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"