The high school I attended in the early 1970s, Palo Alto's Gunn High School, is experiencing an increasingly unnerving suicide cluster, with four students having stepped in front of local commuter railroad trains and at least twice as many more reported to have made the attempt.
The news is disconcerting in its own right, but it is also disturbing because it brings up memories of one of the school’s first suicides — one of my classmates who, on a summer day in 1970, just a few weeks before entering high school, leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Admittedly, Gunn was never an easy place to go to school. U.S. News & World Reports ranked it No. 74 on its list of top 100 high schools in the country this year. Among its students are both the offspring of the Stanford faculty and those who live in a tony neighboring town named Los Altos Hills. By law, its residential lots can be no smaller than one acre. In 1970, it was where the rich kids lived. Today, it's where the richer kids live.
If, like me, you didn't think you were as smart as the smart kids, or as rich as the rich kids, and weren't athletic, Gunn was not the happiest place on earth. But none of this applied to my classmate David. His father was a Stanford professor, and David had also been on our junior high school's football team, which had gone undefeated the previous season.
I did not know David well, so last week, I pinged several people who had gone to elementary school with him, hoping to get a sense of what happened. I also called his younger brother, Doug, who is now a psychologist living near Zurich. I discovered that, even though almost forty years has past, David's memory stays with each of us in different ways. Lisa still has the valentine David gave her in third grade. Peter can't look at the Golden Gate Bridge without a chill going down his spine.
They reminded me of what had transpired that August day. David had gone to San Francisco with Steve, another classmate, and suggested they walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Before they had gotten all the way across, David announced he was going to jump. Before Steve could even process that David wasn't joking — his first reaction — he was gone. "Most of us were really angry that David had done that to Steve," Lisa remembered.
At home, Doug said, David had left two letters in the dictionary, one next to death and one under m for Mary, a girl who'd recently broken up with him and whose family had moved away. The first note expressed his utter hopelessness at the state of the world. He had apparently internalized the turmoil of the '60s — the war in Vietnam, the assassinations, the urban riots — and convinced himself that the world would never be better. Doug also said told me something I'd never heard before: the year before, their grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide. "He was a rancher who knew that you shoot a lame horse. David admired that courage," Doug said. Whether it was unrequited love or societal disillusion doesn’t matter now; David chose what Ann Landers aptly called a permanent solution to a temporary situation.
When I heard the news, I was surprised and bewildered, just as the community is surprised and bewildered today. Even though I distinctly felt apart from the rich and the smart, I still thought of us as being lucky to be living in Palo Alto. I didn't feel academic pressure, as today's kids probably do (one of my teachers labeled me a "blithe spirit" who needed to knuckle down). While Lisa never felt it — and her father was one of Stanford's most famous professors at the time — Doug noted that his parents insisted on high standards.
All of us all labored under expectations, though, whether from our parents, our classmates, or ourselves. Still, I understand how a confluence of loss and discouragement can be overwhelming, especially to a 14-year-old. It is only with age that I've realized this simple fact: things change. Life rarely turns out the way we think it will, and sometimes it leads us in wholly unexpected directions.
I never thought I'd actually get accepted at Stanford myself. Even as a child of Silicon Valley, I never thought I'd understand computers. So I really never thought I would have a successful career writing about business and technology. My expectations — thankfully — turned all wrong. I wish David — and the teens on the tracks — had given their expectations the chance to do the same.
The saddest irony: the only thing that hasn't changed after all this time is David. He is vividly etched in all our memories, just the way he was on that sad summer day, forever lost but forever remembered.