In the wake: Teens respond with messages of hope, change | News | Palo Alto Online |


In the wake: Teens respond with messages of hope, change

Palo Alto high schoolers give voice to their experience

Hayley Krolik hopes that some years down the line, when she returns to Palo Alto after graduating from high school, she'll be able to say something changed. And it won't be that Gunn High School added more counselors or the school board imposed limits on the number of AP classes Palo Alto high schoolers can take.

"It's a mindset shift," a culture change, the Gunn junior said.

The evening after her classmate and friend Cameron Lee, also a junior, died by suicide on the train tracks last week, Krolik decided that more people, especially parents, needed to hear that message -- one of hope, of comfort, of support, of learning that it's OK to feel and to fail. A writer, she sat down and typed a message that was first sent out via the email list for parents of Gunn juniors and then further shared -- and even translated into Chinese for some parents, she said. (Read her message here.)

"No one is to blame, and there are so many factors, but I encourage you all to take this opportunity for self-reflection. It is not the school but the atmosphere our community has created that makes the stress at Gunn so prevalent," she wrote. "Everyone across the country has many tests, but our community still seems to struggle from an overwhelming amount of pressure that is different than most others: the pressure to achieve perfection."

Krolik was one of many students last week who stepped forward in the wake of the second Palo Alto student suicide in the last month to express their hopes, their grief, their love and support for friends and family, and their aspirations for themselves and the Palo Alto community.

At times powerful, passionate, raw and heart-breaking, Palo Alto teens have posted essays, videos, photos and musical tributes on social media and blogs for friends -- and parents -- to see. Student news website the Paly Voice contributed to the outpouring with two opinion pieces this week: One, a push to destigmatize counseling, dovetailed with the other, an editorial suggesting steps the schools and community can take to improve our approach and response to mental health issues.

In interviews with the Weekly, students said they wanted to give voice to what they and their classmates are experiencing, with the hope that people will know that they are not alone and also with the aim of helping adults and the community bring about the kind of change that will lead to all Palo Alto children growing up healthy and knowing they are loved and valued.

These students are hoping to direct the community conversation away from finger-pointing -- whether it's the school, the homework load, parents' high expectations, peer competition -- toward what they see as the underlying condition that must be addressed collaboratively: the broader culture in Palo Alto that demands a sometimes detrimental definition of success.

"The notion that getting into a good college is the only way to succeed is really not true," junior Ricky Shin said. "But I think because of the influences of our community, we think that unconsciously. So we try to do things that aren't really what we want to do in order to keep up with that reputation of our community."

Shin, like Krolik, decided last week to speak out. He posted online a raw stream-of-consciousness narrative detailing his own grieving process, in the desire that his opening up will inspire others to do so.

"For some very odd reason, seeking help is seen as a negative thing to do," he told the Weekly. "People are embarrassed to think that they have issues, and it's not weird at all. We hide different pains. I think that sharing and connecting those pains is really the key. I was hoping that what I wrote could really get people out of that box and try to inspire them to share their feelings (more).

"I think what makes the whole thing frightening is that nobody knows what you're going through if you don't tell them," Shin added.

He said for the first time in their friendships, he and two friends sat outside a classroom last Wednesday, sharing their feelings and talking about what problems they might be going through.

"Things happen behind closed doors and in people's heads here in Palo Alto," Krolik echoed. "We don't create an environment where people feel like they're comfortable sharing these things because everyone is expected to be perfect and well-achieving here."

In Krolik's email to parents, she urged them to be role models to show their children that it is OK "to feel and to fail."

Shin wrote about his grief to share one person's experience, but as he wrote, grief is different for everyone -- and that's OK.

"My counselor tells me that it hits people at different times. Some people explode in tears the moment they hear the news, and others feel an impulsive anger, while others don't feel anything at all," he wrote.

Martha Cabot, a Gunn sophomore, took to YouTube last week to share her perspective. Her Nov. 4 video immediately went viral, with now more than 38,000 views.

"Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements," she said in the video, which she recorded sitting at her desk in her bedroom.

"I'm trying to raise awareness, mostly for the parents," Cabot continued. "We love our moms and we love our dads, but calm down. We'll do just fine even though we got a B- on that chem test, and no, I won't join the debate team for you, because I want to take theater.

"It's the 21st century. It doesn't only take a good education to take it far these days," she said.

Cabot ends the three-and-a-half minute video by encouraging anyone watching to share the video with friends, post comments and help her raise awareness.

"I think spreading awareness is just really, really important because at the end of the day, that's what's going to actually make an impact. The more and more people who realize and care about it will come together and do something about it," she told the Weekly.

She said it's already sparked some action, with other students contacting her with hopes to meet and plan a set of ideas to bring to the school board.

"They need that student voice," she said.

Though these three students chose to be that voice publicly, they say their friends and classmates feel as they do. They are hungry to have more open conversations and to spark the shift that will help future generations grow up with self-value that stretches beyond academic achievement.

"I want to be able to come back from college and visit my high school and say, 'Wow, something really changed here,'" Krolik said. "'Something was done about this.'"

Watch and read the teens' pieces

• Martha Cabot's video

• Ricky Shin's essay, posted on the East Villagers Non-profit Community website

• The Paly Voice opinion piece: "Destigmatize counseling in the Palo Alto community"

• The Paly Voice editorial: "Improving the community's approach to mental health"

Related content:

Mental health experts urge conversations that will help kids feel safe, open up

Q&A about mental health: Local experts offer their advice, guidance

Resources: How to help those in crisis

Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


3 people like this
Posted by Brendan
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2014 at 10:29 am

Brendan is a registered user.

Not that there's an easy fix or anything like that, but it can't hurt to just "be excellent to each other", can it?

That goes for all...teachers, students...everyone.

Take the time to be kind everyday.

5 people like this
Posted by Thank you students
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 14, 2014 at 10:30 am

After this tragedy, I hope your voices will be heard and embraced by all.

13 people like this
Posted by Nelly Leong
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 14, 2014 at 10:42 am

It brings tears to my eyes to see students coming forward and standing up for themselves. More importantly, they shared a common message, "do not point fingers". As a mom of a Gunn graduate, I had my share of worries when the first wave of suicides happened. With two more children heading to Gunn, I will start worrying again if our community and society's view of success does not change.

To the students - do not allow "anyone" shake your view of your self-worth; you are given a life as you are because you are meant to do something for this world; it may not be something crystal clear to you what the meaning is but it will come to you; please do not second-guess yourselves; just remember to always "try" your best in whatever do, otherwise, you are failing yourself, not someone else;

To the parents - do not measure your children's success by their grades or the schools they get accepted by or how many AP classes they take; your job is to raise them to be righteous human beings with integrity; God knows we need more people like that than those with perfect SAT scores;

To our community/society - stop boasting that Stanford or any other top name colleges' acceptance rates becoming lower as a good thing; as a society, we should encourage our younger generation to never stop learning and not make them feel guilty or lesser able unless they get into a top school; also, stop sensationalizing those new-found millionaires as the successful ones; as my mom would say, where you get an education is irrelevant without the hunger to learn; she also said, "money does not measure success because you cannot take it with you unless you plan on lining your coffin with dollar bills...success in life is what people will say about you at your funeral and how much they will truly miss you."

God bless those who feel truly are not.

5 people like this
Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Nov 14, 2014 at 10:51 am

I really think the problem is strongly exacerbated by the college admission process in this country. College Board, a profit based corporation, has way too much influence. What would happen if for 2 years colleges did not allow SAT, ACT, volunteer hours or extra curricular activities to be listed on the application? What would happen if AP courses were truly like a college course and no marks were given for homework completion? There are a few AP courses at Gunn that allow that option and they are a breath of fresh air from all the other busy work stress inducers. What would happen if all of us parents made a promise to not ask any Junior, Senior or parent ANYTHING about college plans?

1 person likes this
Posted by Good kids
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 14, 2014 at 11:14 am

The kids have always known what is what and have been great. Unfortunately the schools and parents hold the reigns.

14 people like this
Posted by Let's hear from the B students
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

It would be wonderful to see more profiles of people who have had a zig zag path, Ok grades, medium brand school, yet are now in their 20s and 30s and are happy and doing what they love (and making a living).

Many people live and thrive here who did not go to "top" schools. They may not loudly wave a flag of their alma mater, but have every reason to be profiled and serve as mentors to young people.

3 people like this
Posted by Time for Change
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm

This is from Ricky Shin's essay. Reading it paralyzed me with grief and rage. [Portion removed.]

New board: it's on you now. Max, it's on you. Find out about the GAC recommendations. Educate yourself. The eyes of the community are turned to you, and to Ken and Terry. We need leadership, please do not fail us.

"But as much as I kept my problems in within myself I also know that the more you do the more painful it gets, until at one point the loneliness is simply unbearable. We're stressed with schoolwork and due dates, relationships with parents and cracks in friendships and failed projects and a feeling that we're worthless. We make mistakes. We don't know what's wrong with ourselves or why other people treat us like they do and we never bother to tell the people we love that we love them because to lose them is something unimaginable. We worry that our future won't be as bright as we want it to be and we sulk over past mistakes and we beat ourselves down because we know our own flaws. And sometimes, even the best of friends see nothing."

4 people like this
Posted by Gunn Grad '81
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 14, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Standing with all Gunn students - the most immediate thought that comes to mind: let's take back our school. Sitting in my car as I waited for the community meeting to begin last week, I was reminded of my Gunn days: learning to drive a stick shift in the parking lot, hustling to make morning workouts, eating lunch in my Chem teacher's classroom, meeting my boyfriend after Psych - what has happened to our school?

Maybe there aren't many of us left in the area - those of us who are still here, let's speak up.

I challenge all of us who were, and are, Gunn Titans to step up and lend to a hand to students and teachers - let's restore some sanity to our alma mater.

Class of "81

2 people like this
Posted by PA PArent
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 15, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Lets give up homework and grades for a year or 2. Let's pivot..lead the way...try something new. Our kids a bright and motivated. Let's see what they are capable of without the artificial pressure of grades. Lead the way PAUSD!

7 people like this
Posted by B student parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Someone asked to hear from B students. My two kids were B students at Paly because they refused to play the game of studying into the wee hours of the morning. They both had a part-time job after school, they both were in upper math lanes but with Bs, and they both got enough sleep at night. I must admit that it was tough at times for me as a parent to have kids who were not straight A students like some of their friends. How many times did I hear that my daughter was off to a "party school" when I answered other parents' question as to the college she was headed to? Truth be told, it was other parents who were the toughest thing for us to deal with. All along, we knew our kids had the right outlook on life and school, and we trusted their decisions. We never complained about their Bs.

My B student daughter graduated from high school in 2005 and from college in 2009 (one of the worst years of the great recession to get a job). She got a job right away thanks to her sensible major and prior internships. She proceeded to become a CPA and now works as a senior financial analyst for a SF start-up. She loves her job and her life. She earns enough and has enough free time to also volunteer at the SF SPCA, which she loves, and to travel internationally several times a year, as well as go out with her friends. She thoroughly enjoys her life and credits PAUSD for preparing her well for it, even though she was a B student and went to a supposedly "so so" college.

My son, who graduated from high school more recently, has had a similar path. Even though he is quite bright, he was a B student in PA with all the competition. He is in a college that many PA parents would look down on since it is not ranked in the top 15 or 20. However, so far, he is acing his college classes, including math. He is happy where he is, and I have good reason to believe everything will continue to go well for him.

I hope this helps parents of other B students. The toughest thing is comparing ourselves and kids to other families. Just don't do it. I know some students who went to Stanford and are not doing so well. Take a longer view of things, ignore other parents and don't pay too much attention to rankings. Your kids will be fine.

Like this comment
Posted by Let's hear from the B students
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2014 at 2:50 pm

@B student parent - Hooray for your family and your kids. Thank you for sharing! Hopefully you will inspire more B students and families (or C or whatever) to share their paths to adulthood happiness and "success".

The straight upward trajectory path to adulthood is a small minority among "successful" adults. Doubters should read Madeline Levine's book "The Price of Privilege"

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 18, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Happy B-students must be aggravating to unhappy A-students.

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