The unknown identities of the people around us

Oct. 14, 2016, 12:05 a.m.

It was long ago that I burned the midnight oil, writing lesson plans toward earning my master’s in education at Stanford (1995), and even longer ago that I worked in community relations for Children’s Hospital at Stanford (1989-91), and even longer ago that I finished up at age 35 as an undergrad at Stanford (1986), and even way, way longer ago that I was raised as the son of a Stanford professor of aeronautics — but my heartstrings, as you’ve already figured out, are securely and forever tied to the Farm.

So when I saw last spring that folks at Stanford are interested in the fates of the kids I got to know as a high-school English teacher — Palo Alto’s teenagers — I was moved and wanted to add my two cents to what The Daily had written (“After suicide clusters, Palo Alto community searches for solutions,” May 31, 2016). Stanford could easily ignore what happens to the young people off campus, across El Camino, down the Foothill Expressway; but you don’t, and I’m grateful.

In a sense, though, in this matter, “town and gown” are as one. Most Stanford students survived high school not all that long ago, and the news of early deaths in the university’s ranks have shaken you, too. And ever since I began thinking seriously about how to help Palo Alto’s teenage students — even founding a community campaign, two years ago, in that hope — I’ve felt myself on high alert when people confided to me, or to the world, about the life awaiting my high-schoolers after graduation.

In the words of a Stanford professor of environmental science, I think more and more that the kids coming in are so traumatized by the process that got them here that they are unable to learn.”

An associate professor of classics and art history told me, “You are right about solitude, isolation and the obligation young (and not so young) people feel to appear perfect on the surface. Stanford’s famous ‘duck syndrome’ doesn’t quite capture the severity of it.”

And as former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims writes in “How to Raise an Adult,”  “Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that this outwardly successful situation was their miserable life.” She goes on,  “A great many students experiencing such things sought mental health counseling. Some dropped out of school for a while. Some fell completely apart.”

With this fragility, this brittleness seen also in losses at MIT, Penn State, Tulane and Cornell and reflected in a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education called “An Epidemic of Anguish,” I wish I had a prescription for healing at the university level. But since, in my 15 years at Gunn High, I was around a great many high-achieving teenagers with their sights set on high-achieving universities, maybe I can be of some help.

Modern-day high schools, at least the affluent ones, in the very way they are ordered and run — in their regimens, routines, campus conditions — have come to adopt and magnify, almost without thinking, many of the unhealthiest impulses of their surrounding communities — operating more in the service of achievement than well-being, performance instead of authentic growth and maturing, and perfection instead of normal, forgivable, flawed human nature.

The proposals that my campaign is making, then, to create a more hopeful life for Palo Alto’s high-schoolers, may hold meaning for other educational settings too, including Stanford — so let me tell you about those six measures. First, the campaign is called Save the 2,008 (christened for the number of faculty and students at my school in the wake of two painful losses) and now has 521 signed supporters, including (I’m thrilled to say) Stanford faculty in education, law, religion, drama, classics, medicine and creative writing, as well as Palo Alto parents, attorneys, LMFTs, business people, rabbis and ministers, and PAMF physicians.

The six proposals? They’re hardly rocket science, but they go to the heart of “student stress” — which is, to be sure, “just” a state of mind, but one which the environment tends to insist on. They’re common-sense and doable — simple nuts-and-bolts adjustments to daily life that are geared to undo stress and discouragement by:

1. Shrinking class sizes (now routinely at more than 30 teenagers per room) so that kids won’t feel alienated and lost in the crowds and can form stronger working relationships with teachers — ties that sometimes become lifelines; 

2. Empowering kids with a nightly voice in homework loads via a confidential, student-teacher app that compares minutes assigned to minutes worked, crunching the numbers into a user-friendly format — so that our schools’ electronic marquees can even declare “The Total Average Amount of Homework Done by the Student Body Last Night”;

3. Requiring guidance counseling prior to enrollment in multiple APs (which often wipe out sleep time and friendship time, family time and cultural time, with far less payoff for college admissions than is generally supposed);

4. Rescuing our teens from their all-day dependence on social media by requiring that phones be kept “off,” first bell to last (except for instructional use) and making the campus more companionable;

5. Reining in the relentless grade reports that now arrive online every three weeks — so that kids won’t be under a continual GPA gun and will have time to recover from the normal disappointments and hurts of adolescence;

6. Undoing the misery-inducing cheating (engaged in by a majority of our overburdened students, countenanced by parents and school officials and harmful to mental health).

Among these six adjustments, there are a myriad of synergies: A student not checking social media is more likely to grab a quick conference with a teacher; a student whose teacher is more available has less need or desire to cheat; classes less crowded give better-rested students the needed room to spread their wings in class discussion. And so, dispersing this toxic cloud of six key stressors will restore a campus climate of togetherness and trust, while signaling a set of community values around raising and protecting adolescents.  

The Palo Alto school board (except for trustee Ken Dauber) and the school superintendent, it must be said, has not welcomed this plan — ascribing 11 teenage losses in seven years to individual illness. And yes, “mental illness” (I dislike the antiseptic sound of that and prefer “broken minds”) has likely had something to do with these deaths, but it’s also true to say this: While high schools don’t create teenage despair, nor can they cure it, there’s a great deal they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable.

A more humane and forgiving high-school life, not only in Palo Alto but, best case, in communities nationwide, would mean far fewer undergrads arriving at Stanford “so traumatized by the process that got them here that they are unable to learn.” And while these six proposals are fitted, in this case, to the engine of high school, they embody and signal a set of values — around integrity, secure human ties, work-life balance, attention and love as preconditions for learning — that are applicable to learning at almost any age. And indeed, a supporter of Save the 2,008 pediatrician Stuart Slavin, who teaches at St. Louis University, is known for his work to lower stress in the nation’s medical schools — through simple adjustments to everyday life: pass/fail grading in introductory classes, a half day off every other week, small learning groups to strengthen connections among students.

To conclude, I can’t do better than to invite your support for Save the 2,008 and to quote from a eulogy by Stanford undergrad Emily Cohodes, published in The Daily in May 2012 in memory of two Stanford friends who’d ended their own lives: “As friends, colleagues and community members, we must make sure that the unknown identities of the people who surround us, the hidden personal battles that do not headline résumés or player bios, are attended to with the love and support they deserve. These are the parts of souls that rarely surface in class, practice, at dinner or even with best friends, but these are the parts of ourselves and others that we must devote ourselves to nurturing.”

Marc Vincenti BA ’86 MA ’95
Gunn English Department (1995-2010)
Campaign Chairman, Save the 2,008 

Contact Marc Vicenti at savethe2008 ‘at’ 

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