Dear Students of Palo Alto High School,
As a Paly alumna and fellow human, I’m heartsick to hear about another suicide on the train tracks next to the high school this month. I know you’re grieving and the pressure to succeed is beyond intense—worse, I’m sure, than it was 30 years ago when I entered Paly with my big dreams of making my parents proud—but if high school isn’t working out for you, I’ve got some advice: Drop out.
If it feels like Palo Alto is trying to kill you, it is.
Escape while you can.
Get yourself far, far from Palo Alto and breathe in the un-Palo Alto air and be free. There's a whole beautiful world out here that people in Palo Alto won’t tell you about.
Growing up in Palo Alto, I, too, lived under its spell. I loved the oak trees and the black squirrels. I loved that I went to school with kids from Hong Kong and Nairobi. I loved that people discussed Confucian philosophy in line at the post office. I loved that the weather was always fine and I could ride my bike anywhere.
But Palo Alto had a “shadow,” as the Jungian scholars who worked for minimum wage at the cafes used to put it.
We called it “Shallow Alto,” but that wasn’t the real problem with Palo Alto. The real problem was the extreme pressure to be brilliant and to succeed—and not just some day, but now. I mean, I was 9 years old when Steve Jobs told me my Mandarin was lousy.
I was 11 when I put myself on my first starvation diet.
I was 12 or 13 when I started vomiting everything I’d eaten instead.
I felt crazy, but I just wanted to be good and smart and pretty and thin like everyone else in Palo Alto seemed to be.
I wanted to be gifted. Wasn’t everyone in Palo Alto gifted? What was wrong with me?
In Palo Alto, even back in my day, if we had a hard time in calculus or couldn’t get through Tess of the d’Urbervilles in an afternoon, or—God forbid—weren’t fluent in Mandarin by the time we entered the fourth grade, we were made to feel like dumbasses, destined for failure. Not that academic excellence offered any guarantee. In Palo Alto, even the homeless people had PhDs.
I endured Addison Elementary School, faked my way through Vivaldi in the all-city orchestra, was the lone honky at Chinese language school on Friday nights, got called fat every day at Jordan Middle School, and spent two long years at Paly where we were so pressured to get straight A’s that we all did cocaine in the bathrooms between classes. We spent our weekdays being made to feel like idiots if we weren’t in the “honors” classes and like outcasts if we didn’t have a spot on “the wall.” Then we spent our weekends fending off rapists who would threaten to kill us if we reported them because being a sexual predator might hurt their chances of getting into Harvard.
If Paly was supposed to be one of the best high schools in the country and adolescence was supposed to be “the best years of our life,” I knew I was doomed.
Suicide by train was a common choice back then, too, and I certainly thought about it. There were days when laying down on the train tracks seemed like the only way out of Palo Alto.
But then I had a revelation, nothing short of life-changing. It was 1986. The fall of my junior year. Another friend had just killed himself on those horrible train tracks and it was time for the rest of us to start studying for the SATs and volunteering to build latrines in the developing world—not because we cared a shit about humanity but because it would help us get into better colleges.
I’d been smoking weed when it came to me, the brilliant flash: “I am currently wasting my life.”
Worse: “Palo Alto is slowly but certainly sucking the joy from my soul and this may be my last chance to get out before complete psychic death.”
And then this: “I’m getting on the train, not under it.”
Palo Alto could go to hell, but it wasn’t taking me down with it.
And so it was that I made the most gifted decision of my life: I dropped out of Palo Alto High School.
I just walked away.
I took the California High School Proficiency Test because I was too young to take the GED and I said, See ya.
And I’ve never, ever regretted my decision.
If high school isn't working for you, just leave.
Pick up a copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook and a copy of Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternative to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws and walk away.
Run if you have to.
If your parents flip out over your decision, they can get some therapy. Just because they’re still wrapped up in the anxiety and delusion of Palo Alto supremacy doesn’t mean you have to be. And it doesn’t mean you have to die.
Palo Alto will still be there if you ever change your mind, but I bet you won’t.
After I left Paly, I traveled the world, working odd jobs and smoking weed and squatting abandoned buildings. Sure, I met a few sexual predators and mean girls outside of Palo Alto, but not very many. Instead, I discovered a mostly-beautiful world where people are their own kind of smart, doing things that interest them on their own time, unconcerned with making their first million by age 21—or really ever.
When I’d sufficiently recovered from my Palo Alto upbringing, I stopped smoking weed and went back to school.
You certainly don’t have to go to college to be happy and have a successful life, but I graduated (with honors, thank you) from Mills College and I earned my master’s degree from U.C. Berkeley—all without ever having finished high school or setting foot in an AP class in Palo Alto.
These days I’m a prolific and award-winning author and editor, but even if I didn’t have those markers of traditional success, I’d be happy I got out of the soul-sucking shadow of Palo Alto before it killed me.
I hope you can make it out, too.
With love and resistance,