Guest opinion: Summertime 101 — cutting class OK


Used to be, if you weren't bagging groceries or giving swim lessons, your summertime as a teenager melted gradually into a languorous, luxurious boredom. After you'd shortened some jeans into cut-offs, a breeze might stir with interest now and then, but hardly you.

Mondays seemed like Saturdays, which seemed like Wednesdays; your waking mind felt full of sleep; gradually it became groggy and, eventually, just for the sake of something different, you'd start rebuilding a bike, say, or cooking Italian. You bought things from strangers in stores, you got ideas, involved friends — learning as you went along. Eventually you went for rides, or feted your family.

Nowadays, though, you'd be looking at intensive SAT prep, a summer internship, music or sports camp, AP texts, a dry run of the coming year's killer math course.

Or, if a 10-speed or ravioli piques your interest, it had better be worthy of your resumé.

Still, there's at least one sign, as we learned this year, that summertime hasn't given way completely to the admissions grind and achievement inflation — although it's a "happy" sign that has an underside of baffled hopes, of sadness.

As the Weekly reported, our local hospitals' adolescent psych wards have a great many empty beds in summer. Life there is slow. When school's in session, on the other hand, all those beds are full.

This contrast, as striking as the one above, raises sobering questions. Are our kids way more mentally healthy when school's out? If so, why? Or, when school's in, do they simply have more overseeing adults around, at Gunn or Paly, placing students on "watch lists"?

I don't know. But what's been on my mind is how we have so little imagination and empathy for our teens, despite our best attempts. And so we come up with the wrong fixes, instead of what will help them. We lose their trust and they lose faith.

Even I (who taught at Gunn for 15 years) fall victim to the peculiar hindsight all we grown-ups have on our days as adolescents (we'd rather look away!). Recently I was sitting with some other grown-ups, brows furrowed, brainstorming remedies. Let's give our kids "safe spaces"! Special curricula! Self-improvement! We were raving like madmen, I suddenly realized. The healthy truth is that our teenagers: a) have no desire to be remedied; b) are too busy already; and c) just want to be left alone.

Left alone as in: a little "me" time. Or "me and my friends."

Take those watch lists, which this past year listed more than 200 "at-risk" kids. This road to rescue is surely paved with good intentions, but since when did teenagers ever take comfort in the narrowed, supervisorial eyes of grown-ups? And anyway, aren't these the same grown-ups who lament, "We dunno what teenagers are feeling — they wear such emotional masks!"

So what, then, can even be watched for? A curse after a tough exam? Tears after a failed audition? Do missing assignments earn you questioning in the Main Office? If you're gloomy under questioning, is that a red flag?

If you're a teenager being "watched," it's incentive to share your troubles with no one.

So let's review. You're on the watch list, you're on your dad's GPS, and (as you feel it) you're on the distant-early-warning radar of the nation's most selective colleges. Your number is on the phones of your college-essay tutor, your SAT tutor, and your therapist. A version of you is on a social media site, which you curate for the eyes of the opposite (or same) sex, of admissions officers, of athletic coaches. Under the unrelenting scrutiny of your parents are your clothes, your diet, your friends, your silences, and the impression you make on their friends. And you know your mom has a couple of your passwords because you found them on her phone.

(And you're in those developmental years when you're as self-conscious and as jealous of your privacy, as you'll ever be in all your life.)

Neglecting to give our kids a safety net as they'd like it — one they can really use, woven of everyday trust — we try anxious short-cuts: watch lists; emergency-relief teams of therapists, post-mortem, who know neither the students nor school life.

The expressive ritual of placing your finished essay in your teacher's hand — offering it like the perfect casserole, or dangling it like a regrettable dishrag — has been replaced by hitting "send" in the middle of the night to a plagiarism-detection website. Why sigh over a heavy homework assignment when your teacher will never hear you? (The assignment's online.)

Teachers troubleshoot hundreds of teenage anxieties per day, but their power to weave a resilient texture of trust through simple everyday acts — fair due-dates, accurate grades, ample feedback, extensions and make-ups, "dumb" questions and moods and small despairs all treated with respect — remains unleveraged in our system, undervalued, ignored.

Happily there's a plan to change all this and to replace our distrust-inducing approach with one whose healing effects our kids will feel. The plan will enable students to form richer ties with teachers — ties that can sometimes be lifelines — and will chase the toxic cloud of stress from our schools.

Named for the remaining number of students and faculty, last fall, at our most hard-hit school, the plan is called Save the 2,008. It's a local initiative supported by hundreds of doctors, professors, LMFTs, attorneys, artists, engineers, and national experts on education and suicide prevention.

Whether Save the 2,008 will get a hearing is now up to our superintendent, school board president and vice president. They've shown no interest so far; but their names and email addresses are available at:

Tell them what you want. And we'll all bring something of summer — or what's left of it — back into our schools.

Marc Vincenti taught English at Gunn and is a co-founder of Save the 2,008.

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4 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 7, 2015 at 8:22 am

Excellent article, but it really doesn't go far enough to express the need for non challenging, fun orientated, hang out time for our kids. Even in a busy school week, most kids need a couple of hours of stress relief. The schools can't or won't do this and for most teens anything done with the family doesn't count.

We need to get back to peer buddies being fun rather than competitors for that top college place. We need to get back to peers hanging out together because peer friendships at this age will be remembered forever. We need to get back to having non teacher/coach/parent mentors into the lives of our kids. Where are the youth clubs, the hangout places, for our kids today? We have lost the bowling alley, we do still have an ice rink, the movie theaters, the burger place where for a small amount of money a few hours of non-challenging fun for kids who can be themselves for a couple of hours without having to worry about whether or not they shine or whether it will look good on a college app.

I seriously think that our youth are in need of something that neither the schools or the families can provide. Where are they going to get this?

6 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 7, 2015 at 9:09 am

I appreciat MarkVincenti's courage in speaking up. I do want to point out the obvious, that for all the parent bashing/ blaming, the psych beds locally are empty in summer as he points out. Kids have those same supposedly tiger parents in the summer that they hav e during school, and as MarkVincenti pointed out, many kids don't really relax over summer, and yet it's during the svhool year that the psych beds are full.

6 people like this
Posted by Unbalanced View of Our Kids
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2015 at 11:36 am

I'm a little tired of Marc Vincenti overstating the pressures parents place on kids. This summer my home has been full of visiting teenage kids who "just hang out."

It is true that these terrific kids also go to summer school, serve as counselors at local summer camps, play sports. Afterward, there is lots of time for relaxation. Not all summer activities are "resume builders". These kids are also choosing activities they enjoy. My own daughters are taking piano and voice lessons (her choice), occasionally riding horses (together), and working part-time as camp counselors. One daughter traveled with me to visit her grandma on the east coast last week. The kids are ENJOYING this change of pace. At the end of each day (around 3:00pm) when we are in town their friends descend on our home to relax. They bake cookies and drink lemonade. They play music so loudly my ears feel ready to bleed. They raid my fridge, sing together (at the top of their lungs), laugh a lot, walk our dogs, sun themselves in Mitchell Park. They are a joyful presence in our home. Mr. Vincenti is talking about SOME kids, not all of them. I'd appreciate it if he'd not present Palo Alto as a neurotic place. There are some neurotic people here as there are everywhere.

Most of the people I know here are hard-working AND happy. The sky is NOT falling. We have work to do to make things better and provide better support to those who need it. There is no question about that, but good strides are being made within our schools and community, and more will be made. [Portion removed.] A little more balance in your essays would be nice.

4 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2015 at 12:14 pm

A lovely article from a caring person who is taking the time to think about the issues. Although I may not agree with all the 2008 points, I appreciate the fortitude of Mr. Vincenti in keeping the conversation flowing. If anyone wants to compare notes, here is an update on our kids' summer, not to brag or pass excessive judgement, just a quick overview [with parental laments]:

Gunn rising senior: Sitting on his rear for hours in front of a computer [no exercise] obsessed with Kerble Space Program building rockets and launching them; driving himself to a friend's apartment [no parents around] to continue the above; playing drums for hours [groaning neighbors?]; a 4-day Canadian music festival with his dad; read The Martian and Fahrenheit 451. This is a student who got highest marks in all his last semester classes [first time doing that, in middle and high lanes, with a focused "get it over with" approach] and probably an hour of homework each night. He is a typical, enjoyable but often difficult teen that has his own path.

Two younger siblings: Lots of swimming in a neighbor's pool, Lego building, a couple of seasons of MASH, 2 seasons of Star Trek, sleepovers, some League of Legends computer gaming, a couple of 1-week vacations, bare minimum piano practice, dog walks, and summer pet-sitting jobs. [No real laments with all this, but they are younger and easier].

Thanks Mark for getting us thinking again, and I continue to think about how to simplify my thoughts as much as possible about how to improve the environment for all our teens--having city-school-family input would be very helpful, and having more welcoming places around town where teens can hang out would be an excellent start.

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Posted by ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Regarding "Unbalanced View of Our Kids"…

Yes, I think you're justified and accurate in your opinion, and thanks for sharing your daughter's summer. Some of what Mr. Vincenti is responding to is limited information. More parents need to give examples so we can keep the conversation honest and relevant--that was my motivation for sharing our kids' summer. Although I am sympathetic and involved in trying to improve the climate for those kids who are feeling so much pressure, it is not our experience because we evaluate what is important and compatible with our kids' interests, energy levels, and talents. Kids who want to be busy and involved in many activities are doing what what's right for them. A generalization of doom isn't very helpful.

5 people like this
Posted by Keep Caring
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 7, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for this piece. We need to keep the conversation going to fully support all kids in our community, and it's a shame now that some posting above want to shoot the messenger. We have a suicide cluster, we have crossing guards on the tracks, we have a mental health watch list, we have a pilot program to put cameras on the tracks, and so on. And we have an interesting fact that the psych wards are slow when the kids aren't in school.

I don't agree with all of Marc's ideas, but I appreciate his keeping the conversation going, and his group needs a seat at the table as we work on these issues together. To try to marginalize him as a negative voice, or to say that our own kids are all right, so let's stop talking about it this problem, seems insensitive and counterproductive.

3 people like this
Posted by A little positivity
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 7, 2015 at 8:07 pm

I agree with "Unbalanced View". I also know a number of happy teens, busy and not-so-much in the summer. They don't seem driven by resume building. And as we approach the end of summer many of them are eager for school to restart. The change of pace that is summer is losing its shine.

There has been too much painting the whole community with the same brush.
In fact, one thing that many parents in my group have noticed is that some of the "normal" pressures that we grew up with or kids in other areas might have are rather absent for many kids in PA. There is far less urgency here among teens to work multiple jobs in the summer to save up as much money as possible (or even to work a paying job at all).
I'm not going to asses that for whether it is better or worse. But I do think it is worth taking time to think about the actual scale and spectrum of our problems.

I do think Palo Alto is primarily a happy place. With generally happy families and kids.
Personally, I think a better road to a healthy balance for everyone would be to spend less time navel gazing and self-focused. More energy directed at looking at the larger outside world and the true spectrum of hardships people face would give a sense of perspective on our woes. And the easiest path to happiness is appreciating what you already have (a peaceful, prosperous country, easy access to free education, food every day, clean water to drink when you turn on the tap, beautiful weather, a safe neighborhood, etc.). Follow by directing your energy to help someone else less fortunate.

P.S. We really miss Palo Alto Bowl bowling alley too. That was a fantastic example of a great, community-minded, youth supporting, business. They were great for teens and summer and weren't a "program" created by the city or schools. So sad we couldn't keep them.

27 people like this
Posted by Summer Jobs are Important
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2015 at 8:13 pm

As an employer who has hired -- and fired several dozen people over the last 35 years, I can tell you that the young people who had summer jobs are MUCH, MUCH better employees than the ones who never worked a day in their lives until they graduated from college.

The non-workers who went on to get several college degrees without one day of work tend to have no clue about a work ethic and productivity. They often come to work late and leave at 5:00, if not before. They tend to be slightly to moderately anti-social and do not work well with their colleagues. They do not understand the concept of a working relationship, and tend NOT to be team players, but rather prima donnas. It also seems they need a lot of praise all the to e for even the smallest accomplishments.

Whereas, college graduates who worked at summer jobs through high school and/or college fully understand the requirement of a good work ethic, and getting along well with co-workers. They are often helpful and look to find additional work that needs to be done. They are team players, and understand the connection between the financial health of the company they work for versus individual praises and raises.

Often, " overachievers" in school turn out to be school and book smart, but do not live in the real world, and cannot translate what they learned in school, despite getting A's on the test, into practical and practicable use in real life engineering and business situations.

There is a saying in the Tech Industry: Beware of people with straight A's in college......something is fishy there!

30 people like this
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 8, 2015 at 11:11 am

@Unbalanced View Of Our Kids

It's great that your daughters are having a fabulous summer and have not succumb to the pressures of
college-app-building-resume-summers that some kids are experiencing. But I feel you are a little vicious on Marc who is just trying to make a difference for our many teenagers. Some of them under tremendous stress. Marc's message above was to help and if one family starts parenting slightly different after reading his guest opinion that's what counts. So if your family doesn't need this, so be it. Your message too (between the lines of bashing Marc) is a good one for parents to read. Maybe some community involvement will help you see the bigger picture. It really helps me.

3 people like this
Posted by Check it out
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 8, 2015 at 2:54 pm

@Paly Parent
Your call for good teen hang out spots is on target. We have a new one in town that is not yet well known or well used, it's the Mitchell Park Teen Center. Have your teens check it out and let the city know what they would like to see there beyond what they have now. Our teen thinks more local music would be great including a small recording studio. Also, I have heard interest in adding a 3D printer or Maker Space.

5 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 8, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Dear Folks,

For a great place for teenagers to hang out—use their hands and minds, decompress, goof off, get the hang of some handheld creative tools, a laser cutter, a 3D printer—you can't do better than MakeX.

It's a makerspace at 4000 Middlefield (the old Cubberly campus) in Room V, and I wish I'd had the writer-space to mention it in a 1000-word column!

One of its guiding lights, Paly senior James Wang, recently gave me a tour of this modest-sized, well-lit, well-staffed lab and I recommend it as a place where you can stop by, come and go as you please, get some crazy ideas and see if they'll fly, maybe meet some kids from other high schools, or just go out onto the nice grass and lay back and chill.

You can check it out on Facebook:

It's funded by the City and the library system, and it's Palo Alto at it's finest!

Marc Vincenti
Co-Founder, Save the 2,008

4 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 8, 2015 at 6:01 pm

Thanks for these suggestions.

Perhaps the Palo Alto Online staff can have a special section, or blog, especially for teen hangout places and ideas. They need to be able to grouped together somewhere so that special events can be listed also and when teens are looking for something to do they can check it out.

5 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2015 at 12:08 am

Palo Alto students are weird. Sure, there are the "popular" extroverted kids who attend parties and will go Greek in college. But the majority of kids lack good social skills (like simply saying "hi"). When teachers ask questions in class, students don't answer. Maybe it's due to the fact that their parents are smart enough (ie: nerds), thus, successful enough to afford Palo Alto real estate. My daughter can make friends easily elsewhere but finds it difficult to make friends in high school because of the weirdness of the kids. She's not extroverted enough to hang with the partiers, and not weird enough to hang with the others. Maybe the kids are just way too sleep-deprived to act normally.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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