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links.net : vita : swat : 11.27.95

Stress Kills

We joke about our stress, it is a source of pride. We work harder, or at least take ourselves more seriously, than a lot of people at a lot of other schools.

That a well-loved community member would kill himself due in some small measure to academic stress should be taken not as a sign of his weakness but as a sign that we Swarthmore need to reflect on our alienating penchant for acadmic pressure.

Gabe's death demands reflection and action individually and institutionally. It is foolish to continue our blind sublimation through study in the face of the first on-campus suicide in decades.

Our administrators were moved at the memorial - "We are a caring community," "put your pain in context and reach out to someone," "we must look forward." Skilled sentiments, but lacking a sense of institutional reflection. Boosterism rings hollow - stress has straightjacketed this caring community.

If this was an issue only for Gabe, this would not be as problematic.

Student solitude and stress is everywhere evident. Between runs with her vaccuum, a woman on staff here noted a change over the last five years. In her view, the students have become increasingly focused and isolated. They don't stop to chat as much as they used to, she said, they avoid eye contact.

To say Gabe killed himself because of Swarthmore is a severe oversimplification, but if that is even some small part of the truth, then we must call into question our emphasis on debilitating fortitude.

To do otherwise is to invite further tragedy.

Suicide is inevitable; during the lifetime of an institution or community, people are going to kill themselves. Fortunately these have been rare occasions at this school. Let this be not a harbinger of further suffering - evaluate the collective psychic strain; ensure that a Swarthmore education is not an indulgent risk of sanity. It is possible to educate for character without imposing undue burdens - part of learning is balance, balance too often lacking in the stressed Swarthmore mindset.

What is to be done concretely? For one thing, there is still no student lounge facility, no sense of student owned and operated space, no center for collective relaxation. Segments of the community have their respective niches, but there is no designated solely student hang out. Notable is the absence thereof. On a less tangible level, the administrative response to Gabe's death has been flat footed. Wise leadership responds to tragedy with vision and courage. Rather than accepting a challenge to craft a kinder, gentler Swarthmore, administrators encourage us to recognize the support structures in place, and buck up because we are beautiful people.

Too often we don't relish relationships here - everyone is too busy. For Swarthmorons, work cessitation is tantamount to pitching the ship's rudder overboard.

What warrants collective pause for reflection more than a suicide? Multiple suicides? What would make this school pause for soul?

Classes were not cancelled after Gabe killed himself, because, in the words of one administrator, we can't cancel classes without having an alternative plan for the day. No one came up with a plan for a Gabriel Cavalleri memorial day of repose because "that takes time, you know, and who's got time."

Who's got time indeed.


This did not appear in the November 24 Phoenix.
I sent a copy to Dean Bob Gross, he wrote back

"Don't believe everything you think."


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