Moments long past
come forth, afresh
as if they arose
incorruptible, from the crypt
oblivious to the passage of time
each year since no more than
a mild nuisance
the bell rings on the dot
clear as dappled dew in the shade
8:30, first period geometry
on top of the hill, seven staircases up
the first day of the rest of my lfie
on an August day, unsure if school
means that summer weather is now
a continent, an ocean, a decade apart
yet no more distant than
the tips of my fingers
There is a corridor of collective hysteria in this country. It is the stretch of land between the 101 and 280 freeways, starting in San Francisco and moving south, eventually ending when the latter turns into 680 and intersects with 101 due east of downtown San Jose.
For the billions of people who know nothing about northern California, I’ve marked the area for convenience.
This isn’t exact, but this post deals with places that are within two miles of either side.
The feature “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” by Julie Scelfo in the New York Times is excellent. Halfway through, I was not at all surprised to learn that Kathryn DeWitt, the centerpiece of the story, is from this area.
Ms. DeWitt is younger than me, but we both lived through a different Gunn High School suicide cluster around the time we graduated. This is an excellent piece about the two clusters– which are very rare but happened twice at the same school within five years of each other. Student suicide is so commonplace that I’ve never had a conversation about California’s high speed rail project with someone my age without a detour into “will they build it so that kids won’t be able to jump in front of it?”
Student suicide is a classic social problem. It’s complex. There are a ton of institutions that may play a part. Norms are established about academic performance and image are difficult to change. If any part of the system is poisonous, it can undermine everything else. School, peers, parents, media, society, politics, money, sanity- all play a part in the problem, and all have to be addressed to create a real solution.
The prep school culture in the Bay Area isn’t unique. But it is unusually concentrated and reinforcing. It’s a high concentration of wealthy adults, often from immigrant backgrounds and low economic standing. Their kids are expected to make similar progress in their own lives. The high population means not one but many schools that mesh together to create a social scene where failure means weakness and worthlessness. Harker, Crystal Springs, Castilleja, Bellarmine, Pinewood, Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. Then there’s all the larger Catholic schools; St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and so on. Then there’s the public schools like Aragon (where Ms. DeWitt went), Gunn, Palo Alto High. All the public schools have a substantial honors track that’s insular and indistinguishable from the private prep schools.
Anyone who’s not in the culture would find the whole apparatus absurd. It is, and you should.
William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty and current polemicist against the narrowness of mind that selective schools of all levels create, points out that elite schools that fail their students when you look away from the resume-building:
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history. (“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League“, The New Republic, July 2014)
Suicide clusters at elite high schools and universities should not be a surprise. These institutions have taken the regular level of stigma in society and piles on. Not only is mental illness stigmatized, as it is everywhere, but a million different forms of imperfection are as well. All the contributing factors to suicidal ideation are turned into overdrive. As all three of the stories I’ve linked to concur, students think they are isolated in their unhappiness. It’s a lie that’s allowed to persist. In Scelfo’s profile, it’s the college counselor who breaks through the illusion. People are messed up. There’s a culture supposedly based on intellect and critical thinking that frequently uses neither. And people are dying because of that.
A few days ago, I read an internet discussion that talked about how English is taught in schools. Several people felt the curriculum stifled them, the teacher didn’t recognize their intelligence, and that the stress contributed to their unhappiness.
I’m sympathetic to this line of thinking about the past. If it’s not English it’s physical education. Or history. Or math. Despite a great deal of intelligence, teachers seemed to get in the way. The bad grades weren’t my fault, it was a stupid set of requirements and rules that didn’t make sense. Disappointing grades caused conflict with my parents. Why would you do this to me? I could teach this class.
Although I’m sympathetic to that reading of my academic past, it’s not true. And I don’t hate my English teacher. The assignments I didn’t do may have not been the most engaging and the books I didn’t read may have not been the most important. Digging deeper into my younger self, it becomes clear.
I didn’t hate my English teacher. I hated my adolescence.
Adolescence is both a traumatic process and one every single person has to go through. The perpetrator isn’t someone I trusted or a playground enemy I despised. Biology- it was biology. There’s no good way to get mad as adolescence. It’s incorporeal. I vented at other people. My parents, my teachers, my peers, random strangers on the internet. I vented it at walls, pinecones on the street. The exception was myself, I didn’t hurt myself, I knew too many who did. Even today, when a friend wears short sleeves, the tell-tale scars on her arms are there…their way of fighting something that didn’t come out and stand solid to attack.
Living in my mid 20s, crisis takes a different form. A friend’s mother dies suddenly. Another has to go homeless for a few weeks to scrounge up rent money. Yet another struggles with domestic abuse and develops a drug problem. It all is real, serious, and terrible to them and those that they love. It happens sporadically, though. Someone falls then gets back up again. Then another takes their place. Overall, most are doing okay. When I was thirteen the crisis was now, and everyone I knew was in the same situation. Maybe a bit better, maybe a bit worse. Maybe finishing the crisis, maybe just starting it. It was a warzone.
I don’t hate my English teacher. I hated everyone.
My English teacher gets an ex post facto amnesty. For all imagined crimes committed against me. For allegedly not recognizing my talents. For getting me in the kind of trouble I needed to get into and get through.
I don’t hate my English teacher. I hate thinking about my past.
Sorry, you’re a part of that past. I can’t take back my past anger- the things I said and the much larger, darker bank of things I thought. The most I can do is rehabilitate you and your reputation. Over time I’ve come to think that the worst jobs are those where you have to see people on the worst day of their lives. Bailiffs, abortion clinic workers, homicide detectives. Though you may not be in that tier, you’re close. Every day you walk in to the classroom. At least half of the class is bullied. Some have been sexually assaulted. A couple think about killing themselves at least some of the time. Maybe a few are starting to develop a substance addiction that will stick around for a long time. Nevertheless, you showed up several times a week and tried to make us all give a shit about the English language. A Herculean effort if there was ever one.
I don’t hate my English teacher. I’m just glad that they didn’t hate me.