I WAS A fairly intense child, passionate in my love (Bobby Sherman, white chocolate) and my hatred (the Dallas Cowboys, mayonnaise.)
This intensity was transferred to my most pressing responsibility: school. While I could get B's if I did the minimal amount of work, I really needed to work to get an A. And for me, A's were my ticket to respectability, so I stretched.
Unfortunately, I could have stretched to Alpha Centauri and I wouldn't have been able to avoid mediocrity in math. Algebra, specifically.
One tragic day, I received an F on a test. Hester Prynne's scarlet letter didn't burn with the searing, shameful sting of that failure.
So, instead of showing it to my parents, according to established procedure, I did what any enterprising sophomore would do: I flushed it down the toilet.
When you do that in a house built in 1910, you guarantee a visit from a plumber. And you then have to explain to your father why he has to pay $300 for the visit and parts, at which point he will thwack you on the tuchus.
Dad's annoyance stemmed not from the fact that I'd gotten an F, and not even because I'd messed up the plumbing. It came from a sense of deep sadness that I was afraid of his reaction to a bad grade, to the point that I would panic and take what I looked at as a desperate act.
I had good parents who didn't push me beyond any limits I hadn't already set for myself. And I had a caring school, filled with nuns and other strong women who cared more about my mental and spiritual health than whether I'd win a National Merit Scholarship (I didn't).
I suppose I was my own worst enemy. But those were different times, those halcyon '70s that started with "The Brady Bunch" and ended with Blondie.
Flash forward 35 years. Kids are still putting pressure on themselves, and getting bad grades. Only now, far too many parents aren't saying, "Slow down, it's OK," and far too many teachers are demanding doctoral theses from kindergartners, and far too many classmates are clueless or cutthroat.
Recently, in Delaware County, a young boy went missing. Social media exploded with pleas to "Find Cayman" and search parties were created. Tweets and messages from all over the world poured in, and Cayman Naib's heartbreakingly beautiful smile was frozen in time for us on the local and national news. He'd left home last Wednesday, a half-hour after receiving an email from his school. Apparently, he was late with an academic project.
Four days later, his body was found under a blanket of snow in the fetal position. He'd shot himself.
Immediately, the condolences poured in. Just as immediately, so did the commentaries that thought he was mentally ill, that blamed the easy access to guns, that blamed social media. And that, like me, remembered the panic one felt when failing in school.
Obviously, there is no definitive reason for this tragedy. The causes are all of the above, and as the sister of someone who took his life I could never be presumptuous enough to lay the full blame on anyone, or anything.
But looking at this 13-year-old's face, at the juvenile and boyish sparkle in his eyes, at that blinding smile and the jaunty set of his shoulders and the way he hugged his beautiful dog makes me want to scream out, "How many more, dammit?!"
I once taught in a school much like the one Cayman attended. It was on the Main Line, the kids were generally from privileged backgrounds and, as the old saying goes, much was expected from those to whom much had been given.
That's fine, and it's fair. But there is a culture that demands perfection, and trying to graft perfection onto flawed, forming humans is a recipe for disaster.
We are losing our young people to despair that hides behind calm expressions, and we are losing them to pressures that might get them into good schools but more likely into therapy, and we are losing them to indifference to their fragile psyche.
Cayman was one we couldn't afford to lose. None of them is. He had a right to be a child, and do the sometimes stupid things that children do, and make the type of mistakes that once caused me to hide my shame down the toilet.
That his own was magnified, beyond all reason and justification in his mind, is not just his family's tragedy.