Competition and the consequent infectious anxiety and stress do not sprout from one individual; it takes a community, a framework, and established norms of what success might look like. And just as how it takes a collective to create such a hostile environment for youth, it also takes a collective to break it down. As the New York Times article "It Takes a Suburb: A Town Struggles to Ease Student Stress" demonstrates, it truly does take an entire suburb to make changes and hopefully save lives. And even with the involvement of an entire suburb, changing a social mindset is proving inevitably difficult.
Lexington High School in Massachusetts has been increasingly struggling with depression and adult-level anxiety due to intense academic competition. Almost a third of the high school is Asian American, and Asian Americans also composed a whopping 17% of the students who admitted considering suicide in the past year as the way "out" of this ravenous, cruel, "dog-eat-dog" system of success by means of high GPA, stellar extra-curricular activities, and Ivy school acceptances. Reversing such a culture at schools like Lexington, which prides itself on being able to send an overwhelming number of students to Ivy League colleges, especially nearby Harvard and MIT, seems impossible. But progress is being made, such as the Rock Room in Lexington High, a former storage room, which is now being utilized as a space for relaxation as well as arts and crafts with a message; materials are provided for decorating rocks with pithy and inspirational words of encouragement. And it seems to be working. “At first it was just us,” says Gili Grunfeld, a senior who was an integral part of creating the movement. “Then everyone was coming in.”
Workshops and talks focusing specifically on the Asian American community are also being carried out, starting conversations about society's view of success and what students need to do to get there. But there is still strong backlash amongst Asian parents on these new modes of thought about student success and potentially restructuring bicultural parent-child relationships. Some argue, "If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” Another worries, “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?” This inevitably raises some questions. The starting line to where? What kind of race is this? And where does the race end?
Of course, it is never easy to uproot a culture of thought, especially one as deeply entrenched as the idea of success through prevailing amidst almost unbearable competition until breaking point. However, we must start somewhere, and dialogue is helpful: we just need to remember that dialogue is only the first step. Much of the strife in Asian American families comes from academic stress, college applications, and rankings. There is often such disconnect between parents' and the child's idea of happiness, success, and hope, and a wide variety of factors contribute to this disconnect: cultural clashes, assimilation or lack thereof, a "tunnel vision" of the future, lack of communication, and isolation both in the family as well as at school.
Perhaps we need the "Rock Room" of Lexington High School within the family, especially Asian American families, as well -- a space where a "coming together" is possible, moments that allow for conversation about true happiness. But building such a room can only happen with an active clashing of ideas through conversation, a conversation that the communities such as Lexington are growing more and more receptive towards.