Opinion: It starts with you

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Tragedy. Anxiety. Stress. Pressure. Mental illness. These are all words that have surrounded the recent death of a Gunn High School senior.

Counseling. Support. Community. Unity. These are the words that have been used to address how, as a society, we can hope to recover from this tragedy and prevent such an event from reoccurring.

As a community, we have struggled to find ways to offer consolation and show support for affected loved ones and community members during this time of grieving. The teachers, administration and school board of the district all showed efforts to reach out to students and remind them of the many available resources. However, there still remains conflict among many members of the community, particularly among high school students, about how to confront an issue as sensitive as suicide. Many student Facebook users have posted statuses to communicate to their friends and peers that they are available to offer support. Others argue that the support necessary to address mental health goes far beyond anything a change in a profile picture can offer. Some don red and black to show support for Gunn students, while others believe that such an act only serves to encourage “copycat syndrome.”

The recent death of a Gunn  senior prompted a wave of changes in profile pictures, a tactic that many students used to demonstrate support for their peers. Photo courtesy of anonymous Facebook user.

The recent death of a Gunn senior prompted a wave of changes in profile pictures, a tactic that many students used to demonstrate support for their peers. Photo courtesy of anonymous Facebook user.

The teens of Palo Alto may never come to a consensus on how to show that we care about each other. The important thing, however, is to remember that we do. At the end of the day, high school, in the Silicon Valley in particular, is hard for pretty much everyone. It’s hard for the jocks who labor under the stereotype of being jocks. It’s hard for the closet poets who are too ashamed to reveal their gift of written word. It’s hard for the people who are just trying to make it to graduation, when they can embrace the life that awaits outside the walls of high school.

No matter what school we go to, what grade we are in or what kind of student we are, we all experience the ups and downs of high school. As adolescents, we all have to endure feelings of awkwardness, unhappiness and mediocrity, whether it be in academics, after school activities, or sociability. Popular culture showed us that in order to be happy, we need to have it all – looks, brains, strength, the whole package.

The result: high school becomes a competition where we are pit against our peers, our classmates, and our friends. It doesn’t matter how many parties we get invited to, because someone prettier than us or funnier than us gets invited to more. The person who outscores us on the math test ruined the curve and screwed up our GPA, and our futures are thus ruined. The kid who plays six instruments and captains the soccer team is our enemy, because her accomplishments undermine everything we think we should be proud of about ourselves. In this system, we are forced to stay afloat by drowning the people we should be turning to for support.

We are all subjects of a strenuous system, and for that reason, we should serve as a support system for one another. It’s time we show compassion for our classmates that we never talk to because they are too weird, or too popular, or simply too different. It’s time for us to stop resenting the people who are smarter than us, or more athletic, or more musical or more talented in every way. It’s time to forge bonds with the people high school turned against us. It’s time to create a sense of unity in which all students feel accepted and appreciated by their peers. It’s time for us to mean it when we say “We Are All In This Together.”

The student who outscored you on the test is not your arch-nemesis, but instead a fellow victim of intense pressures created by a society that prides itself in producing top-ranking students. The girl who seems confident all the time is also struggling with self-esteem issues created by the enigmatic hierarchy of high school popularity. The shy kid on the quad sits alone during lunch because nobody talks to him, and nobody talks to him because he is always alone.

Sometimes, the difficulties faced by high schoolers is caused by mental illness, a challenge beyond our reach, yet a challenge we must address. The only way to properly deal with mental health is through professional help, but as fellow peers we play a role in offering emotional comfort and mutual support.

High school hands each individual their own unique experience, but if we make solidarity, acceptance, and friendship the norms for our peer to peer relationships, we will ultimately have a hand in making each experience a positive one. Students should perceive each other as allies during the phase of our lives that challenges us all. It is our obligation to each other as fellow students to remember that the people we see as our competition are experiencing the same anxieties and stresses that we do, and the energy we spend begrudging each other would be better spent befriending each other.

I have grown up in Palo Alto for nearly my whole life, and I love this beautiful city that I call my home. This is the place where people dream of coming to make a better life. This is the birthplace of innovation, and the heart of opportunity and free-thinking. We have so much to be proud of, yet so much potential to be better. I want Palo Alto to go down in history for its strengths, not the crippling consequences of the actions that we take to become strong.

This is a direct message to my fellow Palo Alto teenagers: I am optimistic that each of us has the power to help make high school a happier place for everybody. I believe that if we change our attitudes about our classmates, we can serve as one another’s greatest resource in helping to make it through the awkward, challenging and demanding stage that is high school. In order for such a change to occur, we must create a camaraderie among ourselves and remember that the people we encounter on a daily basis are our equals, not our enemies. With the choices we make about how we treat our peers, we can all help make high school a little less hard.