Teenage Suicide and Compulsory Schooling
By Lyn Saint
Adults, can’t you see it?
You’re killing all the kids,
Don’t you realize that in your papers
We’re not just statistics.
Each headline is a tombstone
Erected to the dead.
And one more child has killed himself
By blowing off his head
This poem was written by Melanie, an attractive 17 year old, just before she committed suicide – it was her fourth and final attempt. To outward appearances she had it all – lovely home, caring parents, academic success in a well- known private school, and plenty of friends. What more could a young person ask for? Her diary, however, told a very different story. It told of a free-spirited young girl who had struggled with conformity her whole life. The thoughts most mentioned are the loneliness that comes from feeling misunderstood and her sense of isolation from her peers. The very last thing she scribbled on a pad of paper was: don’t know what is wanted…alone by myself…sorry to all….so sad.
Her diary was full of poems, mostly about pressures to conform, never doing well enough in exams (although she was often top in the state), self-doubt and a growing sense of worthlessness. In the six months before she died, she wrote a play that raised issues about school authority and the pressure to conform. Although it won the school prize, it was very unpopular with teachers and principals and Melanie had to fight to get it performed at the schools’ cultural festivities (always the right of the prize-winning play). She was elected by the students to be a prefect but the Principal thought she was quite unsuited to this role and reversed the decision. Life got to the stage where I was questioning: is Mel a worthwhile person? What is the point of growing up? What is stopping me from saying f… off to school and life in general? Never did find answers.
These same feelings of despair are to be found over and over again in the diaries and stories of young victims of suicide, depression and alcohol and drug abuse. The most consistent theme being: “no-one understands me, I feel so alone, I just want to be me, I am a failure, I hate myself, no-one cares what I think, I’ll never be what they want me to be”. For most of them it has been a life-time of despair – a lifetime of thinking that there is something very wrong with them because they don’t fit in – a lifetime of failing and they can see no way out of it. Drugs and alcohol offer temporary release and give them the feelings of freedom and confidence that have eluded them in real life, but of course it can’t last.
Australia has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world and the number is trebling every year. The causes are clinically assessed as depression, sexual abuse, low self-esteem, family breakdowns and self-hatred. The cause most trotted out is that the young are killing themselves because there is not enough money put into youth services in this country! No report I have read asks why teenagers kill themselves. Maybe they are afraid of what they might find or maybe they know what is there but do not want to deal with it. I suspect the latter. No one is really listening to these young people because the majority of people today are so hypnotized by conformity that they are unable to comprehend what is being said.
I have no doubt at all that compulsory schooling is one of the major causes of teenage suicide, attempted suicide, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair felt by many teenagers – not only today but from the beginning of the 20th century. History recorded the first signs of despair and drug addiction in high schools in the late 19th Century, a mere 20 years after secondary schools were made compulsory. You would think that by now we should have realized that something wasn’t working and fixed it, but we haven’t. Obviously the great theorists and reformers of the time were so caught up with the benefits to society from mass schooling that no-one has EVER thought what the long or short term effects might be for our children. Compulsory schooling has never been without an economic or political agenda and was never intended to benefit our children.
John Dewey, a public school advocate and major influence of his day, summed it all up nicely in these choice phrases from his many speeches:
“Independent, self-reliant people were a counter-productive anachronism in the collective society of the future”
“Anyone who has begun to think places some portion of the world in jeopardy”
The interesting thing is that the ‘experts’ and theorists and reformers of the time had no experience at all in matters of mass schooling – some not even in matters of children. It was an untried idea, untried and untested. You could say that it has done exactly what it was intended to do…in Alice’s words…“kids are like robots, off an assembly line, and I don’t want to be a robot….” Alice died of a drug overdose… In Allen’s words “all they do is act the same, it was like they’re clones of each other, these f… people are so plastic you can almost see the mould marks splitting around them…. I want something different for myself…. yeah… I really do…” Like Melanie and Alice, Allen is dead.
The pressure that is put on society, and young people in particular, to conform is relentless. It starts at a very young age when all children are encouraged to like the same things, draw the same things and wear the same things. Of course, the parents themselves are all nicely conformed as well and are competing madly for places in the best day-care, kindergarten, schools or whatever else is the fad of the moment. When children start school the pressure to succeed intensifies so that by the time the teenage years come along it has become all-consuming.
In secondary schools, there is the added pressure of choosing a career. So, as well as spending days and nights working on meaningless, boring work, they have to be trying to head for some unknown goal at the end of it all. How can they possibly know what they want? They have been locked up for so many years that they haven’t had a chance to observe the adult world around them and read real books about what interests them. They have had no time for the hours of privacy and solitude it takes to think about future journeys in life. In all of their young lives, children and teenagers are never asked what they would like to do – never given a choice, never have the freedom or time to be themselves – often in the home as well as in school.
So – what are we doing to our children? Society has used, abused, controlled and manipulated our children for well over 100 years and the despair we see around us is overwhelming proof that something is not working. The horrendous tragedy of it all is that we have been so brainwashed into thinking that all children should be in school, that we are not seeing what it is doing to them.
Most people do not want to see what is happening because of the inconvenience of having to do something about it. Therefore, when a child or teenager begins to show signs of anxiety, depression, retreating into themselves and behaving badly in school, no-one truly wants to understand why this is happening. Psychologists to whom depressed teens are ultimately sent have little idea what the problem is, they are too well schooled to see it. Many parents have no idea at all and I think are often slightly embarrassed to have a teenager who is depressed, angry and suicidal. What is wrong with them! Parents are so trusting of the ‘school experts’ and ‘school counsellor’ (who may be the Grade 5 Math teacher as well), that they are quite happy to take whatever advice is offered, whether it be Ritalin, or a change to a more disciplined school or even a boarding or reform school – this will surely do the trick. Parents’ confidence in themselves as parents has been eroded by years of child-rearing fads. Endless advice books projecting the latest theories, and scientific ‘experts’ claiming that mothers must be supervised at all times by even more ‘experts’, have all but destroyed the natural instinct – to protect our child at all costs – that was once part of us all.
“Children must go to school and that is that”, said Marie Benthams’ mum, the night before school was to start after the holidays. Marie had been screaming that she didn’t want to go back. Realizing once and for all the futility of it, she quietly closed her bedroom door and hanged herself with her skipping rope – she was 8 years old.
Marie had been mercilessly bullied at school – no-one was listening! Statistics show that in the past few years, bullying-related suicides in teenagers and in children as young as Marie are growing at an alarming rate. Why aren’t we listening to these children…is it because most adults don’t respect children and young people enough to take their complaints seriously or perhaps even as adults we are still afraid to stand up against school power or again is it just too inconvenient to hear?
Mental cruelty in the forms of victimisation and humiliation by teachers in our school system is another issue that adults seem to dismiss as unimportant and this also is destroying our children. Very few children escape this in their school lives and every time it happens, on a daily basis for many – it is soul destroying and it can mean the end of a dream, the end of the budding writer or artist, the end of the uniqueness they are born with, and for Alice it was the end of her life. Alice fought her drug addiction with astounding strength and bravery, and after several months in a mental institution and as many more months at home, she was encouraged to go back to school. Upon her arrival she was sent to the principals office where she was told that …she was a disgusting example of young womanhood, was thoroughly selfish, undisciplined and immature….and then in Alice’s words.“..sent back to my classes like garbage thrown in a disposal.” Can you imagine what effect this had on her very fragile life. As adults, we have the freedom to sue for mental abuse – our children have no such freedom and for most of their school years have to suffer in silence.
The family of one young victim of teen suicide remembers her coming home from school when she was a little girl saying she was a ‘retard’ She had been put into a remedial reading class at 7, because she was having learning difficulties. In the depths of depression in her teen years, Sarah could clearly recall the hurt and her feelings of being stupid and inadequate. She was also gifted and the only child to be in the gifted program and remedial classes at the same time. No one thought it mattered – it mattered to Sarah.
Many of the victims of teenage suicide are like Sarah. They are often very clever, bright, sensitive children who before starting school are full of passions for all sorts of things – full of the special magic we are all born with but quickly lose somewhere along the way. Youth suicide knows no boundaries – rich or poor, smart or considered average, academic or athletic, worldly wise or sheltered, mature and immature, outgoing or withdrawn, homosexual or straight – the traits are limitless. The one common thread for all is compulsory schooling.
Why is society so determined to keep our children locked up in school? What are they afraid of if they let them out! It is by now well known that you don’t have to be in schools to learn – we all learn to walk and talk in the first five years of life, and home educated children continue to learn outside school gates. Many of the geniuses of our past such as Edison, Bell and Einstein spent almost no time in schools – if they had we would surely not be enjoying the comfort of their enquiring minds. I am certain that Alice, Allen, Sarah, Melanie, Marie and the other 3,000 or so kids that have killed themselves in this country in the past year, would probably be still alive if they had never gone to school or had been allowed to leave at the first sign of trouble.
The incredibly sad thing I have noticed is that when parents or teachers talk about a young person they ALWAYS say …Allen was an A grade student or a straight A student – that sounds better. Or Chad was only a C grade student but we could live with that, or Bobby had a 4 point average – whatever that is – or John will only ever be a C grade student – not like his sister who was a straight A. You never hear that Allen loved rainbows, or Chad loved cars or Bobby was an excellent artist. Teenagers in the school system are in danger of being considered less than human, like animals to be trained or put out of the way.
So let’s get back to that question again – why do our children have to be locked up in schools and their every thought controlled for 12 years (the only other place we find such rigid control is in the armed services and we all know why they demand complete and mindless obedience….think about it). John Gatto and John Holt were right in that adults don’t like children very much at all, for one, and of course don’t let us forget the original idea of creating an obedient and manageable populace. These days there is also the convenience factor for working parents – drop off at 7, pick up at 6. It surely is not for the education they receive, as school curriculum has only ever been a shadow of the real thing and most teenagers, having quickly and efficiently taught themselves to use a computer, now have access to every source of decent education the world has to offer and are ultimately capable of educating themselves – just as adults do for most of their lives. It is obviously a mixture of all of these things but whatever it is – it is killing our kids. Control doesn’t make for strong, confident young people; respect does that, respect and the freedom to choose their own pathways and it is this respect for teenagers and young adults that is sorely missing from the classroom.
What value does society place on the life of a young person? This is the only life they will have – the only chance to be alive a one-off. How much longer are we going to allow these lives to be snuffed out by the daily, horrendous injustices of the compulsory school system? None of us come out completely unscathed and far too many do not come out at all. School people are monumentally unfit and unqualified to be given charge of these lives. The time has come for us all to stand up and shout – enough!
To parents of teenagers who are depressed, angry, alcohol or drug dependent, say they want to die, and are withdrawing from life, please take them out of school. I can assure you that they will still learn, they will achieve their dreams and they will still make you proud of them. They are precious and irreplaceable – don’t take the chance of losing them.
Just before she died Melanie wrote a letter detailing her ideal world…she said, “I would tell people to ask for the things they need rather than just wait and hope for the best to happen. I would ask that people take an active role in shaping their futures, and that parents educate their children to be creative and thoughtful human beings. I would not use threats to warn, I would simply express the ideals of an ideal world, and hope that people warm to them in their day-to-day living. The sight of children dancing with each other in a moment of carefree gaiety would no longer be confined to children, but to all who had ever suppressed a spontaneous desire to be free of the constraints of society. If a person felt like crying I would wish them to cry impulsively and genuinely. And I would start with myself. To change and hope that it’s contagious.”
Our society is beyond change. It is up to us to create change and let’s hope for the sake of our children, that it will be contagious.
Kociumbas, Jan Australian Childhood, A History Allen & Urwin 1997
Harvey, Janice Mum, it’s nothing personal, but I want to die, Awareness Publications Western Australia 1998
Woss, Melanie, Melanie Pan McMillan Australia 1992
Donaghy, Bronwyn Leaving Early, Harper Collins Puplishers 1997
Go Ask Alice – Anonymous Corgi Books 1972
Engel, Joel Addicted: In Their Own Word: Kids talking about drugs Tom Doherty Associates 1989
Slaby, Andrew No one saw my pain: Why Teens Kill Themselves. W.W. Norton & Co 1994
Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage – Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present. Basic Books. 1977.
From Otherways Magazine, issue 101 August 2004