Lee Schwartz didn’t anticipate that her final months of high school would be quite so chaotic. A senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Schwartz prepared for the normal student stress that accompanies the end of high school: play rehearsals, college decisions, and final exams.
But then, The List: a collection of names of female students, created by a male classmate, along with a ranking based on their appearance. Word got out to the school administration, and then the world outside of school. Soon, stories of The List appeared in the Washington Post, Jezebel, and even on Good Morning America. The resulting media storm was far beyond what anyone, especially Schwartz, expected.
But, long before The List was created, the “dark underbelly of teenage life,” as fellow B-CC senior Pria Dahiya puts it, was on the minds of many students. April was declared “Toxicity Month” by the school in an effort to bring light to the harmful aspects of American culture that affect teens on a daily basis. But a group of students wanted to examine this further.
Schwartz, Dahiya, and Néa Ranganathan, another senior, are among a group of upperclassmen that worked on a project for much of the school year. After a month of different events throughout April, the group presented their magnum opus last weekend at the third annual Museum of Contemporary American Teenagers (MOCAT) in Bethesda. The immersive, interactive pop-up exhibit explored the concept of cultural toxicity, and its effect on Generation Z.
In an extensive project proposal, the students liken cultural toxicity to a noxious substance “that result(s) in the risk of death, disease, injury, defect,” or, more commonly, “…as decreased growth or corrosive behavioral change.” The idea that teens are subjected to life-altering social norms before they can legally drink alcohol is alarming but not unsubstantiated: In March, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology published a report that revealed symptoms of major depression increased by more than 50 percent between the mid-2000s and 2017 in two separate age groups: both 12 to 17 and 18 to 25 years. The National Survey of Drug Use and Health attributes the increase to more abstract forces like social media, rather than substance abuse. Among teens, the rates of substance abuse are actually down in that same time period.
The month-long series of projects began on April 4 with an event called “The ABCs of Modern Masculinity: Raising boys without lowering expectations”—this was Schwartz’s primary focus. It featured student performances before a showing of the 2018 documentary Roll Red Roll at the nearby Avalon Theatre in Northwest D.C. The film follows a highly publicized rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012. Following the screening, Schwartz organized a panel with speakers from a number of local survivors’ advocacy organizations, moderated by Post investigative reporter Jenn Abelson.
On April 6, Dahiya organized an event called CATillion at President Lincoln’s Cottage. It was a performance piece of sorts that tackled issues of consent and etiquette through a series of songs and monologues performed by Dahiya as a character named “Miss Stepps.” Throughout, Dahiya relayed advice less about pulling out chairs for your date, and more about the limits of what a “No Means No” attitude looks like.
But the final event was by far the group’s most ambitious: The interactive MOCAT pop-up followed the model of an escape room that lead participants on a journey of self-discovery.
“When you enter the museum… you will be [arranged] in groups, and you will be given a translucent backpack that represents your privilege,” said Ranganathan, one of the exhibition’s primary organizers.
David Lopilato, a social studies teacher at B-CC who helped guide the projects, explained further: “This is based on a little history. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote an article called ‘The Invisible Knapsack.’ It talks about how people of privilege walk around with a kind of ‘backpack’ and have no idea what privileges they have. So, that’s what people are going to get when they walk into our museum: a clear backpack. It has two meanings. It is an homage to Peggy McIntosh, and is because all these high schools now have to carry around clear backpacks.”
In the wake of the mass shooting that killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last year, many high schools across the country, announced that students would be issued clear backpacks as a security measure.
Throughout the museum, visitors would land on different squares similar to a game board. They were asked a question about teen life, or had to debate with someone from a different demographic on a topic that has to do with toxicity. If they proved successful, they won points. If they weren’t, they lost points. If they had a privilege card available, it could be used to bypass the encounter. At the end of the museum, visitors saw how much toxicity they gained, depending on reactions to certain situations or what cards they were dealt.
The power of teenagers is not lost on Lopilato. He knows better than anyone how much time and effort went into this project. After all, none of these students who organized Coming of Age in Toxicity and its adjacent events received grades or credit for their involvement with MOCAT; it was purely a passion project.
“I am invigorated by what these students have to offer and the power of their voice,” Lopilato said. “That being said, they don’t always realize they have a voice.”
He believes teens are often reduced to one-dimensional figures.
“Anyone weaned on John Hughes movies from the ’80s expects high school students to only care about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. No one expects high school students to care as much as they do about social issues or be as articulate as they are about social issues. When you see them five days a week, you quickly realize how off those assumptions are. That’s why all the forms of toxicity they are surrounded by are so particularly agitating.”
The List was not the first time something like this happened among teens in Bethesda. In 2010, a similar incident took place wherein a group of boys from the private Landon School created a “fantasy sex draft” that was exposed by the New York Times. That same year, Thomas W. Pyle Middle School was the setting of a widespread sexting scandal. The most noticeable difference between then and now has little to do with the actions, but the reactions: In 2010, there was no Access Hollywood tape; no Creepy Uncle Joe meme.
And Coming of Age in Toxicity, as well as the two related events, are all about taking action, not a reaction. The students were working on the projects well before The List incident came to light, but revelation gave their work a more urgent purpose.
“It feels more relevant,” Dahiya explained, but she knows The List is far from an isolated incident. “This has been going on for awhile. We all know about it, we all know about the culture.”
Ranganathan added: “We could have just focused on the guys; we could have been like ‘Let’s punish them. Let’s keep doing this, let’s keep it internal.’ But when it became external we realized this is not about us anymore. This is about all these things connecting and making everyone aware.”
At the end of the day, this ambitious group of students realizes they won’t change everyone’s minds. Moreover, they know that, if challenged, conflicting points of view won’t be silenced. But what these students really want is simple: “This is what we’re thinking,” Dahiya said. “This is what we’re feeling. This is how we’re going to express it. Look at this; hear us; try to understand us.”