Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Good School


The Good School

My high school was known for something terrible.

Oh, it was known for a lot of great things too; it was a very nice school in a good part of town, it was well staffed, and clean cut kids attended there.

In fact it was so nice it was easy to forget other kids went to schools that had less. I remember once I was showing two girls around who attended an inner city school and they were stunned, looking at the landscaping.

"Look at this," one said to the other.
"So your school, they pay someone to come and take care of these things, to water them and prune them."

"I guess so," I told her. I felt ashamed I'd never thought of this.

"This is nicer than any park we have in our whole town," said the first girl.

I hurried them inside, anxious to be away from the luxury I now felt bad about. But inside, it continued. They wanted to know, was this school brand new (no, 40 years old), did they just paint these lockers (no, I think they paint them once every 4 or 5 years), even my schoolbooks, which the girls took turns holding, turning the pages.

"These books are practically brand new. They have all the pages."
And the other: "Are ALL of your textbooks this new?"


 I got some perspective that day.

Nice school. Safe to park your car in the parking lot. Kids with enough money, or more accurately, from enough money that they could afford to walk around looking like clothing ads; could buy limitless cutesy extras. Through sheer luck of location this school happened to be in a district full of well heeled people who consistently voted to pass school levies. Why not, they could more than afford to. And so the already great school got greater and the kids did even better on test scores, which made the good school get grants. So they could get more. More necessities and more extras.

After all, once you're used to extras they don't seem like extras; they seem like what should be expected, what you are entitled to. It becomes beyond you to imagine anything else.

Those other schools, the ones without enough books, with rusty benches and tracks full of mud too thick to run through, those schools seemed far away. Or more accurately, they weren't us and so we didn't spare a thought for them.

The kids weren't what we would have called Rich Rich, but they came from more than a comfortable amount of money. Kids got cars for their birthdays. One twin brother and sister received matching Z-28s for their birthdays, his with blue pinstriping, hers with red. Most of the kids had their own credit cards for their parents' accounts. Some kids had swimming pools in their backyards, some had tennis courts. A few had both. Our parents paid for salon haircuts and, before we knew the dangers of them, regular tanning appointments. Many of us took private lessons on the side for languages or painting or drama or dance.

You know, necessities like that.

And so the kids at this school had an easy time of it, with one strange exception: our school had a lot of suicides. For some reason the kids who had so much often elected to say No to everything, to cancel out their futures altogether.

In fact our school had so many suicides, over so many years, that the state took notice. They brought in experts and did a 2.5 million dollar study to find out what the problem was.

For whatever reason, compared with high schools around the state, our school was off the charts in every suicide category; categories we came to know: for number of suicides attempted, for number of suicides completed, for likelihood the suicide would involve a violent (and more deadly) method, whether the student was male or female. And nobody knew why.

Those kids from other schools, the ones we would feel sorry for if we ever thought of them at all, had a much lower rate of suicide than we did. They lived in more dangerous areas, were coping with stressors we did not have and often with fewer resources, but they were better at staying alive.

The main finding of the study was that all of us had an increased risk of suicide before age 18 simply by the fact that we attended this school.

That was the only thing the study revealed. The kids who had attempted or completed suicides were from every demographic. No two were alike. The only thing all of the kids had in common was that they, like the rest of us, came from families with slightly higher incomes.

The money was killing us, it would seem.

How many suicides is a high number? I'm not sure. I know three months before I started attending this school, the student body president, an enormously well liked three sport athlete, drove his car the 40 minutes to Snoqualmie Falls, a scenic tree choked town built around its main attraction: a 268 foot natural waterfall. There is a restaurant at the top of the falls; it's a popular spot for pre-prom dinners. The student body president climbed over the safety rails, left a note anchored down with rocks, and then jumped to his death. Our school photocopied his suicide note and put it in the yearbook that spring, next to the photos of him and the words In Memory.

Not a suicide note, some said. It was a multi-stanza poem he had initialed at the bottom. The poem was about the importance of daring to follow your dream. Some (his close friends and family, mainly) insisted the poem was intended to encourage others to live. Other people said the poem sounded like he was explaining that his dream was to die.

268 feet to the jagged rocks at the bottom of the falls, and when they went to retrieve the body, they held out hope that maybe he was just injured, that maybe he had survived. In my hometown, kids are spoiled but they are also loved: a 24 story fall and they still hoped he might be okay.

Snoqualmie Falls was in June. In September, during the second week of classes, a senior girl shot herself. "Another one," people said. In January a junior asked the school librarian if she could borrow a pair of scissors and then proceeded to cut her wrists open with them, right in the middle of the library, in the middle of the day. She lived. We watched paramedics carry her out of the school on a stretcher and we thought, "another one."

Each time, the school brought in extra counselors. Often there were too many of them and they'd sit around the student center or walk up and down the hallways, watching the kids, available to talk. Anyone. Anything. We were frequently reminded they were there.

Teachers began asking the question "Are you OK" a lot. If you looked serious, if you were distracted. If you frowned over the grade at the top of your paper. Are you OK? Meant to be a nice question but instead always sounding ominous because it made you think: they're worried I might end up one of them. So then you'd give the teacher a deep look right back and assure them that you were okay.

We were instructed to listen closely to how our friends spoke. To take every casually uttered phrase seriously. To report everything, and right away.

This had the effect of changing how we spoke to each other. One minute you and a friend would be relaxed, joking around, and one of you would say something like "Oh God, I'd rather die than take that test again," and then you'd immediately correct yourself: "Of course, I don't mean I'd REALLY rather die. I just mean I'd hate it." And the other kid would indicate that they knew, it was just a joke. No danger. Just joking around. 

And then you'd almost feel guilty for joking around. Even though joking around would seem like something good for relieving stress and pressure, the things that might lead to trouble in the first place.

Tell tell tell. Have you noticed, the first five years of a kid's life he is told to stop being a tattletale. He's told to mind his own business. Then he hits age 12 or so and the same kid is told to report everything told to him in confidence. Nothing is sacred. He doesn't get to decide if the friend was joking or not, just tell and let the adults decide.

Telling is a dangerous business, and kids know it.

Because something every kid knows is that the kid world is separate from the adult world. Once you let adults have a piece of information they have the power to misuse it all over the place. They can ruin someone's world by overreacting. Kids know this. They know that kids might be just talking or threatening or joking. They might believe the small thing a kid is doing wrong will stay small and they'll grow out of it. Kids are closer to the kid truth; they often judge better. And once you report something, you can't undo that. The adults will run with it and you won't be able to take it back.

So there were a lot of kids thinking about the topic of suicide. We were being reminded of it several times a week by our teachers, by the counselors, by our parents. But we talked to each other. We made deals with each other. If you ever really meant it, you'd tell me. If you ever really felt like that, you'd call me.

I would. I swear. I promise. Me too.

The kind of deals only kids make and only kids keep. Why don't adults make these kind of deals? Even when they try, they seem to know the deal might not hold. The solid, I Promise, of kid world isn't there anymore.

Do we get weaker as we get older? Do things just matter less?

Junior year and the girl who told her best friend if she didn't get a date for Homecoming she was going to commit suicide. Reported. Intervention. Counseling. The girl despised her best friend for telling, scowled at everyone until graduation (note: is still alive today, thirty five years later).

Senior year and graduation and less than a week after we got our diplomas, a girl one year behind us took her life. People weren't sure how she did it, and there was something uneasy about that one because it hadn't happened during the school year; it was summertime. The problem didn't take a season off; it was year round.

On the first day of school in September, the extra counselors were there again: scanning the crowds of kids, trying to somehow spot the ones at risk, the ones who might be next.

When I was in high school there was a popular movie called The Breakfast Club. In it, Ally Sheedy plays an outcast who comments "When you grow up, your heart dies." I think of those deals and how adults don't make them and I wonder if that line might not be true. If forgetting the secret code to being a friend isn't at least part of the heart forgetting how to work, growing dusty from lack of use.

My graduating class, the class of 1986, thought for a little while that we, for whatever reason, had been spared. We were wrong. Our class may have been intact the night we got our diplomas, but four grads went on to take their own lives. A visit to the school's memorial group on Facebook is like a time machine. There are so many posts recalling grads who took their lives, it's like we're back there, strolling down a hallway with pep club posters on the walls. "Another one," we may think, and for a minute wonder what year we are in.

Thirty five years later, my old high school still maintains its sad record. They are still off the charts for suicide. The most recent one happened only three months ago: a football player with his whole life before him and a gun in his hand. 

It's still a nice school, rebuilt nine years ago for no earthly reason except to spend the 85 million dollars it was given. The kids who attend there now can buy lattes from an espresso machine. They learn robotics from Microsoft engineers. They can buy truffles from the student store.

Danger from outside? They're ready. Armed police now patrol my old high school, one outside, one inside. There are security cameras everywhere. 'Non-specific drug sniffing police dogs' roam the hallways and investigate student cars whenever the administration feels like it. The kids don't have lockers anymore, just in case they felt like keeping anything bad in them. Or anything in them. The entire faculty takes Active Shooter training.

But the kids who might be at risk only to themselves, that's a problem they can't seem to solve. At that good school that seems to have everything.

A version of this story, The Good School, is included in my collection, Starfish On Thursday, available at




Unknown said...

Nice perspective on "good" schools with a conscience for economic problems of the well-to-do.Without dwelling on the woes of poverty, it shows that money is not the answer to life's problems or society's ignorance.I enjoyed it,

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