In Palo Alto's High-Pressure Schools, Suicides Lead To Soul-Searching
Since October of last year, four teenagers in California's Palo Alto school district have taken their own lives. Tragically, it's not the first cluster of teen suicides this area has seen: In 2009 and 2010, five local teenagers killed themselves by stepping in front of trains, and more suicides followed the next year.
Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to some of the nation's most competitive public schools. The factors that lead to suicide are extremely complex, and simple lines cannot be drawn between academic stress and young people taking their own lives. But there's been a great deal of soul-searching about the pressures on high school students in the wake of these deaths.
In a March op-ed, Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School and a school district student board member, wrote of feeling "desolate" and suffering from panic attacks. She made a heartfelt plea for change: "It is time we wake up to the reality that Palo Alto students teeter on the verge of mental exhaustion every single day," she wrote. "It is time to realize that we work our students to death. ... Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress."
Speaking with NPR's Arun Rath, Walworth offers a glimpse of life as a Palo Alto student and her hopes for the future.
On reaction to the recent suicides
It's definitely been very, very upsetting. The school as a whole was in shock, obviously, after the fourth suicide because that just hit so close to home, because the student was from [Palo Alto High School]. ...
In a sense we're kind of used to it. And so we're kind of prepared for it and it's almost as if we're expecting these suicides to happen. But that really doesn't diminish the pain that we feel.
On the pressures students face
You feel this sense that you're not as good as everyone else or you're not good enough for whatever reason — because you can't get into a certain college or just because your test scores aren't as high as someone else's. You kind of feel you have to be a perfect person. ...
Personally, I've experienced around four hours of homework per night. It can be more, though. So it's pretty much a packed day. And then you also throw in extracurriculars. I have a job currently, so I have to factor that into my schedule as well. ... There have been weekends where I've had 15 hours of homework. ...
You just hear people talking about grades constantly, and SAT scores — all of that stuff.
On her hopes for the future
I definitely want to go to college, and I'm really interested, when I do go to college, in learning for the sake of learning. I'm really excited to get away from Palo Alto and get to explore more what I'm actually interested in, in academia and everything like that.
Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Since October of last year, four teenagers in the Palo Alto School District have taken their own lives. Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is home to some of the nation's most competitive public schools. We need to underscore a very important point here. We cannot draw simple lines between academic success and young people taking their own lives. The factors that lead to suicide are extremely complex.
But we can try to understand what it's like for the students. Carolyn Walworth is a high school junior at Palo Alto High School - the students call it Paly - and recently, she wrote an editorial about life in the shadow of the recent suicides.
CAROLYN WALWORTH: It's definitely been very, very upsetting. The school as a whole was in shock, obviously, after the fourth suicide, because that just hit so close to home since the student was from Paly. And there's also kind of a tone of monotony to the suicides, though, as terrible as that sounds...
WALWORTH: ...Just because we had a string of suicides earlier - I think in 2008 or 2009. So in a sense, we're kind of used to it. And so we're kind of prepared for it, and it's almost as if we're expecting these suicides to happen. But yeah, that really doesn't diminish the pain that we feel.
RATH: Talk a little bit about this day-to-day stress. I mean, you described basically being in class and having a panic attack.
WALWORTH: You feel the sense that you're not as good as everyone else or you're not good enough for whatever reason because you can't get into a certain college or just because your test scores aren't as high as someone else's. Also, yeah, it's just you kind of feel like you have to be a perfect person. You kind of feel like you have to be extremely well-rounded. You have to be really passionate about something.
RATH: Can you give us, like, a snapshot of, you know, your day, like, you know, when you get up, your class load, your activities, your homework - that kind of thing?
WALWORTH: So you'll go to school from 8:15 to 3:25, usually. And then you'll pretty much go home. And depending on what courses you're in - personally, I've experienced around four hours of homework per night. It can be more, though. So it's pretty much a packed day, and then you also kind of throw in extracurriculars. I have a job currently, so I have to, like, factor that into my schedule as well.
RATH: And does this bleed into your weekends? I don't want to sound simple, but you're a 17-year-old. Do you have time to have fun?
WALWORTH: Most weekends, yeah, I'm doing homework anywhere from, like, four to seven hours per weekend. There've been weekends where I've had 15 hours of homework.
RATH: And, you know, as a parent of younger kids, I was kind of horrified to read - you said that the stress, for you, started in elementary school.
WALWORTH: Yeah. So I wouldn't unnecessarily say I felt stressed out in elementary school, but, like, we felt kind of more superior to other students, because we'd be separated into the classes based on our reading abilities. And I guess in middle school, you kind of still have that, with separating students into, like, advanced algebra and, like, less advanced algebra. A lot of the issue there is from the social pressure. Like, any math lane that's not referred to as advanced is usually, like, dubbed the dumb math lane at our schools.
RATH: Where does the pressure come from? Is it from the school, from the parents, something broader than that?
WALWORTH: The school's not encouraging that we take, like, a million AP classes and get, like, perfect grades. But I do think that the issues that the school, like, contributes to it is that our AP classes are so difficult. We're taking so many difficult advanced courses. In addition to that, you just hear people talking about, like, grades constantly and, like, SAT scores - just all of that stuff.
RATH: You know, a lot of people - I guess, a lot of adults - kind of romanticize this part of life where you're looking ahead to college, looking forward to the rest of your life. And in this piece, you write that, you know, as you're thinking about the colleges you're trying to get into, you feel desolate.
WALWORTH: I would definitely say me feeling desolate comes from me feeling like - I feel sort of empty on the inside. I don't really know what I want to do. And I mean, that's obviously a teenager problem (laughter), but I feel that even more so just because I don't know what I want to do with my life. I feel like I don't know myself very well 'cause I don't feel like I've had enough time to, you know, have all those social experiences that, like, the typical teenagers go through.
RATH: So what do you want to do, Carolyn? Do you want to go to college? Do you want to take a year off?
WALWORTH: Yeah, so I definitely want to go to college. And I'm really interested, when I do go to college, in kind of, like, learning for the sake of learning. And so, yeah, I'm really excited to kind of get away from Palo Alto and get to explore more of what actually interested in academia and everything like that.
RATH: Carolyn Walworth is a student at Palo Alto High School. Carolyn, thanks very much.
WALWORTH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.