One of the things I love about my job as a high school teacher is that it keeps me young. Most of the time, I find out about the latest trends before my own children do. I learn the newest slang, and my students think it’s funny when I’m able to work it into my own speech during class. Dealing with teenagers on a regular basis reminds me what it was like; it helps me to remember, including those parts that I’d rather forget.
Teaching English, my students confide in me through their writing. These windows, in particular, let me see some of their darkest moments. It didn’t surprise me then that when 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, my students were abuzz. There was a resurgence in kids that wanted to read the popular novel by Jay Asher. As a representation of what they experience in high school, it resonated with them.
My students are participating in book clubs right now and I have six groups reading 13 Reasons Why. Others have chosen it as one of their independent selections for the semester. I’m stoked for anything that gets kids reading, but some of the students who have picked it up have had to put it down, unable to stomach the sadness. All the attention the title has received piqued my interest, if for no other reason than to form my own opinion, so in addition to buying a copy of the book, my husband and I recently cued it from our Netflix list.
If you haven’t heard, the show has been criticized for glorifying and romanticizing suicide. I’ve read pieces that talk about how the producers did the exact opposite of what one should do when dealing with this subject matter, warning anyone who might be suicidal or prone to suicidal thoughts not to watch. In contrast, I’ve read other works that praise the piece. Not to mention the press that surrounded this group of high school students who started an anti-suicide campaign: 13 Reasons Why Not.
I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a show I could binge-watch. Each episode was heavier than the next, and several of them required additional warnings for their explicit content. However, in the end, I was glad that I viewed all thirteen episodes, not just as a teacher, but as a parent. While my children are only five and nine, startling enough, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
Did you see that? TEN.
I often write about the difficulties of parenting, yet I know raising an adolescent will be the most trying of all. This is only the boot camp for the eventual war of the teenage years. And as parents, we sometimes forget what it was like to be young, which only intensifies the conflict. Even if I find it easy to empathize with what my students go through, I might find it more challenging when it comes to my own children, when my love for them and the storm of emotions I feel clouds my understanding.
After the final episode, Netflix included “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.” In it, the cast talks about how teenage brains don’t function the way that adult brains do. I’ve done enough lessons with my students on this very topic, usually in conjunction with our study of Romeo and Juliet, another suicide story. We watch some TedTalks about the adolescent brain and listen to podcasts from NPR before deciding whether Romeo and Juliet would have made different decisions if they each had a fully developed pre-frontal cortex.
Suicide is a subject that is a part of most teenager’s reality whether they have thought about it themselves, or known someone else who has. Just as Shakespeare didn’t shy away from it, neither does Jay Asher, which is why many students of mine find both works so intriguing.
The creators of the Netflix series hoped that the show would spark conversations between parents, and in my home, it did just that. I confessed to my husband that this scared the shit out of me long before we viewed the episode where Hannah’s mother finds her in the bathtub. (I had to shield my eyes from the graphic nature of the actual suicide.) My husband and I shared stories about the people we knew—friends and friends of friends– who’d taken their own lives. We discussed their reasons, and the impact it had on others. As a teacher, sadly, I add to the list alumni from schools where I’ve taught who didn’t choose life.
In one episode of the show, Clay imagines telling Hannah how he feels about her. Her response: Why didn’t you say this to me when I was alive?
In “Beyond the Reasons,” the producers advise parents not to ignore what they went through as teenagers, to be honest with their children, and to talk to them without judgement. They implore people to tell others, “You matter to me; I’m glad you’re in my world.” These small steps, they say, can make a big difference.
As a teacher, I appreciated 13 Reasons Why. Not only did it remind me about many of the issues my students face, but it also reminded me there are consequences for our actions, even when, as in the case with Mr. Porter, the action is inaction.
As a parent, it reminded me that what I say to my daughters can make a difference, things like, “It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not be perfect.” Most of all though, it reminded me to take every opportunity to tell my children what they mean to me, to tell them that they matter. They’re not only in my world, but they are my world, and I love them no matter what.
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