an abundance of exclamation

March 4th, 2019

When my daughter was in seventh grade, I became alarmed at her overuse of an addictive stimulant: the exclamation point. And not just one, but a scattershot of exclamation points exploding across her texts, emails and essays. I felt like asking the language arts teacher when she would start teaching language. But I didn’t. The teacher didn’t need a critic; she needed a volunteer. So I offered to teach descriptive writing to the class.

My goal was to convince the 12-year-olds that they had a vast vocabulary of words to express feelings without overpunctuating a sentence. At our first lesson, I asked the kids to tell me different words that meant “happy.” Then I asked for words that meant “sad.” Emboldened, I went for the gold, asking if anyone knew a word that described a mix of happy and sad. One brave girl volunteered.

“Bipolar?” she said.

It was bittersweet.

I didn’t ask how she knew a word from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I didn’t want to know. She might have learned all about it on Instagram. But I worried just the same.

Not long ago I was talking to the mother of an incoming kindergartener who was anxious about her child’s readiness. Pre-K prepares a child for kindergarten, I said, kindergarten prepares for first grade, first grade prepares for second grade, and so on. Middle school is really about preparing for high school and high school is all about college. It’s a refrain you hear every year at Back-to-School Night, and I guess it makes us feel that our kids are getting somewhere. But where, exactly? More to the point, at what price to our children? We can probably answer for them, because we already know what it feels like to spend our whole lives anxiously trying to get somewhere else.

A local high school junior disappeared after being dropped off one Saturday morning at an SAT testing site. It wasn’t the first time she’d taken the SAT, her frantic parents told reporters. She’d taken it many times in order to keep improving her score before applying to colleges. This wasn’t like her, no, she was a straight A+ student in the running for valedictorian at an extremely competitive high school! But in the end she skipped out and took the train to San Francisco instead of filling out the bubble sheet one more time. She sounded like a very smart girl.

Before senior year my daughter went away for a month as part of a pre-college summer program. She was excited and so was I. This was going to be a blast! You can bet that when a university brings a couple hundred footloose 17-year-olds to campus there is a lot of communication involved. In the last email from the college before arrival, there was a packing list, a move-in schedule, and a list of emergency contacts. What I wasn’t prepared for was this highlighted reminder: Make sure that you have taken all necessary steps to secure the mental health resources your student may need while they are here.

So this is where we are. I don’t have words, but I’ve been saving up a primal scream of exclamation points. Is anyone listening? We have to do better than this!!!!!


  1. At least they were awake to the issue.
    All the prep for college (and life) talk about sex, substance abuse, academic ethics and not one person mentioned mental health/suicide.
    Freshman year a classmate took their life, leaving a thousand questions and broken hearts. We have failed, I thought, missed the mark, misplaced values and importance. How could there be so much silence about an issue that touches nearly every college campus. Yes, taking the train, doing what one needs to do to be alive, feel alive, want to live, seems to be an assumption rather than a bold priority of our academic institutions. You and your daughter were fortunate that this institution labeled the ‘elephant.’ I applaud them. This is where we are, this is what we have created, this is the price. How will this bell ever be unrung?

    Comment by MJ — March 4, 2019 @ 9:52 pm

  2. I did not watch nor listen to the Cohen hearings but I did watch Elijah Cummings’ last remarks to Cohen. He emphasized and his last words were “We can do better.” My new mantra. We can do better! (Oops, that pesky exclamation point.)

    Comment by Jennie — March 5, 2019 @ 6:17 am

  3. Raising children into young adulthood is like flying a kite. Sometimes it soars, dips and twists, its tail whipping energetically. It seems to want to go higher and farther as it takes all you have to hold on to it. It has a mind of its own and is hardest to control in the strongest winds. Pulling it closer in an effort to control it often encourages it to spin wildly, sending it crashing into the ground, or worse, a tree, irretrievable! We have raised three kites. Two have stayed aloft and were always pulling the string to the very end of the spool. One crashed several times, but able to get airborne, still seeks the winds to carry her into the air one more time. We have flown three kites. Now we just enjoy and admire other people flying theirs and wish them well.

    Comment by larry misiak — March 5, 2019 @ 7:42 am

  4. That was beautifully said…I love what you wrote.?

    Comment by Vita Simonian — March 5, 2019 @ 10:31 am

  5. Wishing you well too, Larry. Thank you.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 5, 2019 @ 10:36 am

  6. Larry,
    Beautiful. I am in the middle of keeping my own three kites afloat and will remember your words.

    Comment by chetna — March 5, 2019 @ 11:30 am

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