Why I Did the Unthinkable—and Took a Gap Year

Manila, the city where I grew up, boasts a metropolitan area larger than Beijing and as developed as Singapore by United Nations standards. But there’s a visible gap in this vibrant, cosmopolitan city between the wealthy few and the masses struggling to get by. Growing up, I quickly learned that the city’s offerings were reserved for those with the means to enjoy them.

So a few years ago, as my college graduation approached, it came as little surprise to hear my uncle offer advice my parents and family had repeated throughout my childhood in the Philippines:

“Remember,” he said, “money isn’t everything. But it is almost everything.”

at Harvard University’s law school applied after taking at least a year off. Northwestern University students planning on medical school also tended to favor a gap year, while Rice University noted a good number of its students doing the same. After pointing out that more than three-quarters of Duke University’s students wait to apply to medical school until after they graduate, the school’s website adds that “students who engage in a year or more of experiential activity after graduation … are more mature, resilient, confident, and accomplished.”

Even for incoming college freshmen, gap years are becoming increasingly attractive: Attendance at USA Gap Year Fairs, a nationwide circuit of events involving relevant organizations and experts, has almost tripled since 2010.

Gap years have reached such a degree of acceptability, schools like Princeton and Tufts universities have started their own programs for students to take a “transformational year of full-time service, domestically or abroad, before beginning their academic studies.”

I moved to Houston after graduating from Vanderbilt with an ambitious plan for my time off before starting an MD-Ph.D. program. Because of competitive admissions, experience in full-time research and graduate-level biomedical coursework was my priority. Rice University, known for its rigorous academics and solid research opportunities, had already accepted me at the time.

But ultimately I chose to work in research at Baylor College of Medicine. A biweekly paycheck and the opportunity to pursue tuition-free coursework at Baylor’s graduate school for biomedical sciences were too enticing to pass up.

My friend Katharine Yang, now a second-year medical student, was there with me. She had decided to work full-time as a medical assistant at a cardiology clinic before starting at Baylor, and wasn’t the only one in her class to take a gap year.

“I wanted a taste of real life,” she said when I asked about the detour. During that time, Katharine picked up ballroom dancing and became involved in human rights advocacy through RESULTS, a nonprofit group that she still dedicates some time to as a med student.

Thinking back on it now, “I would maximize my time even more,” she said. “If I could do it again, I would spend less time watching TV shows, and more time learning about cultures, politics, and religion—things that I wish I could do now that I’m in medical school.”

Eduardo Medellin, a Baylor researcher currently applying to medical schools, had a different approach to his gap year. “I really appreciate the opportunity to network early,” he said, noting the career opportunities he was eyeing at the Texas Medical Center. Before hearing about the job opening during a mission trip abroad, Eduardo was planning to work as a pharmacy technician back home in Laredo.

He’s glad the opportunity presented itself. “Working here at Baylor was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. But I know most of my family don’t see my own decision that way. The message I’ve always gotten from them was that education was merely the means toward an end. Success was defined by whether I could provide for my family, reap the material rewards of my labor, and give back to God and country.

The 10 years I spent in the U.S. before graduating from Vanderbilt challenged my childhood perception of education: It became an end in and of itself. Instead of being unnecessary add-ons to an already lengthy career path, for example, doctoral programs ranging from bioethics to immunology were opportunities to broaden my future practice.

Even after my gap year, I’m still trying to strike a balance between the pragmatic priorities I was raised with and the vibrant ones I developed during my U.S. education. Medical school remains my goal, but I feel like a more complete candidate as I face down admissions interviews.

I learned the discipline of a full-time job and worked with physicians who I plan to stay in touch with, as both professional and personal connections. I juggled graduate coursework alongside employment, preparing me (in theory) for the hectic schedule ahead. For the price of a later start to my career, I learned how to pursue the kind of success my family taught me to value.

So while I appreciate my uncle’s advice, knowing full well he wanted the best for me, I feel compelled to reword it here:

Money is almost everything. But it isn’t everything.

Inside an After-School Program for Refugee Children

CHARLOTTE—The first thing I noticed about Sil Ganzo was her warm smile. It stayed put as the 33-year-old showed several journalists, myself included, around the center where she runs an after-school program, OurBRIDGE, for new arrivals to America. Roughly 70 kids from 20 countries, from kindergarten to fifth grade, pour into the center after school in waves. Most are refugees from countries like Nepal, Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, El Salvador, and Honduras.

As we stepped into the building, several of the kids yelled a singsong, “hi!” I walked around, taking pictures; a little girl giggled sheepishly as she worked on a math problem. Others posed unabashedly. A little boy in the corner started reading just a tiny bit louder, sneaking glances to see if I was watching.

Tanvi Misra / CityLab

The entire time we were there, Ganzo talked excitedly, rapidly. She has a light Argentinian accent. She came to America 13 years ago to work as an au pair. While living in the U.S., she met the man who is now her husband. It took her a few years to zero in on a suitable long-term career.

“I really didn’t want to work for the sake of working,” she told me later, over the phone. “I wanted to find something I was really good at, and that I really love doing.”


And she did, when she started working at a for-profit after-school program for refugee kids in Charlotte in 2010. Within three years, she became its director. When, in 2013, grant money ran out and the program was set to close up shop, Ganzo looked for a new ways to get it back on track.

“I literally went on the computer and typed ‘how to start a nonprofit,’” she says. With the help of a few volunteers, community donations, and a law firm that helped them pro bono with legal matters (such as filing for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status), she succeeded in reviving the program. Since September 2014, OurBRIDGE has been the only nonprofit for immigrant and refugee kids that works as a childcare center, after-school enrichment program, English-language tutoring program, and cultural-awareness program—all folded into one.

“It wasn’t just an after-school [program] anymore—we had immigrant kids, we had adopted children,” Ganzo recalls. “It was more like a movement. The community did not let us die.

Ganzo (left lower corner in left photo and top row center in the right photo) poses with some of the kids at her center. (Courtesy of Sil Ganzo / CityLab)

On the days she isn’t working from home, Ganzo usually gets to the center by 10 a.m., after dropping her two young kids off at school. She then takes care of logistics: answering emails, paying bills, making sure people on payroll are getting their salaries. After that, she and her program director Andrew Eastwood go over the kids’ plan for the week. They oversee volunteers and tutors who usher the kids in, make sure they eat their snacks, do their homework, and go out to play. Kids with particularly limited English speaking abilities get special attention in their reading assignments, and participate in group discussions.

The staff also designs projects to help the kids apply the language skills they’ve been working on, as well as explore topics they wouldn’t necessarily learn about in school. Ganzo is particularly proud of a petition the kids drafted to the owner of a nearby park, suggesting solutions for the dog poop they had encountered while playing there. I took a picture of a part of their letter (please note suggestion #4):

Tanvi Misra / CityLab

A big part of Ganzo’s role is to make connections with the children’s parents—to make sure they know that their kids are safe, fed, and in an environment that respects and values where they came from. (Ganzo and her colleagues make sure the children research their country of origin, and share their music, food, and other aspects of their culture with others in the program.)

Ganzo really believes that the space she’s created is, as she says,“like a home, like a family” for the kids. Many of the ones that have aged out of the program are doing well, she says, giving the example of a Nepalese girl who couldn’t speak a word of English when she joined the program, but is now the president of her high-school class. Many others have come back to volunteer.

This is why her mind, nowadays, is occupied with expanding the program. She wants to reach out to the hundreds of refugee kids and unaccompanied minors that have recently arrived in Charlotte. “They have nowhere to go, and that really really bothers me,” she says.

Kids write messages on the window pane.

(Sil Ganzo / CityLab)

But in order to grow, she has to first get Charlotte’s residents and politicians to understand that these kids add value, not problems, to the community.

“I am so—I think disgusted is the right word. I never knew that so many people felt this way about refugees,” she says, her voice breaking with passion when I asked her what she thought of all the anti-refugee sentiment going around. “It’s very wrong for our political leaders to shift people’s opinion that way without any knowledge of the topic.” People need to educate themselves, she adds, about how rigorous and lengthy the refugee-vetting process is, and how unlikely it is for refugees to the U.S. to pose a terror threat.

To that end, OurBRIDGE is organizing a rally during their annual winter potluck on December 6 so she and others can come out in support for refugees in Charlotte.

“If we help these families thrive, they’re really going to be an asset for our community, because of the cultural richness they bring,” she says. “They’re really thankful people, they really want to do good.”

This post appears courtesy of CityLab.

Reimagining Abandoned Schools

Schools are more than brick-and-mortar buildings children attend during the day to learn; for many families, they’re community centers, too. So when a city closes one, people often experience a particular sense of grief and upheaval, as well as uncertainty about their government’s commitment to equitable education. Over the last decade, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia have shut hundreds of public schools—frequently leaving behind vacant buildings in impoverished neighborhoods and raising questions about lawmakers’ motivations. (Last year, four independent education organizations in Louisiana, Illinois, and New Jersey filed a Title VI complaint asking the U.S. Justice and Education departments to investigate racist or otherwise discriminatory practices in state closings.) It’s against this backdrop that contemporary artists are using the empty buildings to explore the emotional toll that school closures take on residents—entering the fraught education debate whether they intend to or not.

Artists have long realized the emotive power of abandoned places, from the 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert (known as “Hubert Des Ruins”) to the 20th-century conceptualists who recognized that neglected buildings can articulate complex social issues. One such example is Gordon Matta-Clark, who in his 1974 project, Splitting, famously sawed an ordinary, suburban New Jersey home awaiting demolition down the middle. As the New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff put it: Splitting encapsulated “the growing sense that the American dream was evaporating.” (A few months later, the house was destroyed.) Similarly, the husband-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher are known for their powerful photographs of the declining industrial era. Taken across Europe and North America, the photos feature abandoned plants and factories whose functions, like those who once worked there, had become obsolete.

But a growing body of contemporary artists are putting forth the idea that a shuttered school can be more poignant than a decaying factory or boarded-up home. As the artists interviewed for this article explained, a deserted school and its remnants are at once more universal and personal than are other objects because they represent both a collective childhood experience and a deeply private one. Generally, there are two approaches in this field of art. First, there are artists who document the sorrow and frustration felt by parents, students, and teachers, either photographing empty schools or constructing exhibits from the abandoned furniture and supplies inside them. Then there are the artists who engage in an art form called social practice: They tackle policy questions more directly—urging residents to reimagine derelict schools and engage openly with city leaders.

Either way, there are various possibilities for abandoned art as an agent of social change. Ai WeiWei, arguably one of the world’s most famous activists, offers a strong precedent for American artists. In his 2009 piece Remembering, Ai used 9,000 backpacks to spell out the words “She lived happily in this world for seven years” on the side of a Munich museum, criticizing the Chinese government after thousands of students perished in their shoddy classrooms during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Heaps of dead children’s backpacks were found at the site of the demolished schools. Although Chinese authorities initially censored Ai for publishing the names and birthdates of 5,212 student casualties, the government released a tally of student victims—5,335—a year after the quake and months of obfuscation. Today, many credit Ai’s backpack installation and ensuing media coverage for the switch in China’s policy. When it comes to shut-down schools, perhaps the haunting images of a crumbling auditorium or a jumble of discarded desks help officials empathize with their constituents and better judge neighborhood impact in the future.

For example, in Chicago, evidence has shown that some recent closures have forced children to cross through gang territory to get to their newly assigned schools. In 2013, analyzing the city’s annual budget, the Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis questioned whether the additional security costs (guards and Chicago police support) outweighed the estimated $1 billion the district saved in closing 49 schools. What might the physical display of school artifacts—such as Ai’s backpacks—do to inform policymakers versus parent protests or even a hunger strike?

And artists, of course, aren’t the only ones to grasp that everyday school items can invoke a shared educational experience and a government’s obligation to its youngest citizens. Last month’s “Notebooks For Peace,” a project based in Charlottesville, Virginia, represented the devastation that a school shooting can have on a community and a nation. Designed by Zoe Bearinger, a senior at the Tandem Friends School and Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, it was a display in the city’s downtown mall of 262 composition books; a Post-It is tucked inside each notebook with a name and age of a student killed in a school shooting since Columbine. School closures are certainly different from mass shootings and devastating natural disasters. Abandoned school art in Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia may simply reflect the challenges of which city leaders are already keenly aware, however painful closings are for those involved.

* * *

Teachers’ Democracy Project, a Baltimore advocacy group, recently posed a question about the threat of school closures: “Why would we close any small, safe and relatively successful school, particularly if it is located in a low-income, Black neighborhood and serves as a vital anchor-institutions?” But the hard reality often has to do with fiscal circumstances. According to The Baltimore Sun, the school’s 176 students used only 58 percent of the building, its maintenance costs financially draining on the city. Closures certainly stoke feelings of powerlessness, but as Jelani Cobb’s New Yorker story on the shutting of Jamaica High School in Queens illustrates, educators and reformers have competing views about why cities close schools and whether students always suffer as a result.

A 2011 Pew research study that looked at six cities that have engaged in large-scale school closings—including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit—suggests that closures only minimally affect student performance. Achievement measures fell in the final months of a school’s existence (the emotional zenith for students and faculty), but tended to rebound or improve afterwards. Still, closures in struggling neighborhoods could have social ripple effects. While there’s no direct evidence that they do, closings might make it more difficult for teachers to recognize incoming at-risk students because they don’t share an on-going relationship, a key factor education experts believe helps reduce dropout rates. Students living in low-income families were five times more likely to dropout than those from more affluent ones, and since closings are generally clustered in economically challenged communities, they could, over the long term, perpetuate the higher rates of imprisonment among students who don’t graduate.

* * *

“The thing about a school that’s different is that it’s symbolic of a commitment,” said the artist Matthew Christopher, who photographs abandoned spaces across the U.S., from Bethlehem Steel warehouses to hospitals, movie theaters, and schools. “Everybody has a different idea of what the American dream is,” he said. “But the standard that is agreed upon is that regardless of your background, through hard work, intelligence, and ingenuity you can rise above your station. Closing a school knocks rungs out of the ladder, making it more difficult for kids to improve their lot in life.” Photographing Thomas A. Edison High School in northeast Philadelphia in 2007 and seeing its architectural grandeur—as well as the values the school stood for—in ruins, according to Christopher, was heartbreaking.

Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)
Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)

According to Christopher’s book, Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences, Edison (originally the Northeast Manual Training School) was built in either 1890 or 1905 (sources vary), designed to resemble a medieval castle with a central tower, turrets, and gargoyles at a time when “the idea of publicly funded school for the working class was progressive and controversial.” But by the 1990s, as Christopher describes, the building was infested with rats, textbooks were outdated, and student violence was rampant. Named one of the worst in Philadelphia, the school was eventually taken over by a private management company, Edison, which ultimately vacated the building in 2002, leaving it to vandalism and decay. In 2011, a four-alarm fire engulfed Edison’s roof. The school was finally demolished in 2013, reportedly making the way for developers to construct a discount supermarket and fast-food restaurant.

Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)
Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)
Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)
Thomas A. Edison High School (Matthew Christopher)

“Trying to fathom how many people had been part of the place, for better or worse, was humbling,” wrote Christopher about photographing Edison. “There was no reflection or ceremony about it, just a bunch of guys whacking it apart with hammers and power tools.” In many ways, this is what his abandoned art—whether a photograph of a school or a Detroit auto factor—strives to do: reflect upon the complex, emotional history of a building and the city around it, while paying a ceremonial respect to those who spent so many hours of their lives inside.

Meanwhile, an anonymous artist known as Detroiturbex is documenting Detroit’s economic hardship, by photographing abandoned schools and other buildings around the city—an area that was built for 2 million people but now has only around 700,000. The photographer pairs then-and-now pictures of an abandoned school with research about a neighborhood’s particular trends, giving viewers a visual history of Detroit’s social challenges, the automotive industry, and the Great Recession.

Pepón Osorio, reForm installation

(Constance Mensh/ Temple Contemporary)

The artist Pepon Osorio’s latest project for its part responds to the recent state of Philadelphia school closings. A professor of community art at Temple University and a 1999 recipient of the MacArthur “genius award,” Osorio is known for merging conceptual art with civic engagement to create highly personalized installations. For his current show, “reForm,” he salvaged chalkboards, lockers, and chairs from nearby Fairhill elementary, one of the 24 Philadelphia schools shuttered in 2013, and reinstalled them in the basement of Temple’s Tyler School of Art. Every morning, Osorio said, he would bike past the Fairhill building, struck by the chained doors and what he describes as “the heavy feeling of abandonment that seemed to surround the place, like an architectural ghost”—but also by a sense of urgency. Where did all the children and teachers go? What does this abandoned building cost the neighborhood?

And so his idea of an art show to portray the effects of school closures was born. Funded with a $300,000 Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grant, Osorio encouraged former Fairhill students to cover the walls of the Tyler classroom with written accounts of their own experiences, transcribed on oversized lined paper to resemble school notebooks. For example, 17-year-old Jacob Rodriguez, who attended Fairhill student from kindergarten through eighth grade, penciled: “Whenever I see the school and the ruins, I wanna break into tears.” There’s also a video loop of students’ oral testimony—conveying the fears that, without a neighborhood school, they and their friends are more likely to land in jail.

Pepón Osorio, reForm installation

(Constance Mensh/ Temple Contemporary)

According to Osorio, reForm is more than art—it’s both a place for displaced students to gather and define their future on their own terms and, hopefully, a catalyst for Philadelphians to discuss their city’s wave of school closures. “The objects are secondary to the stories of the people I work with,” said Osorio, who’s a product of Puerto Rico’s public schools. “My work is political. There’s no way around it. But at the same time, I’m interested in the real grief and pain these students feel.”

Some art goes even further, aiming to sway public policy by providing the city with their own proposals for how to repurpose its empty school buildings. This fall, using an increasingly popular art form that focuses on civic and communal engagement known as social practice, an artist project, the Stockyard Institute, has issued an open call to Chicago residents to develop site-specific design proposals for their city’s abandoned schools. Early next year, the Stockyard Institute plans to present a catalogue of ideas—Reimagining Abandoned Schools—to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

“Our goal is to present the mayor and the board of education with a map of social change and possibility,” explained Jim Duignan, a DePaul University art professor and Stockyard Institute’s founder. “We have all of these abandoned schools around Chicago now, what would first graders do with them? What about an architect or designer or teacher? Does the neighborhood need a women’s health center? A vertical garden?” Although, he asked, during one of our interviews, guess what a group of students at John Hay Elementary proposed for the best use of an abandoned Chicago school? A school.

Can College Admissions Do Anything to Help Prevent Teen Suicide? Cont’d

Having someone come into my community, to where I lived all my life and through four years of them with the constant reminder of this situation at my high school, and telling the world through a very public article about what is wrong with my community IS silencing to me and my fellow Palo Altans. This is not only an article that does not give a truthful representation of the city I love, but it’s biased in the framing of the “cluster” of suicides in our community. And the article blames certain groups of people (people of color, parents) for something that we may never understand.

Palo Alto WILL NEVER FORGET, and the article does nothing to talk about how students on campus have been giving support to other students within our community. Using the words “abolished” and “won” [in the the debate over early-morning classes at Gunn] changes the frame of how we as readers think of the situation; it’s seen as a battle, and that one group is winning over another. Truthfully, the article has defined our pain as the author sees it, not voicing how the community views it.

So yes, I feel silenced, which is why it took so long to me to write this. The Atlantic is a huge media hub that is well-recognized across the nation, as well as the world. Smearing Palo Alto and explaining the “problems” with the community does nothing to help the community from the already open scars (truthfully, they will never heal) and only triggers them.

This article makes the Palo Alto community hurt. It does not give us a clear sense of mind, nor does it give us solutions to the “problems” that are laid out by the author. Now all that other people will think about my alma mater, Gunn High School, is that it is “‘the suicide school’” [as conveyed to Hanna from local middle-school kids who call it that].

Why am I so upset, you say? There are people close to me who are directly affected by what is written here. These are people’s feelings that the author has written and painted to fit her argument. Not only does that limit the validity of our feelings, but it silences us to have to believe that these factors that she’s written down are the reasons for these suicides. People are trying to cope, but all this does is expose the wound for people not in our community to make decisions about why we are feeling what we are feeling.

Even writing this comment is taking a toll on me. The author can never TRULY understand what is going on here, which is why it is so hard to read. She did not grow up in the community, she did not go to school here, she did not experience high school like Gunn students have, so how can she write about it like she knows what the problems are, and that our future generations will forget about this when they go to Gunn?

A current Paly student addresses Hanna:

I don’t think anyone will read this email, nor should they. I’m a teenager who believes she knows everything, when I know nothing. But I wanted to tell you my story. Maybe it’ll give me some solace, maybe it’ll help me sleep tonight.

I’m 17 and I go to Palo Alto High School. I’ve been in the district all my life. I have a fantastic rapport with people, and I have depression. For a long time, I wanted to kill myself. For a long time, my brother wanted to. And before that, my mother felt the urge. And before that, my great grandmother actually did. It’s in my genes to be depressed, to be anxious, to hate every cell in my body.

Maybe it was in the stars for me to be abused by friends and family. Maybe had I not been a kiss-ass wanting my parents attention, I would be dead. I want you to know what it’s like to fight a statistic. I think before you had gone ahead and judged people like me in that article, you should have at least heard me out. Because I am a survivor. Such a stupid phrase, but it’s true. I’m not a survivor of this town; it had nothing to do my depressive state. The atmosphere did not contribute in any way.

For some it could have been a factor. But I think I know that for those who have wanted to kill themselves, and have, Palo Alto is not what is making us cut ourselves, burn ourselves, starve ourselves, mutilate ourselves. It is those who do not get us, who demean us, who try to simplify our disorder in a sensationalized piece, writing as if they know everything.

Now I don’t want to put the blame on you. For you seem good at heart, you seem like you want to help. But have you ever starved yourself, hidden the marks on your skin, have had a panic attack everyday for years, have stood in the road trying to decide whether to move from the cars coming, held your brother’s gauged-out wrists, sent him to rehab, seen him in the psych ward on suicide watch, have your friends die on you, have your friend’s brother kill himself when you were ten? Have you taken a knife to your throat and want an earthquake to happen so that you are not the one responsible? Have you?

Please don’t defend your ignorance, I’m sure it’s bliss. But you’ve hurt me. No, I’m not suicidal or in a depressive state anymore. I have help, and I’m now going off medication because I am good. I am happy. I love myself and my family and my amazing best friend and dog. I am applying to college to become a teacher. I have passions, and although I don’t see my current self teaching and in college, I see a version of myself doing so and still being happy and true to herself. But I thought you should know me before you judged us kids who can’t help it.

I hope this doesn’t come off as hate. I hope that if you actually do read this, or emails like it, you don’t get sad or depressed and want to hurt yourself too. I hope that you are happy, and that you love yourself and what you are doing with your life. I wanted to be a writer. But I thought it’d be hard. I bet this is hard for you now, having an affluent community target you. So please be well. Do well for all us kids who aren’t well—across the whole nation, not just Palo Alto. And please—this is not sarcastic in any way—have a good day.

From a very recent graduate of Gunn (‘15):

I was the vice president of ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know) on campus, a suicide prevention and Sources of Strength club. I helped my friends who were struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. In eighth grade, one of my best friends attempted suicide. I want to stress, unlike this article did, that she had, and still has, diagnosed bipolar disorder and depression.

The main “why” of suicide is mental illness. Stress can heighten mental illness, it can cause depression, but there is no evidence showing that this stress is what led to any of these suicides. Harry Lee was suicidal and depressed. His parents stressed that at his funeral. He had been fighting a mental illness for years, and the depression won.

I agree that we have a stress problem at Gunn. I would see my peers doing incredible internships and I even begged my mom to let me go to SAT camp. It didn’t matter in the end; I took the ACT and did more than fine on it, and I am at a university that makes me so happy. But I don’t think the choice to put the suicides on the cover and then say things that have been said in other pieces for pages on pages is just inconsiderate.

We should address mindfulness on campus. We should address the stigmatization of mental illness. We should be offered multiple paths of success from the very beginning of elementary school, as well as different views on what success is. I was interviewed for this article, and she completely disregarded everything we had to say that wasn’t “Gunn is known as the suicide school in the middle school communities.” She didn’t even mention my English teacher telling her that “if you want to know what Gunn students are really like, sit in my class for a day.”

There are kids who are pushed along by their parents and have their whole lives planned out for them. This happens everywhere across the country. But publicizing this issue using the suicides in my hometown, where there is no connection between this and the kids who committed suicide, is just painful and harmful to this group of people trying to heal.

I do not have “Stockholm syndrome” from this. It is not “embarrassing” that we have had so many suicides here. We are sensitive about being interviewed because our voices have not been heard, and apparently continue to not be heard.

I didn’t love high school. I am so glad to be out of Palo Alto and be with people who are passionate about what I’m passionate about. But, when she characterizes the people I spent four years with, crying on the quad with, holding so tight because we thought we were going to fall apart, as soulless zombies, I take issue with that. In the words of Kathleen Blanchard, we are not data.

I ran all these dissents by Hanna and she’s probably crafting a follow-up note soon. But here’s one more Gunn graduate for now, addressing Hanna:

First, thank you for your article. I’m very grateful to you for being able to articulate what I’ve been thinking about my former city for years. However, I seem to be one of the few from Palo Alto who thinks positively of what you’ve had to say. A lot of the comments seem to stem from something along the lines of, “She didn’t focus on mental illness,” and to a degree I think they are right, but I also appreciate more what you have to say.

A little about me so you may understand where I am coming from. I graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School in 2012 and knew some of the original people who committed suicide back in 2009. Since then, the experience of attending Gunn has sort of haunted me. I hated my time in Palo Alto and I’m frankly glad I never have to go back. Like many you interviewed for the article, I am wildly accomplished, but I won’t go into specifics.

All you need to know is that I was miserable despite this. I had all these incredible achievements wrapped up with my self worth and it was detrimental to my mental health. I only valued myself in terms of what I had accomplished, instead of who I was. I felt isolated from my parents, I was lost and timid, I didn’t question anything, and I was never intellectually curious. The only things that I ever focused on was accruing more achievements.

However, upon graduating, I moved to NYC to study Anthropology and Art History and experienced a completely different and diverse environment from the toxic and homogenous one I left. It’s taken many years but I can now confidently say I am happy with myself.

Upon moving to NYC, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have in Palo Alto. I have learned that I am more than just my resume, and that I am a human capable of holding pride in who I am as an individual. It took three years of extended leave from Palo Alto realize this. So I thank you for finally identifying to me the problems that the culture and myself are/were guilty of, problems that I’ve had to fix unknowingly.

I think those in my hometown choosing to ignore the larger implications of society are almost saying there’s nothing at all wrong with Palo Alto. They’re completely sidestepping the problem. Yes, I agree a lot of the problem is mental health issues, but to blame the mass suicides on that is to isolate the individuals and eliminate responsibility for the community and culture. Culture affects people and many Palo Altans don’t realize that.

They also don’t realize that given the city’s socioeconomic privilege, we live in a bubble where hard capitalism is the norm. Being purely capitalistic, which I think a lot of my peers are, is problematic.

I think that you’ve rightly turned the attention to the wider community. Obviously, like you said, no one wants to be criticized amidst tragedy, but isn’t it tragedy that brings upon change? I think your article will promote dialogue and hopefully positive change in my hometown. I think it’s time we stop looking at ourselves with rose-colored glasses and really evaluate the culture we come from, in order to find a solution.

Thank you again for writing this article. It was very difficult for me to read and it opened a lot of wounds and tears, but after reading it, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could finally breathe again.