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: savethe2008.com
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.