Editorial: Address 'pressure culture' with frank, loving conversation

It's not likely that Tessa Newman's online petition will result in an immediate relaxation of expectations at Naperville North High School, or elsewhere. Nor should it. But what it should do, and what it appears to be doing, is to open lines of communication, not just between generations but also within and among the diverse stakeholder groups related to what the NNHS junior called the "pressure culture."

The Daily Herald's Marie Wilson, building on her award-winning coverage of mental health issues, described the reaction to Tessa's petition in a front-page story Monday. Much of that reaction, correctly, focused on the truth that the question of how much pressure students feel is not merely a school issue, but one for parents and the community at large. Of course, it also extends to all students, all parents and all communities.

And, all generations. It is easy to read Tessa's call as a cry from every era of high school students. "Start treating us like people, not GPAs or test scores," she wrote. "Start letting us choose how we wish to be defined. Start helping us find our dreams, and give us the tools we need to achieve them. Start understanding our priorities instead of implementing yours. Start defining success as any path that leads to a happy and healthy life."

The challenge such an outpouring poses is to identify what our culture is doing that so strongly misleads young people about the expectations for them. Many, perhaps most, suburban high schools have something either written or unwritten to equate with what Tessa calls "The Naperville North Way." We're confident none of them says, "Be what we tell you to be." Surely every school would declare that one of its chief objectives is indeed to help young people identify their dreams and give students the tools to achieve them.

How is it then that so many of our kids - nearly 2,000 have signed on in agreement with Tessa's petition - are getting the opposite message? We suspect that the fault is not in their hearing, nor in everyone else's telling, but in some combination of factors that add up to the need for all of us to talk to each other openly and respectfully and to evaluate ourselves frankly.

Tessa's essay is framed within another important conversation at Naperville North - the aftermath of a third student suicide within two years. Of course, teen suicide, too, is a subject relevant to any contemporary school or community. And it is much too complex a topic to be addressed with some simple vow to just quit putting so much pressure on our teenagers. But dealing with the phenomenon does begin at the same place as dealing with the broader issue of student mental well-being.

Dan Bridges, superintendent at Naperville Unit District 203, put it in the context of a shared responsibility. "We all have a significant role to play in caring for each other," he told Wilson. "Especially caring for our kids."

Indeed. And the caring begins with frank and loving conversations. May those that Tessa's work set in motion continue to flourish and bear fruit everywhere.

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