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He Seemed So Normal

December 1, 2009

Perception is curious. Limited by a very few senses, we struggle to understand the world and the people around us. Why did you say that? What does it mean? How did that happen?

In the village I encounter dozens of people each day. I know some of them well but most are acquaintances whose inner selves are hidden inside carefully wrapped packages. Many display finery of clothing and cars and homes and words that suggest they enjoy the idyllic promise of suburban life portrayed so convincingly in 1960’s television programing: Ward Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, Richie Cunningham. And then, last Monday, a 16 year old boy (a popular, clean cut kid) left our our high school after lunch saying he wasn’t feeling well, went straight home and hanged himself in the family pool shed.

This bucolic Westchester community, like so many others, has been shattered by the disconnect between the perception of harmony and the reality of the unspoken chaotic pressures our quest for the good life breeds deep inside perfectly composed exteriors. “He seemed so normal” “He was just a regular kid.” “They’re a great family. How could he have done this?” “You never know, do you?” Well, I suspect that I understand at least a part of what went on. Not that I had a special window into the mind of this tortured youth. I’d never met him. But I feel the pressures inside of me. I grew up with them. I’ve seen them grind slowly upon the characters of my two daughters as I raised them in another “perfect” little suburban enclave. We’ll never know the precise formula for this particular tragedy, but we should start using all of our senses to recognize what’s been going on behind the picture perfect illusion.

As a teacher, years ago, I worked closely alongside students struggling  (sometime quietly and sometimes wracked with emotional pain) to meet the expectations which had been ingrained deep inside them from the moment of their awareness of the world into which they’d been thrust. I taught in a bedroom community nestled into the rolling hills of the lower Hudson Valley. In those days I tried tirelessly to develop curriculum that emphasized the integration of math, physical and social sciences, language, arts and physical education as a study of life rather than a formula for success in careers. But what I found was a very deep resentment of this shift in educational philosophy coming from the parents and administrators. Oh, there were some who believed, but most didn’t. In their hearts, they had arrived in the promised land and the formula for their children’s happiness was surely the same one they’s used: academic excellence in things that mattered in school, college bound coursework stressing the “fundamentals” (whatever they are) and tireless attention at home to acquiring the fineries which would define to the world the success the family had achieved even if overbearing debt was the avenue to the acquisition.

Understand, I appreciate academic proficiency as much as the next guy, maybe more. But I also understand that setting goals for children isn’t as easy as you might suspect. The range of abilities among children is vast. More importantly, children can reach certain levels at different times. From mobility to speech to abstract reasoning, pinpointing when a child is ready to learn is a daunting task. All we can know for sure is that the learning curve is unique to each child and many children are not capable of performance that reaches expectations set according to age or grade level norms.

Marx was speaking to social/governmental concerns when he observed that each should give according to his abilities and each should reveive according to his needs, but the idea is also particularly true in the relm of education. Equally important are the unspoken lessons children receive from observing their parents’ behavior. “Do as I say” is completely ineffective in the face of parental behavior that teaches a different lesson. Yes, we all want our children to succeed, but whose success are we speaking about?

The demand for excellence from our children, in school and in life, is perhaps laudable but also fraught with danger. When the expectations are overwhelming, the consequences can be severe. Appearance isn’t always what it seems. When we say. “I just want you to be happy,” we should give some deep thought to exactly what we mean.

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