Carolyn Walworth is the Palo Alto High School student representative on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.
By Carolyn Walworth
As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I've resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can't help but feel desolate.
As a junior at Palo Alto High School, and a student who has been through the entire PAUSD system, I feel qualified to speak about problems at our schools.
My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated into separate class meetings as "early" and "late" readers. Although we were just elementary schoolers, we perceived this as a differentiation between the less and more advanced students and either felt superior due to our intellect or shamed for a "lack" thereof.
Middle school didn't get any better. At the end of sixth grade, we were placed into either Pre-Algebra or Pre-Algebra Advanced, though nobody referred to the classes as such. Any math class without the word advanced in it was referred to as the "dumb" math lane (a label that has followed into high school math courses as well). I like to think of this as the reason I lost my enthusiasm and confidence for math so early -- how could I possibly feel intelligent when the class I was in was considered dumb?
That brings us to high school, where the serious stress begins.
I consider myself a prime example of the PAUSD system. Upon entering high school, I was genuinely interested in learning. I wanted to use my education to achieve my goals and help solve problems in the world.
A month or two into my freshman year, I felt the pressure building. It crushes you on the inside to see what appears to be the majority of your classmates acing tests with flying colors, while you're just doing all right. A piece of you cringes when you hear that your friend has been preparing for the SAT with classes since last summer, and that they're already scoring a 2000. (And what about that freshman who mentioned he was already preparing to take his subject tests at the end of the year? And the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?)
You can't help but slip into the system of competitive insanity related to college admissions to achieve social normalcy. You learn that it is okay and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You focus on getting straight A's. You go to bed at 1 AM every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night.
But at least you have the weekends to relax and pursue your own interests, right? No, there's another surfeit of homework waiting for you on Friday night, plus SAT practice. Of course, we're expected to maintain a social life and spend adequate time with our families as well.
Don't forget to add the typical pressures of being a teenager into the mix (troubled friendships, relationships, jealousy, identity issues, drugs, alcohol, hormones, general mental health issues, etc.).
I could go on in detail about the times I've had to go to urgent care because my stress and ensuing physical pain have been so concerning. I could tell you how I've missed periods because I've had so many tests to study for. I could express what it feels like to have a panic attack in the middle of a thirty person class and be forced to remain still.
I am sick and tired of seeing my classmates struggle with the challenges of being teenagers and having to deal with this lunacy on top of it. I feel nothing less than despair and empathy when I hear of another student who is suicidal or depressed.
I want students in this district to be content, enjoy their lives, and view our schools as places where they can come and receive legitimate support for any of their problems. And, let me make clear, I understand that not all problems relating to suicide and depression are directly correlated to school. I am not saying that they are nor do I wish to assign blame for either of these issues to the schools. Suicidal thoughts and depression are complex, unique, and extremely personal difficulties.
However, it must still be acknowledged that when you are already struggling with such issues, being in a stressful, unpleasant, and competitive environment for nearly eight hours a day that continues when you arrive home surely cannot help.
Telling us to go see a school counselor for stress is insufficient. It is analogous to putting a band aid over a fresh gunshot wound. Students in our district understand how to cope with stress; the real problem is that they simply have too much of it to cope with.
Students are gasping for air, lacking the time to draw a measly breath in.
We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.
We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick.
We, as a community, have completely lost sight of what it means to learn and receive an education.
Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?
It is time to rethink the way we teach students. It is time to reevaluate and enforce our homework policy. It is time to impose harsher punishments upon teachers who do not comply with district standards such as not assigning homework during finals review time.
It is time we wake up to the reality that Palo Alto students teeter on the verge of mental exhaustion every single day. It is time to realize that we work our students to death. It is time to hold school officials accountable. Right now is the time to act.
Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress. Taking an advanced course should not be synonymous with copious amounts of homework. Challenging oneself academically and intellectually should be about just that -- a mental challenge which involves understanding concepts at a deeper level.
The ever increasing intertwinement between advanced courses and excessive homework baffles me; indeed, I would say that it only demonstrates our district's shortcomings, our teachers' inabilities to teach complex materials in a way that students are entertained by and can understand. Instead, they rely on excessive homework to do the teaching for them.
These are issues that absolutely cannot wait. Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises. Students live under constant stress every day of their lives. It is time to get to work.
Whether you are a student, parent, or concerned citizen, email Palo Alto's superintendent, board members, and high school administrators. Tell them that you will not continue to stand for the excessive stress that they and their colleagues impose upon our town's teenagers.
Tell them you demand that they actually get to work improving the quality of life for students. Inform them that although it is nice of them to recognize student and staff successes at school board meetings, you would much rather see them devote the time to discussing how to improve student well-being at Paly and Gunn.
Now that I'm nearing the end of my academic career in Palo Alto, I'd like to nostalgically look back and remember how much fun I had growing up, learning, and being a teenager in our city.
I'm sorry to say I won't be able to do that even in the slightest degree.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to Storify.com.