High schooler's plea to end pressure strikes chord with all


Adults everywhere feel it to some degree. In our careers. In our personal lives. Likely both.

And many would argue it starts the day a kid walks through the door as a freshman in high school. After three students in two years ended their own lives at Naperville North High School, Tessa Newman wrote about the inexorable pressure on students to succeed at North, and perhaps by implication, throughout the suburbs. The pressure, she wrote, was cemented in the belief that the one path to success was getting near-perfect grades, excelling at extracurricular activities and getting into a great college; everyone outside that path is considered a failure, she said.

It was an exceptionally well-crafted and thoughtful essay, which she presented as an online petition that has drawn almost 2,000 signatures of support to change the "pressure culture" at the school.

Marie Wilson's story on it published on May 8. It shot to the top of our most-read online stories, and stayed there for three days. It's received 11,000 Facebook "likes." Travis Siebrass, our digital editor/online content editor, predicts it will make the list of the year's 10 most-read stories.

We talk all the time about "talkers," stories that will get a strong response. Often, unfortunately, it's the crime, tragic accidents, misfortune that often get the page views. We unapologetically report on these things, but it's our obligation to go far beyond that - to find stories that will resonate with readers, but for reasons other than the basic mayhem appeal. We all thought the pressure story would be well-read, but I'm not sure anyone anticipated to what extent. I have a few theories on that.

The story struck a common chord. Online comments on both Marie's story and Tessa's petition drew scores of comments, most of them thoughtful and complimentary - a rarity in the world of online commenting. They came from people with an array of backgrounds and locales, and there was a strong, "I know what you mean" or "I've been there" thread.

The reporter believed in the story. Marie has been our lead reporter in an ongoing series on mental health issues. With each passing story, she informs us how pervasive this issue truly is. Marie says she expected, as, frankly, Tessa did not, that school leaders and other experts would not dismiss Tessa's observations with a casual "thanks for sharing." Mental health awareness is a hot topic on her beat, Naperville, Marie notes, and one many do not take lightly.

But I had a bit of an ah-hah moment when I saw Marie's response to a comment after she posted the story on her own Facebook page. It read, "I'm 11 years out of high school, but I still vividly recall the pressure of it all. My favorite lessons from this story can apply to us all - students or not: Don't compete with others. Do your best each day simply because it's the right thing to do. Live your goals for yourself and pursue YOUR happiness - not someone else's. All tough to do, but this story reminds me why it's important to try."

There's one more element that I truly hope helped: The crafting of the story. It was a long piece, 1,887 words to be exact, but Marie separated the story into sections and set off each one with a passage from Tessa's essay. It was, as we editor types like to say, a long story that didn't read long.

But more important, we hope it was a story that could make a difference.

One that will make people stop and think. And perhaps be a part of the solution.

Naperville North student writes about school's 'pressure culture' — and community responds

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