As discussed in my most recent post, New Pathways to a Successful Adulthood, the mental and physical strain on students, especially during the long, drawn out race to college admission, is epidemic. And sometimes these pressures become too great to bear. We recently learned that a student in our community in Orange County, California, took his life. In the letters left behind, he cited the academic pressure and societal expectations as his primary motivation. It is unfathomable that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for 12 to 18 year olds and college-age youth (CDC WISQARS, 2016). Youth 10 to 14 years of age (middle schoolers) are more likely to die from suicide than a car accident. Teen suicide rates have risen for nearly every demographic group, which means that it’s a national crisis affecting us all.
To understand why this is happening and what we can do about it, we need to take an honest look at the world our children live in, the pressures they face, and how we talk about adversity. I’d like to share a profound letter written to parents by Sean Boulton, Principal of neighboring Newport Harbor High School (mascot, the Sailors) describing the pressures:
All Sailors ache for the family and friends of the student who died at Corona del Mar High School, and there have been a number of supportive emails from our community. Yet there remains valid, heartfelt concern for this tragic incident, specifically from notes that the deceased student left, notes which made mention of the pressures of school and growing up in Newport-Mesa. A lot to ponder, and many conversations and changes ahead but how did we get here?
Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning “As” in AP classes became the norm.
Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures. When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was “cool” to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls – and our children.
We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a “C” grade in a class is the end of the world, and we don’t allow our students to advocate for themselves. We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university.
We say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don’t want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a “C” in a tough class and are proud of themselves.
ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless.
We had a waiting list this year for culinary at NHHS and construction technology at Estancia — this is a telling statistic. We consistently have students lost in our administrative/ counseling offices, and in classrooms whom we tell, “College is not for everyone, but look at what you can do.” We invite military recruiters to our campuses so they can work with students on valued and significant careers in the armed forces. Please know there is so much behind the scenes we do to diffuse this environment, but we can not do it alone anymore.
A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: “Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time.”
It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C,” applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5 percent as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.”
We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.
I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry.
We need to start now.
I believe Principal Boulton is daring — and right — in calling out all stakeholders. However well-intentioned, the society we have created pushes our children too far. We have placed so much value on a single, prescribed route to success that we have neglected to appreciate our children’s uniqueness and individuality. We must consider that there are many pathways to success and definitions of achievement.
It is tempting to point fingers, but we must all take some responsibility and do our part to change this oppressive culture. Like Gandhi says, Be the change. In order to alleviate the pressures, we can show more grace, allow students to learn from their failures and build resiliency. We can limit the amount of time allocated to school-related work and extracurriculars and modify our expectations, as parents and educators. It must start in our own homes, by loving our children unconditionally and showing them their best is always good enough. Because that’s the honest truth.