Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

School Seals_1

How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

School Seals_2

The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

A Tribute to Robin Williams

Carpe Diem_Red

Things are often not what they seem. We know that from experience. We knew that about Robin Williams, yet we are nevertheless shocked by the news of his suicide. How can a person so imbued with unbridled comic instincts be, deep down, so despondent and disillusioned with life that he acts to end his own?

The public may never know what personal demons plagued Williams beyond his highly-publicized struggles with alcohol, substance abuse, and depression. That line-up is certainly symptomatic of a life gone-wrong, but the deeper root-triggers of such havoc-wreaking conditions are never so obvious. Perhaps such desperation results from a sense of self-loathing or self-disappointment, or feelings of extreme loneliness, or the conclusion that life and living are a pointless exercise. Then, too, there are the little-understood roles that brain chemistry and genetics play in influencing our lives.

One thing is certain: Robin Williams was a genius, a one-of-a-kind comic mind,  capable of drawing  instantaneous connections between the most diverse of  thoughts and ideas and bundling those in cloaks of hilarity. I believe it was Charlie Rose who said that the time-delay between Williams’s mind and tongue was the shortest of any human he had ever encountered – and Charlie Rose has interviewed many brilliant people. Indeed, during interviews with Rose, it took Williams little time to have the normally staid and serious Rose laughing uncontrollably. Williams could routinely do that – take complete control of any situation and, without a script of any kind, turn it into one hilarious, extended three-ring circus. That was the genius of the man.

I think of him at his best when I recall one of his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” That particular night, Williams was hitting on all cylinders, but at double-speed; like all viewers surely were, I was blinded by the flashes of comic lightning which struck, one bolt right after the other. As quick and as humorous as Johnny Carson was in verbal give-and-take, he and co-host Ed McMahon were reduced to helpless puddles of laughter as Williams just took over the proceedings, firing one choice quip after another. It dawned on me as I watched that evening that I was witnessing something that I had never seen before – a superhuman comic alien from some other planet; it was that good!

Williams did have a serious side, without question. We certainly know that now, but we saw it earlier, in other venues including the movies he did. Aside from Williams’s take-over of the Johnny Carson show that particular night, my favorite performance of his was as Professor Keating in the film, “The Dead Poet’s Society.” His portrayal and his professorial message was, at heart, earnestly serious – with suitably effective comic overtones. The opening scene in the film featuring Professor Keating’s advice to a class of young prep students at a prestigious academy is my favorite in all of movie-dom. I related it in detail in a previous post of mine (June 23, 2013, Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society” ). As part of this tribute to Robin Williams, I repeat the section of that post describing my favorite movie scene.

 More Life Perspective:
My Favorite Movie Scene of All!

 Dead Poets Society

Although not in my top six favorite movies (see last week’s post, June 16, 2013), “Dead Poets Society” contains my favorite film scene of all time; it relates beautifully to today’s post. The staging of the scene is brilliant as is its message, and Robin Williams’ acting is superb as Mr. Keating, the new-hire, maverick English teacher at Welton, an old, very toney, and rigid prep school with a direct pipeline to the Ivy League.

The opening scenes during the credits constitute fine film-making, but the fun begins on the first day of class as we briefly follow a group of male “preppies” through their initial classes in chemistry, trigonometry, and Latin. Now, they file in and take their seats in Mr. Keating’s English classroom. As they patiently wait for their instructor to appear, the front door to the classroom opens; Mr. Keating walks slowly down the center aisle, whistling quietly to himself, and then disappears back into the hallway through a rear door. The students look around, puzzled; some tittering is heard. Suddenly, Keating pokes his head back through the door and shouts, “Well, come on!” while motioning the class to follow him.

They are now standing in the building foyer, just steps removed from Keating’s classroom. He herds them closely together, facing the built-in glass display cases along the wall which house athletic trophies and numerous team and student photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. He hands one of the lads a hymnal and identifies a verse for him to read out loud – page 542.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“Why did the writer say that?” Keating asks. A voice in the back offers, “Because he’s in a hurry?” “No, thank you for playing anyway! It’s because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating replies. “The Latin equivalent of all that is, ‘Carpe Diem’. What does that mean?” “Seize the day,” responds a capable Latin scholar in the front. Now, Keating asks them all to step forward as a group, closer to the display wall in order to carefully peruse those faces from the distant past, there on display – faces that almost nobody ever stops to notice in passing.

“Look at them, boys – they are just like you, hormones racing around and all.”

Keating assures his charges that, by listening closely, “You can hear them whispering their legacy to you….hear it?” Expressions are intent and ears are cocked toward the frozen images on display – only the steady ticking of the clock on the wall can be heard. After a long pause, a soft, barely decipherable and throaty whisper floats among the assemblage as Keating inauspiciously moves to the rear of the group: “Caaarpe….caaarpe ….carpe diem! Seize the day boys!”

Keating reminds the group that these lads “speaking” to them in this manner are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Did they live up to their potential, their high hopes and expectations which were not much different from those of this, the current class at Welton?  Did they seize the day – each and every day that they were given?

As the boys exit the hall together on the way to their next class, one exclaims, “That was weird!” Cameron, the by-the-book student with the red flat-top seriously wonders aloud, “Think he’ll test us on that?”

Life will test them all on that; they were indeed fortunate to land in Mr. Keating’s class and receive such a valuable lesson so early in their young lives. End of excerpt.

 Comedy is a Serious Business

I suspect the serious side of Robin Williams relished the role of Professor Keating in that film. I believe the professor’s offering of a life-perspective to his prep students was applicable to Robin Williams, the private man. It surely must be true that, in private, he pondered the very messages he delivered to his prep students in those movie lines, and yet…..! It is regrettable that the real Robin Williams ultimately concluded that life’s offerings were no longer worth the pain and trouble.

A long-standing contention purports that comic genius is only possible when it germinates from a tragic personal sense. That theory strikes me as likely true, especially when pondering the well-known fact that that another acknowledged comic genius with a similar manic style, Jonathan Winters, was Robin Williams’s comic role model. Like Williams, Winter also suffered from depression and other issues. It is also true that the genius of such early master comics like Chaplin, Keaton, and Langdon seems related to their ability to project lovable characteristics and comic situations on basically pathetic and sad characters. Even circus clowns typically sport sad, painted faces. The most effective way to highlight a particular characteristic is to present it in stark contrast with another. Robin Williams deserves a place alongside the best purveyors of comedy that this old world has ever seen. Are we not fortunate to have known him?

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for
brightening our lives while you were here among us.
The laughter and joy will resonate for a very long time.