At the opening of a bracing but humane short story by Anton Chekhov -- a story I love, set in the boondocks of tsarist Russia, titled "Ward 6" -- the author depicts a rundown outbuilding at a rural hospital, points out the overgrown path that leads to its door, and invites us to come with him "unless you are afraid of the nettle stings."
To you, now, I say the same. I wish this were old business, but now it's sadly new.
Four and five years ago, when several of our teenagers took their own lives, our pained, communal cry was, "Why is this happening?" But as things turned out, we undertook one thing only to try to learn what caused those deaths, and that was the psychological autopsies agreed to by this school district, Project Safety Net and the Stanford School of Medicine. That study is now forgotten, unfinished, unavailing.
Four years have passed, enough time for an entire high school career, and we've learned nothing about how those six teenagers' frailties met the upheavals of adolescence and the stresses of their world. Four years have passed since a contagion that took more lives in this town than Ebola ever will, and we have no epidemiological study. From its inception, the study was underfunded, understaffed and without the resources to fully question classmates, teachers, counselors and coaches.
I can only imagine how this reflects on us as a city that likes to think of itself as in the vanguard. I think it reflects a community that has forgotten part of its soul -- a community frightened of the nettles.
People will say, well, we've taken many steps to save kids' lives. But the measures we've taken have been directed at fixing our kids rather than fixing our schools and have mainly added to our teenagers' burdens. Hoping to make our kids more resilient, we've piled onto them more curriculum, lectures, requirements, trainings, surveys -- and assemblies where they furtively scribble homework and catch up on texting. We've squeezed out more of their time, having them sit still and listen to the Wise Adults -- and why should they think us so wise? -- when already in their world every second counts and there is no room for error.
Whether or not there is something in our Palo Alto culture that makes self-harm more likely -- and I think that's quite possible -- we'd be complacent to not even ask ourselves the question. Certainly to write the issue off by blaming our schools or blaming individual illness will take us nowhere. People have both inner and outer worlds, and the two interact. Contagions of suicide have occurred among financiers during crashes, farmers during droughts and military commanders faced with certain defeat. But in each of these instances, though outside forces play a role, so does intra-personal confusion -- and not everyone falls victim. The issue is complex and all we can do is try hard to understand, without fear or mockery.
Whether or not, back in those years, my school lacked a certain "immune system" that would have prevented those deaths, I know that our response to them was often wanting. Although teachers too numerous to mention rose magnificently to the challenge of working daily with grieving students, many things at school were unhealthy -- from a coach who told the teammates of one of the deceased that suicide is dishonorable, to the showing of a violent war movie to students already grieving, to a girl I saw as she sat in a busy office one day, weeping and ignored, to the failure to substantially decrease homework or adjust grading scales. (Our kids were on an un-level playing field, obliged to compete nationally under circumstances that applied to no other high school.) The public made things harder by sending scores of accusatory emails to a principal and superintendent who were already losing sleep.
But our schools are just a mirror of our local culture; they are us.
I think nothing will change for our teenagers until we cease trying to change them and instead change their schools. Nothing will change until we extricate our kids from the academic fraud that is so demoralizing to everyone. Nothing will change until there are fewer kids per class, so they feel individually valued. Nothing will change until our schools stop signing off on backbreaking course schedules without impressing on parents and kids the degree of possible damage. Nothing will change until our kids no longer come to their classes sleep-deprived or in the emotional thrall of the social media that we give them access to all day. Nothing will change with homework per night until we have a confidential website where teachers and kids can compare notes on minutes assigned and minutes worked.
Most importantly, nothing will change until we give up the damaging, soul-destroying hallucination -- a myth as crazy as the denial of global warming -- that a teenager's entire future happiness and fate somehow rests on the results of this Friday's math test or science quiz or English essay. Nothing will change for us until we stop equating our kids with their grades and resumes, their SAT and athletic statistics, and instead see them for their strengths and weaknesses of compassion, pluck, insight, friendship, humor, patience, imagination -- all the things that really make a life.
I've heard proposals, now, to add wellness centers to our campuses. But our teenagers are way too overwhelmed and busy to visit such places, and too proud and self-conscious to be caught dead walking through such doors.
So instead, let's infuse sanity and health into the everyday life of our schools so that Paly and Gunn, in and of themselves, become centers of wellness.
Marc Vincenti taught English at Gunn from 1995 to 2010.