Yesterday, a student from my former high school died tragically. He was fifteen. Just a baby in the grand scheme of things; a young boy with his whole life ahead of him. A life filled with graduations and relationships and jobs and little ones. A life filled with happiness and joy and precious moments, laughter that makes your belly roar, silliness that makes your cheeks hurt, and love that makes your heart skip beats. He had his whole life waiting for him. Instead, he chose to end it.
His death marked the fifth suicide at this school in four years. And. It. Has. Got. To. Stop.
High school is a trying time. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either a liar or someone who peaked the moment they crossed that graduation stage. The hormones, and the pimples, and the breakups, and the gossip, and the homework, and the sports teams, and the locker bays, and the mean girls who won’t talk to you, and the group projects you’ll do yourself, and the jocks who don’t know your name, and the teachers who don’t get you, and the honor courses you wish you’d never taken and…it’s exhausting. Someone took your seat at lunch, your best friend ignored you during homeroom, and you’re pretty sure you failed your Spanish test. Senora Homme is going to email your parents for sure — and that sucks. There’s so much pressure on you. Your boyfriend wants to take it to the next level, your coach wants you to run faster, play harder, your teachers want you to push yourself, overextend yourself, break yourself. You finish school at 3, get home from practice at 7, and are expected to eat dinner, shower, and maintain some level of social existence, all while completing the five hours of homework you have due tomorrow.
You have your PSATs, your ACTs, your SATs, your APs, your IBs, your GPA, and yet somehow, someway, throughout all of that, you’re supposed to maintain your sanity. You’re under pressure. You’re under a microscope. You’re under scrutiny. But you can’t break. You can’t succumb. You can’t give in. Failing now means failing forever. Weakness means defeat. If you’re not first, you’re last and if you’re not the best, then what’s the point?
There are prep courses, college fairs, tours, visits, winter breaks spent doing science projects, spring breaks spent looking over flashcards and Words of the Day, and summer breaks spent reading Homer and Tolstoy and Machiavelli. Push yourself. Be better. Do better. Try harder. You’re better than that. Everything depends on this, on these four years. One slight misstep and your future is ruined. Tread lightly, kid. Don’t screw it up.
We force them. We ride them. We harp on their tiny failures and overlook their monumental successes. We expect greatness. We demand perfection. We push, and we push, and we push until we can’t push anymore. Until they can’t take it anymore. We create stressed out children, harried teenagers, premature grownups. And they can’t accept it. They can’t handle the pressure of perfection, the expectation of full rides, the belief that if they fail now, they will fail forever, they will lose this game of life that they’ve barely even started.
Teenagers today have it harder than any generation before them. They’ve been coddled, they’ve been fed from the silver spoon, they’ve been raised organically, brought up harmoniously, nurtured to a fault. They’ve fluctuated on a diet of Adderall and grass-fed meat, they were raised by their therapists, and they received trophies for simply showing up. They’ve been called lazy, out of touch with reality, overzealous, rude, irresponsible, immature, and too mature for their own good. We’re training them for jobs that don’t exist, preparing for them to buy into systems that are soon to be collapsing, and expecting them to solve world hunger, cancer, and bankrupted economies.
So it’s no wonder that they crack. How could they not? Between the school pressures, the family pressures, the societal pressures, and the normal teenage angst, what did we expect? They’re growing up too soon, too fast, and too publicly. Success is measured in grades and test scores and Facebook friends and Instagram photos. They’re dealing with not only helicopter parents, but also standardized test crazed teachers and horrible, anonymous online bullies. Images are photoshopped, actresses don’t eat, and athletes use steroids. The pressure, it builds.
And while we’ve been debating between immunizations and cord blood, and grass-fed and organic, and yoga and pills until you can no longer feel, they’ve been suffering. These…kids. They’re suffering. We expect the unthinkable. Demand the unattainable. Preach the impossible. At some point along the way, we stopped letting kids be kids. We stopped letting humans be humans. We’ve lost sight of what’s important, let go of what matters. We’ve forgotten the humanity. We need to slow down. We’ve got to slow down…before it’s too late. We’re making our children grow up too soon — and we’re losing them because of it.
High school is not the best four years of your life. High school doesn’t decide your fate. It doesn’t tell you what job you’re going to have. It doesn’t tell you that you’re going to fall in love at twenty-five. It doesn’t tell you when you’ll get married or when you’ll have babies or at what age you’ll retire. High school doesn’t tell you the age at which you’ll come to peace with your nose or learn to embrace your quirky laugh. It doesn’t forgive you of past sins, it doesn’t prevent you from making future mistakes, and it is not the happiest you will ever be. High school is high school, and sometimes — oftentimes, actually — it sucks. Being a teenager is hard. It’s perhaps the hardest thing you’ll ever experience. But when you get through it, when you learn from the screw-ups and you realize that you really can smile through the tears, it’s worth it.
The time has come for us to embrace the imperfections. To stop the pressure. To learn to live with adversity and mistakes. To stop sweating the small stuff. To let our kids be kids. To realize that we’re all only human. We’re all just doing our best. We’re all just trying to get by. Smile at a stranger, laugh ‘til your belly aches, and know in your heart that it really does get better.