How do teachers address the needs of students who walk into their classroom obviously depressed? How does it affect how they do their jobs? This is the story of what happened to one educator who found himself trying to help a severely depressed teenage girl in one of his classes.
He is Marc Vincenti, who, with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Brandeis University, worked for years as an actor and freelance writer before going to Stanford University and earning a master’s degree in education. At Henry M. Gunn High School, near Stanford in the affluent California city of Palo Alto, he taught Shakespeare, Dickens, Welty and Lahiri to all grade levels for 15 years.
He also co-founded, with a student, “Save the 2,008,” a grass roots effort to reduce the stress of students in Palo Alto and meet their mental health needs. The project emerged after a spate of student suicides over several years at Gunn and nearby Palo Alto high schools. It now has nearly 700 members — including parents, teachers, doctors, filmmakers and professors.
The project’s website says it offers an action plan of six steps aimed at addressing “crowded classrooms, overwork at home and in AP course loads, all-day student phone use, constant grade-reporting, and rampant cheating.” But its proposals have so far been rejected by the school district’s board and superintendent.
Vincenti lives in his home town of Palo Alto, where he keeps company with his wonderful friends, his piano, and his cat, and is polishing the manuscript from which this piece is drawn: “If the Schoolhouse Could Talk: a Modern, True-life Story of High-Aspiring Teenagers and Hope Gone Missing.”
This piece is about a student Vincenti once had at Gunn. It reflects the pressures that students, even in affluent communities such as Palo Alto, face in school today, and reveals the impact this student had on Vincenti.
By Marc Vincenti
I was her teacher, and she’d begun showing up at my classroom for last period every day, sitting in her desk, putting her head down and leaving it there.
Fifteen years before, as a middle-aged man earning a teaching credential, I’d learned to shape unit plans, “scaffold” successful lessons, frame “essential questions.” But neither my high school’s problems that autumn, nor this short, sweet teenage girl — her body present but her spirit far, far away — had been covered in my grad-school curriculum.
I decided not to intrude. I didn’t call on her, didn’t ask her to do the in-class writings. I quietly removed her name-card from the lottery for the daily, oral vocab quiz. Drawing attention to her in any way would have offended the whole class; teens know none of them wants to be made self-conscious, especially not in front of 25 peers. And her mere presence — dark hair hooded by her sweatshirt, face on her forearms—was striking enough. She could have just cut class.
Certainly I wasn’t going to “report” her, either, for seeming “especially depressed” — in the way our frightened school authorities were urging us to do. When teenagers have had four of their own schoolmates end their own lives, well, they all look depressed — averted eyes, dragging footsteps, wearily-shouldered bags — and deeply scared. I too was feeling heartsick, though not as much as my colleagues who had worked with those four children.
At the day’s last bell, she was last to trudge toward the opened door. With an especially shy student, you grab at whatever straws you can (pleasantries, fleeting moments when no one will overhear, jokes about wiping the whiteboards for the umpteenth time) — and when one afternoon I offered her a chair, too, she perched on its front edge, her bag still on her back.
Staring at the windows onto the quad, she murmured that she was sorry to be such a poor student but her father had failed to come home three weeks ago, had phoned to tell her mother that their marriage was over, that he was involved with another woman and wouldn’t be back — and now her mother was home in bed all day, reading the Bible, relying on her daughter to bring home take-out pizza or Chinese.
My student was only 16, a miniature bear dangling from her bag’s zipper. Gradually she lingered after another class, then another — slowly revealing more about her day, her friends. I offered no advice; I thought I’d better just listen, real hard. Heck, what had I ever known about her? With a hundred young people on your roll sheets, your capacity for individual attention is rapidly used up by the roomfuls of raised hands, the requests for make-up quizzes, the entreaties to size up thesis statements, the mislaid sweaters and binders to put in the classroom Lost & Found. Pressed similarly to the limits of their capacity these days, less and less emotionally present, are many high-schoolers — sleep-deprived, anxious even during class to get on their phones, worried a B+ could dim their college and life prospects.
So I just listened, setting out little pools of attention for her, like bowls of milk at night for a homeless cat, stationed each time a little closer to the house. I saw that she might have been coming to class because all along, maybe without even knowing it, she’d been hungry for something like this.
Eventually she mentioned the students who’d died. Eventually, her eyes flashing with the irony, she said, Mr. V., I’m head of the junior-class spirit committee, so at meetings I smile and smile, and everyone thinks I’m fine. Eventually — in the smallest voice I’d ever heard — she said: I think about ending my life.
When a teenager entrusts a grown-up, a relative stranger, with an intimate truth of such magnitude — well, you start to believe things will come round. In the lifeline she’d been braiding to me, this was her most secure strand yet. And gradually, during the classes before winter break, she started lifting her head from her desk. Over Christmas, she emailed the update or two I told her I’d love to receive, just to know she was okay. And after break I floated her a plan for an “incomplete” — assignments to be made up before summer. Adjustments were in order; we made as many as were needed.
Spring semester, she disappeared into the school’s swirl of 2,000 teenagers. As for adjustments, though, I was just getting started.
To my assignment sheets I added — emphatically — that emotional ill-health, like physical, always warranted the cutting of slack. I eased my grading scales radically so that my kids, as handicapped by grief as any high-schoolers anywhere (we had a fifth suicide), wouldn’t fear being overrun in the national race for GPAs.
When they asked if I could work in a unit on college admissions essays, I said yes. I invented the “Howyadoin’ometer,” a simple, heads-down-hands-up survey that clued us all in to the daily mood. And I read their more personal writings aloud more often (anonymously, with their permission), to give them pride of voice and the feeling they weren’t struggling in isolation.
Last week of the semester, my student’s make-up work appeared in my mailbox, and when the Howyadoin’ometer, that Monday in first period, registered not even a single student as despondent — a first for all my classes, all semester, I told the kids — they burst into cheers and applause for themselves, their school, our collective survival.
Four years later, our student deaths began again, and so along with a sophomore I co-founded a community initiative, Save the 2,008 (our school’s number of students and teachers), to ease stress through six school-wide adjustments. I’d come to see that several of the accepted conditions of a modern-day, affluent high school — daily regimens, routines — intensify emotions that impair learning.
Teenagers, after all, are no different from grown-ups: all of us find it difficult, even impossible, to spread our wings when we’re upset or under strain. But for four key developmental years, our high-schoolers inhale a toxic atmosphere — of outsized workloads, relentless grade-reporting, rampant cheating, social-media dependence, and crowded classrooms — that suffocates their spirits and smothers working ties between students and teachers.
No, high schools don’t create teenage despair, not can they cure it; but there is much they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable. Our community initiative, now widely supported, would accomplish this — but has found no welcome from Palo Alto’s school board or superintendent, despite two more teenage deaths this past April and August.
Regarding my courageous student though, and as life would have it, I saw her one more time. I ran into her in town — the kind of good luck we teachers thrive on, depend on. She was handling the register at a local cafe. Her smile was less shy, and she was in talkative, bubbling spirits. She was on the eve of leaving home for college — her head held high.