Drew Magary's piece this week on over-competitive kids (and parents) mentioned Fairfax, Va.'s prestigious W.T. Woodson High School, where six students have committed suicide in the past three years. Below is a lengthy, remarkable letter we've received from Ryan Mull, a recent Woodson graduate.
Thank you for taking time to read this. My name is Ryan Mull and I'm a graduate of WT Woodson High School c/o 2013. I'm a proud alumnus of Woodson; the school has shaped me so positively mentally, emotionally, and physically, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have attended there. The school provides students materials and opportunities to succeed unlike any other school in the nation (in my humble opinion) by providing state-of-the-art computer equipment and research materials, employing nationally recognized teachers, and offering virtually every AP course, aside from a few languages and social studies courses.
But the blessing can be very much a curse. Over the course of my junior and senior years, I took 14 classes total, which everybody does. Nine of them, mostly social studies classes, were AP level. The other five? An advanced gym class, two regular science classes, and two regular math classes (Algebra II and Pre-Calc, which were considered to be "behind" for my grade levels. At that point, AP Calculus was expected). And my schedule was very much average compared to everyone else's. There were at least 50 students that took 12-14 AP classes over those two years. Furthermore, more than 50 percent of my graduating class of 523, or 260+ students, had GPAs higher than 3.5. More than 90 percent had GPAs above 3.0. Even the stereotypical "dumb jocks" are expected to make As and the occasional B. So needless to say, it's an incredibly competitive school.
I write to you to thank you for writing the article you did. It struck a chord with me, as well as many others. Despite being a relatively large school, the community is incredibly tight-knit and friendly. I was a captain of the track team at Woodson, which consisted of over 150 members every year for the four years I was there. I made an effort to get to know all my teammates, and while we all enjoyed running, everybody was depressed. I ran with five of the six kids that you referred to. The other kid was a well-known and popular football player. And this morning, we learned that one of my best friends from Woodson committed suicide yesterday, making the total seven deaths over the past three years. The track team was a microcosm of the whole school—it encapsulated student-athletes of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, intelligence levels, you name it. As diverse as it was though, we, along with the whole school, shared a like mindset—we were all depressed.
And just because we were/are depressed doesn't mean that we couldn't/can't be happy. There is a strange dynamic at the school. People celebrate college acceptances and basketball victories and the like with much gusto. There is a great sense of belonging at Woodson. The community is so caring and loving, and everyone I know is proud to be attending or have attended Woodson. But still, the spirit and energy and excitement that Woodson's students exhibit mask the baggy rings under eyes resulting from the third all-nighter of the week to maintain a 3.9 GPA. Like you said, high school is what you make of it, and I can say from personal experience that I tried to make it as best as I could. I went to school happy every morning, trying to find the silver lining in everything, and yet I still fell into depression my senior year, a year when everything is supposed to be great!
Why? Because, the problem at Woodson, and the greater society, is that parents put too much pressure on their kids to be competitive. "You have to do a sport at Woodson and join three clubs and learn one language and should get at least a 3.5 GPA while taking as many APs as possible," say zealous, yet loving and caring parents, before decisively concluding with "but try to do your best," so "you can get into a good school so you can live the best life possible!" Many students at Woodson have experienced some form of this conversation. Juggling these demands are hard, and all but the legendary students falter over the course of four years and often fall into depression. Some people never recover, and that's why we have students who have dealt with overwhelming tragedy. I'm 19 and I've never been to a wedding before. But next week, I'll be going to my seventh funeral for someone younger than me.
Your article gave myself and my friends hope that the parent-student culture can change. Losing is a part of life, and it should drive everyone to become the best they can be so that they can enjoy a victory defined by their own parameters and ambitions, as you said. Losing shouldn't be eliminated from society. It's perfectly normal. The whole mindset in place is sick and twisted and wrong—that students need to be superstars or else they're destined for mediocrity.
Today, I wrote a tribute to my friend that died yesterday. In it, I recounted a story about how we both didn't like physics class (because we were Politics students. We joked that the only science we studied was "Political"), and that we would goof around all class period. We didn't necessarily get good grades in a regular, non-AP physics class and then go on to study Quantum Astronuclear Physics at Princeton or Yale, but we turned out just fine. We didn't flunk out of school. We weren't deadbeats, nor were we on pace to become deadbeats. We're good students at good universities. Now he's gone, but I still have the fond memories of our misadventures. That's far more important to me than correctly answering on a two-year-old test how much force a mosquito exerts on a truck windshield when they collide on a highway.
So thank you for the compelling article and thank you for your time reading this. Here's to hoping for a future where students are applauded for their best work and students find happiness in their own successes, defined by their own goals, not what the rest of society deems worthwhile and acceptable ambitions.