Teen's suicide notes spark national discussion of academic pressures

In one of his three suicide notes, a 16-year-old teen said the stress of doing well at his powerhouse school led him to a point of despair and hopelessness.

Credit: Maureen Downey

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In one of his three suicide notes, a 16-year-old teen said the stress of doing well at his powerhouse school led him to a point of despair and hopelessness.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The suicide of a young person leads to review -- and sometimes recriminations -- about whether warnings were overlooked and opportunities to intervene missed. Sometimes, broader questions are raised about the challenges of growing up in America.

Such questions are being asked this week after the suicide last week of an articulate California teen who left three suicide notes about the despair he felt over expectations at school and stress from final exams.

In his notes, 16-year-old Patrick Turner of Newport Beach, Calif., details the intense pressures at his competitive and academically acclaimed public high school, explaining, "So much pressure is put on the students to do well that I couldn't do it anymore."

The release of Patrick's letters is spurring a national conversation on whether we expect too much of kids, especially in affluent and highly educated communities like Newport Beach. The picturesque seaside community has a median household income of $113,071.

Patrick addressed one letter to the faculty and administration of Corona del Mar High, in which he described the stresses at this school as "inescapable." He also faults teachers for telling students they will be tested on materials they haven't learned or barely covered. He has a simple recommendation to the school: "Make changes."

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Patrick addressed another note to family friends and "whoever reads this":

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Patrick's third note assures his parents and siblings they're not the cause of his pain and he loves them and appreciates all they did for him.

Patrick's letters inspired a thoughtful response from Sean Boulton, principal of  Newport Harbor High, which is in the same district as Corona del Mar High School. (Boulton uses the school mascot name, the Sailors, in opening his letter.)

All Sailors ache for the family and friends of the student who died at Corona del Mar High School, and there have been a number of supportive emails from our community. Yet there remains valid, heartfelt concern for this tragic incident, specifically from notes that the deceased student left, notes which made mention of the pressures of school and growing up in Newport-Mesa. A lot to ponder, and many conversations and changes ahead but how did we get here?

Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning "As" in AP classes became the norm.

Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures. When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was "cool" to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls--and our children.

We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a "C" grade in a class is a the end of the world, and we don't allow our students to advocate for themselves. We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university.

We say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don't want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a "C" in a tough class and are proud of themselves.

ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless.

We had a waiting list this year for culinary at NHHS and construction technology at Estancia -- this is a telling statistic. We consistently have students lost in our administrative/ counseling offices, and in classrooms whom we tell, "College is not for everyone, but look at what you can do." We invite military recruiters to our campuses so they can work with students on valued and significant careers in the armed forces. Please know there is so much behind the scenes we do to diffuse this environment, but we can not do it alone anymore.

A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: "Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time."

It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a "C," applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5 percent as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, "it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts."

We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don't live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world...it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry.

We need to start now.

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