Calm amidst Storms: 10/15/13 School Board Notes and Thoughts on a Suicide at Duluth East

The Duluth School Board convened for its monthly meeting in October on Tuesday night, and went on to have the least contentious meeting since I’ve started covering them. There were very few things of major interest on the agenda, so I’ll just breeze through the summary before offering a few comments on the citizen speakers. Member Seliga-Punyko was absent for a second consecutive meeting; the crowd included a group from Piedmont on hand to receive an award, a bunch of East students watching the meeting for class credit (for whom Member Wasson ran about grabbing and autographing agendas), a smattering of candidates in next month’s election, and the usual suspects. The District took time to thank many groups in and around Piedmont Elementary for a “Set your Student up for Success Night” at the school, and Superintendent Gronseth and at-large candidate Annie Harala celebrated the success of that event and a “Walk to School Day” at Lincoln Park Middle.

The only talk on the Education Committee report related to the results of Duluth schools on their progress as measured by the Department of Education. Member Johnston had a balanced assessment, noting improvements in a number of schools but picking out Stowe as elementary as one that had dropped, and again noting the east-west divide in the city. Superintendent Gronseth, who seemed to be making a concerted pitch for the levies in his comments throughout, emphasized the improvements and said Laura Macarthur’s turnaround was obvious proof that the Administration can get good results if given the resources to do so. Member Kasper echoed his sentiments, and Member Miernicki clarified some of the scores for the public, noting that they were raw numerical scores, not percentages; a “17” did not mean the schools were in the 17th percentile.

As usual, Member Johnston pulled a few things out from the Business Committee report for separate votes, but he kept his critiques concise and didn’t dwell on anything. There was a brief and rather directionless discussion on declining enrollment, and Member Johnston expressed some relief that there were very few change orders on the Long Range Facilities Plan this time around, though he cast his usual protest vote against them. That effectively ended the meeting. If I were in a cynical mood, I could complain about rubber-stamping or wonder if Member Johnston was desperately trying to put on a new, more civil face in the last meeting before the election, but the honest truth is that there just wasn’t much of anything worth debating at this meeting. For that reason, I’m not going to celebrate any newfound civility either; we’ll see if it that holds if more contentious issues come up during the two lame-duck sessions after the election.

This brings me back around to the two critical speakers, who were two very familiar faces at ISD 709 Board meetings: Mr. Loren Martell and Ms. Marcia Stromgren. Their shtick is so exhausted that it doesn’t merit much detail; basically, contra Gronseth, they think the Board’s record does not suggest the District can be trusted with more money. For them, the Board seems to be a monolithic bloc of bogeymen instead of seven individuals who come and go, many of whom are probably persuadable as to where the money should go. Ms. Stromgren offered a very selective reading of Student Member Thibault’s anger over Board incivility at the previous meeting, leading one to wonder if there is anything she cannot spin to fit her worldview.

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There was a second part to Ms. Stromgren’s remarks that is worth mentioning without a snarky dismissal, however, as she took the District to task over its handling of the recent suicide of a 15-year-old Duluth East student. She blasted the District for covering up the suicide and refusing to talk about the bullying that appears to have caused it, adding several details about this boy’s case. After the meeting, when Harry Welty pressed Ms. Stromgren over some of the extra details she’d shared, she cited a Reader letter to the editor from the boy’s aunt that both Harry and I had read about the suicide. The letter does not include all of the details Ms. Stromgren added, which means she either has an inside source, or she is adding other things.

The letter itself does raise some real concerns, though at the same time, it goes without saying that this is an incredibly delicate issue. God only knows how the events in this boy’s life drove him to make such a tragic decision. Part of me thinks it is wrong for a woman who did not know him to make this a political issue at a School Board meeting, but if we’re to take the aunt’s letter at its word, it is hard to disagree with Ms. Stromgren’s notion that the letter asking the family to sign a statement “saying his suicide was not caused by bullying and is bad for the school and community” is tone-deaf at best. However, the aunt’s note is only one person’s perspective, and while I certainly don’t have any reason to doubt her, any ongoing investigation has to be very, very careful.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, rumor and hearsay will reign. (I’ve heard a few details that go beyond the narrative made public so far, but secondhand information on something with this much gravity will have no place on this blog.) It’s agonizingly difficult work, running about in the shadows trying to understand what happened and make sure it won’t happen again while also respecting the rights and privacies of everyone involved. I’m inclined to cut the District and the police some slack over the supposed “cover-up” and assume they’re doing all they can behind the scenes. That has to be frustrating as all hell for the family, and if you’re suspicious of anything Board-related as Ms. Stromgren is, it’s not going to be at all satisfying. If there aren’t any answers in a few months, then there may be cause for some real indignation.

For now, however, grief must take its course. My first instinct is to demand dialogue, especially for the sake of the boy’s friends, who need to make sense of this. To that end, I do think East erred if it tried to quiet any discussion of the incident. But it’s also not as black-and-white as some people would like to believe. Harry raises two key points in his piece on the issue: first, that copycat suicides do happen, and second, that the News Tribune’s decision not to cover the suicide suggests there may be good reason for not saying too much quite yet. I’ll add my own point that may illuminate the silence: if there was indeed a bullying kid, he or she obviously ought to be brought to justice, but the alleged bully is also a minor who must be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is our instinct to demand immediate action, but getting things wrong in a rush to condemn the perpetrator would be a terrible injustice to heap upon a story that is already a terrible tragedy. If rumors were to spread through the students that one among their number caused the death of another…well, just think about it.

In the end, that’s all I can really offer: a plea to think about it. Think about it from the standpoint of the boy we’ve lost, his friends, the school, the police, the family, and even a possible bully. That might seem like a frightening exercise. It is. Read the obituary. Write a check to the charities listed there. Look into those eyes. Imagine what might have been. But not for too long: the world moves on. The family may not think too highly of Duluth East right now, but East is more than a building, or its administrators, or the kids who are in it at any one time. This is a chance to leave a legacy; a tragic legacy, but one that transcends the horrors of the past and feeds into a community that can carry on with a higher mission. How are we going to stand up for Gregory Asher Nugent?

Brotherhood

A quote from a 1992 interview of Mexican writer Octavio Paz by Sergio Marras, and the epigraph for a novel that is currently sitting on the blocks (translation mine):

If we think of that trio upon which the modern world was founded–liberty, equality, fraternity–we see that liberty tends to turn into tyranny over others; thus, it needs to have limits; and that equality is an impossible ideal that cannot come to be without the use of force, which implies despotism. The bridge between these two is fraternity, which is conspicuous in its absence.

For some of us, that absence is an inescapable void. Happy 15th, little bro.

Philosophers Arguing Over How to Be Good at Things, Plus Some Completely Unrelated Stuff About Genetics and Ethics

Here’s eclectic post of stuff to read that will allow for some enlightened procrastination from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing right now.

First, a piece from the philosophy blog over at the New York Times in which the author, Barbara Gail Montero, pushes back against the idea that star athletes or other people at the top of their fields act on instinct when performing at their peak. It’s not uncommon to hear a commentator say someone is “thinking too much” when they fail, and most of us can probably relate in some way or another. She frames her argument against that of the book I just finished the other week (and wrote about in my post about David Foster Wallace and the trouble with relying on one’s will to find happiness), All Things Shining, which Montero effectively summarizes as “a paean to the idea that exemplary performance happens to, rather than is done by, an individual.”

On a certain level, I agree with the argument of All Things Shining; I sure don’t consider myself an expert or star in any real field, but I do write a lot, and while there are some blissful moments when the writing comes naturally, this is not the status quo. Moreover, trying to consciously force myself into that state hardly ever works. Instead, it arises out of certain moods that I simply have to seize hold of when they come my way. It seems almost stupidly simple. It just happens.

But, as Montero notes, simply following the moods isn’t going to make one a star writer or hockey player or whatever else one might aspire to be. I can certainly relate to the ballet dancer Montero mentions who cannot watch herself dance; I absolutely hate reading my own writing because I know it can always be better, and I don’t think that will ever change. According to Montero (and Plato), I shouldn’t want it to: that belief that it can be better is what pushes me to keep writing. To stick with something even when it seems perpetually imperfect takes a real commitment, and that isn’t something one can find simply by riding moods as they come along. But, in deference to the authors of All Things Shining (Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly), it isn’t a matter of mere willpower, either. It is something far more deeply ingrained; something that one must fall in love with, and be perfectly willing to suffer through because it is inseparable from one’s being.

In the end, I think Montero and Dreyfus and Kelly agree more than they disagree. Montero talks of the relentless desire to improve, while Dreyfus and Kelly discuss the attitude of craftsmen honing their skills in a way that makes them one with their project. The two notions are almost certainly interrelated, and come together in people performing at the height of their abilities. These people lose themselves in their task so fully that they know no other option, and from there can blend the receptivity to moods of All Things Shining with an expert’s intuition. It is, to return to the theme of this blog, always a cycle.

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Next, we make a foray into biology with an article from Discover magazine that discusses how traumatic and/or life-changing incidents can also alter DNA. The biology alone is fascinating, but the part that absorbs me involves the ethical implications of the final line:

If … a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?

My gut response to this is an immediate ‘no.’ I am leery of any medical effort to wipe away our imperfections via genetic engineering. Looking at the traits I’ve most likely inherited from my parents and their parents and so on, it is hard to label them as ‘good’ and ‘bad;’ they just are, and I think many of our defining traits can wind up being both our biggest strengths and our biggest weaknesses, depending on the situation, or how far we take them. A high-strung, paranoid person can be extraordinarily successful if she channels that intensity into a productive field, while a person who grows up without any exposure to stress will probably be pretty useless when a crisis strikes. I am no biologist, but I suspect that labeling genes as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would seriously impoverish our understanding of them, and might have unfathomable consequences.

For example, my childhood involved the death of a close family member; it was the sort of trauma that most children don’t have to deal with. I would hazard to guess it was enough to alter a methyl group or two, and that little variation could be something I pass on to my own children. Naturally, I wish the death hadn’t happened. But it also is such an important part of my life that I can’t conceive of my life without that event. It led to pain and anguish, yes, and it’s hard to know just how far that sort of effect reaches. (It’s probably fruitless to even guess.) What is clear, however, is that it also led to growth—not necessarily good or bad, but significant to the extent that I’m stuck with it. Wiping that away with a pill would fundamentally alter who I am, and that prospect unsettles me deeply.

On the other hand, I do recognize that, in many, many ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky in life. I had a strong support network that many people do not have, and I can think of many traumas that are probably more deeply scarring than what I went through. Some people are fundamentally broken by grief or other pathologies they cannot escape, and a lecture from me about the cycle of highs and lows in life isn’t going to do them a bit of good. Is it possible to draw a line between the traumas and stresses that alter human livelihood, and those that don’t? To separate out the stress caused by a death in the family while holding on to the insights that come out of a cycle of grief? Those questions will need answers before this research can have any practical medical application. Humans being humans, we’re probably going to open up this Pandora’s Box no matter what; the question is one of how we go about opening it.

Alright, enough philosophy and ethics for one day—it’s time to cycle back out of the intellectual world, and into the world immediately at hand. I’m off to embroil myself in local politics, and then to do some more hockey history work.