or in Sacramento on weekends, working an after-school job, helping with family transportation, keeping up on Facebook, studying for quizzes, reading assigned chapters, researching a project online, keeping track of grades, managing binders and a day-planner, painting a painting or studying three hours for a chemistry test, trying to talk a friend out of cheating, scribbling English homework while hiding out in the back row in art history, writing college-application essays, and generally spending hour after hour in classrooms and at home mastering five, six or seven different subjects -- to approach a favorite teacher and say, "Just came by to chat -- tell you my cool news -- is that OK?" And to find the teacher dropping everything, everything on his or her mind, everything in the world, to say, "Sure it is. I'd like nothing more."
The ensuing conversations will build the immune system that -- guarding against our students' germs of self-doubt and viruses of loneliness and open cuts of lost friendship or family pain -- will go a long way to helping keep our kids whole.