Her gift was a simple concept, expressed in just a few sentences.
Yet today it occurs to me that it may be relevant to young persons in Palo Alto — and in any community where people may be judged by their performance and ... what? Attitude? Presence?
In my case, I can't recall why I had gone into a severe blueness — "depression" was not a common term. It may have been a missed deadline for a school assignment.
Instead of getting up to go to school I stayed in bed, pleading illness.
For a solid week. It might have been just sadness that seems to afflict some young persons from time to time.
My nonplussed mother finally mentioned my surly seclusion to Marilyn, 12 years my senior and married with young kids of her own. Marilyn soon dropped by and sat on the foot of my bed as I lay grumpily facing the wall.
Here was her gift:
Everyone, she said, impacts other people — everyone they meet, in fact. People who present a sour, rude, angry or critical face and attitude leave behind a trail of people whose day has just been made a bit less pleasant, or downright unpleasant in extreme cases.
But those who present a pleasant face, friendly attitude, perhaps a smile or simple greeting, or courtesy of some type, leave behind something positive in those they meet, even strangers, she said.
Everyone, she concluded, is important because of the impacts they leave behind.
She said goodbye and left.
I thought about what she had said for awhile, stubbornly holding to my 13-year-old's angry, sad funk. But soon I had climbed out of bed, showered, dressed and taken a walk.
Her gift never protected me from shortcomings, missed assignments, sad feelings or various personal failings. But the idea that "everyone is important" did quite literally change my life, how I related to people and dealt with situations. It gave me strength when dealing with my dad's sudden heart-attack death when I was 16, a tragedy that shifted my life trajectory from becoming a stock broker to journalism, a career I've relished. There are many forms of enrichment.
Her words sparked an interest in how people interact and build the culture in which they lead their lives, for better or worse. They led to an interest in humanities and cultural anthropology in college and history later, and to an abiding curiosity about different segments of our own society, locally, regionally, even nationally.
In a community with a recent history of teenage tragedies, perhaps there's value in recalling my late sister's gift.
In the early 1980s, following deaths of two young persons in Palo Alto, her words contributed to my helping develop a joint program of Palo Alto High School and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, where I was director of public affairs. The program was called "LifeSkills" or, later, "Family LifeSkills." More than 70 persons ultimately were involved over 18 months, including professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, parents, teachers, physicians, school administrators and students. There was extensive research into related articles and books, and into the effective health-promotion research then underway at Stanford University School of Medicine.
The resulting program of eight four-page self-mailers dealt with core issues of family and personal communications, including anger, blame, responsibility, courtesy, negotiating skills and problem-solving techniques. They were mailed to all Palo Alto High and later Gunn High students for several years, and were evaluated positively by the Stanford School of Education. They are still available online at www.pamf.org/teen/parents/emotions/lifeskills/ — try the Acrobat versions in the left margin to get the full flavor of the mailers.
A number of original members of the content team reconvened a few years ago to review the materials line by line for any required updating. One update was to change "tape player" to "CD player or iPod" in describing how to deal with sometimes negative messages from childhood.
Today Palo Alto parents, teachers, school officials, community organizations and students are engaged in an ambitious effort to increase the sense of well-being among the younger persons in our community. "Project Safety Net" has evolved from primarily a crisis-intervention model into what is becoming a broad program designed to address elements of the local culture that cause distress among many young persons and their families.
A key tool is 41 "Developmental Assets," put together by a consortium of groups to list elements that are important for a young person to have. Translating that many assets into actionable steps to change behavior in a family or among friends is a major challenge — but good people of all ages are working on it, breaking out key elements on which to focus.
Some who recall the original LifeSkills mailings have suggested that the programs are a natural complement, with LifeSkills focusing more on relationships and "how to" tips.
The goals are virtually identical, as this excerpt from the original LifeSkills introduction shows:
"Many times families become blocked in their relationships by hurt, anger, mistrust and confusion. These blockages are natural and normal, and families are few who do not have at least a small collection of them.
"But it is possible, with a few simple changes in the way we look at the world and deal with other people, to create happier, more stable relationships.
"Families need to be units of mutual caring and support; they can be sources of life-long strength for the individual. It is never too late to begin the process of improving family relationships — even if they are already of good quality — by developing some simple skills.
"As with learning to ride a bicycle, such skills once learned last a lifetime — and will enhance future personal (and professional) relationships."
We're not dealing with rocket science here, although some might say there is a similar level of challenge.
Yet perhaps my sister's gift of long ago can be helpful to young persons of today: Everyone is important and we each affect others.