Sick Sad World: A lesson from Virginia Tech

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Sick Sad World: A lesson from Virginia Tech

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April 20, 2007
Opinion article
By Jackie Bernstein


It's time for a game of Funny/Not Funny. First: A joke overheard in the CoHo on Monday referencing the Virginia Tech massacre. Not Funny. No one laughed, and someone said, "Too soon, too soon." Next: An off-hand comment made at the gym on Wednesday, poking fun at the ethnicity of the Korean shooter responsible for the assault, Cho Seung-Hui. Funny? At least, I heard people laugh in response. "Oh, man... that's so wrong. Hahahahaha."

How soon is too soon to use a tragedy as fodder for comedy? "Homer loves Flanders," a Simpsons episode in season five, parodies Charles Whitman, the University of Texas tower-sniper: Ned Flanders guns down multiple Homers from atop a bell tower. About 25 years after the massacre, FOX executives found the scene funny enough to air. How long will it take for South Park to run an episode satirizing the events at Virginia Tech?

I think that the amount of time it takes for someone to find humor in tragedy is directly related to his connection to the incident. It is unlikely that the man who sold Sueng-Hui his gun will ever find anything humorous about the shooting. The student in the CoHo who made his joke last Monday probably doesn't know anyone at Virginia Tech. I doubt that he feels any kind of personal connection to the event.

However, we as Stanford students are actually deeply connected to the Virginia Tech massacre. Seung-Hui exploded at Virginia Tech. Maurice "Mo" Morsette imploded at Stanford. Both students' lives ended in tragedy.

Maurice Moisette's suicide is one of at least three reported at Stanford this academic year. Ranked in 2005 by The Princeton Review as the university with the "Happiest Students Overall" in the country, Stanford doesn't seem to be living up to its reputation any longer.

The Virginia Tech tragedy will undoubtedly lead the Stanford administration and various support groups on campus to reexamine how issues of mental health are handled on campus. This response seems to deal with only part of a greater problem.

No matter how many aggressive programs a school funds, no matter how many 24-hour hotlines they provide or psychologists they hire, nothing can change without a change in the student culture itself.

Unfortunately, the type of student elite universities admit is not going to change anytime soon. We are a nation obsessed with getting into college. And the most obsessed end up here. As a result, we are a campus full of top-heavy people. We are world-class debaters, writers and chemists, fully actualizing our intellectual potential. But these skills have come at the loss of developing more basic skills. By the end of winter quarter of my freshman year, 40 percent of my all-frosh dorm had never been kissed. Throwing these types of kids into the collegiate world is bound to result in extreme feelings of alienation, confusion and anger. College is a place where many get their first taste of freedom, but learning how to handle independence isn't part of any AP Physics textbook.

I know that this article goes to print during Admit Weekend, and, as such, I was reluctant to write this week about our collective failings as members of the academic world. As a tour guide who couldn't imagine having gone anywhere else (and who enthusiastically tells this to hoards of high school juniors on a regular basis), I want to make sure that I am very clear: I have had a remarkable experience at Stanford, and I know that I made the right choice in coming here. Quite a few of my friends feel the same way. The problems of socially handicapped hyper-achievers are not unique to a few schools. Rather, this situation is endemic across the country.

I decided to write this article after I watched a mother and her ProFro daughter walk through the activities fair yesterday. The daughter was texting on her cell phone, and her mom kept on taking papers from the student tables, asking the students working the booths a slew of questions: "How many hours a week do you volunteer? How many other activities do you do? Do you put your activities on your resume? How many activities should my daughter do?" The mother was so involved in her daughter's life that I wondered if she had opened her daughter's acceptance letter for her.

My hope is that the mother I overheard reads this week's column. I hope that she realizes that her daughter is probably exhausted from pushing herself through four incredibly difficult years and almost certainly will need guidance on how to be a well-adjusted citizen, not how to build a resume, as she enters adulthood. My hope is that ProFros read this column and realize that coming to college is not going to be easy, wherever they choose to go. Part of growing up is facing failure and difficulty, and there is no shame in asking for help, even if it seems as though everyone else is doing fine. They aren't.

Our complete inability to cope with the pressures of today may eventually be funny. But for now, it's definitely too soon to turn the tragedy of our extreme emphasis on academic intelligence and achievement into a quick one-liner glibly delivered at the Manzanita brunch table.

Jackie Bernstein can be reached at jaber@stanford.edu.

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<a href="http://daily.stanford.edu/article/2007/4/20/sickSadWorldALessonFromVirginiaTech"> Stanford Daily - April 20, 2007 </a>

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Jackie Bernstein

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2007-06-13

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Sara Hood

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The Stanford Daily
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Jackie Bernstein, "Sick Sad World: A lesson from Virginia Tech," in The April 16 Archive, Item #508, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/508 (accessed September 1, 2014).