Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Why Teachers Should Watch "13 Reasons Why"

I need to give a few details in order to convince you to watch “13 Reasons Why” on NETFLIX, so be prepared. Or just trust me. Watch it. Then come back and read this post.

I taught Hannah Baker, the main character in “13 Reasons Why.” She sat by the heater on a side aisle and always smiled when I tried to make jokes with my second period English class. It was 1991, and I was 23, a first-year teacher at an urban high school. She was 14, and in October of that year, a boy raped her in the wrestling team’s mat room after school one day. That evening, she didn’t tell her parents or her sister or the police. The next morning, she told me.

She told me. I never knew why. Maybe I was approachable. Maybe she didn’t think I would judge her for going into the mat room with that boy in the first place. Maybe I was just young enough for her to think of me. Maybe it was because she had just told me the week before that she had a new boyfriend. Whatever the reason, she gave me a great gift: early experience in dealing with a rape victim. 

If, by some outside chance you don’t know about this NETFLIX series, it is the story of a high school junior, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind a number of cassette tapes explaining why she did it. Everyone who played a part in her decision to die must listen to the tapes and live with the consequences of everyone else hearing the stories.

Because I binge watched “13 Reasons Why” until the wee hours, I processed Hannah’s death while I slept. I dreamed of her, noticed her, counseled her, and beat up a couple of the other characters. Over the three nights that I watched, I saw the faces of so many students I had taught in 22 years of working with teenagers. Untouchable athlete. Irresponsible journalism student. Repressed honor student. I talked out loud to them on occasion.
Oh yeah, I got your number.
Yep. Taught you too, you little turd.

Teachers, you’ve seen the images float by on NETFLIX, but you haven’t watched yet.
I get enough teenage drama at work.
For teens. Produced by Selena Gomez? No, thanks.
I don’t want to watch something so depressing.
There’s a good bit of criticism of the series, including statements from organizations committed to suicide prevention. One psychologist blogged about her daughter's desire to watch it and her decision not to let her. Some wonder if the show just opens a wound without offering a way to heal it.

Festering in that wound are violence, sex, profanity, bullying, depression, misogyny, denial, rape, drug abuse, apathy—all the ingredients for a life that’s too hard to live. Who wants to watch all that, right? 

Here’s why you should: ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS ALREADY HAVE. Your emotionally unstable adolescents whose brains have not fully developed have watched all the episodes. Together. During Spring break. It’s Spring break in my district, and I’m at Panera Bread about ten feet from two sophomores—they still flip their hair and are obviously waiting for a ride—and I’m wondering which characters they are. Are they the bullies or the bullied or both? They are most certainly two girls who have watched a thirteen-hour primer on how to commit revenge suicide. I hope an adult watched it with them and talked through it all.

I am Hannah Baker. When I was 12, I was bullied by three other students at school. Person by person, they convinced most of my seventh-grade classmates to ignore me, to stop talking to me. By that winter, I was having panic attacks, chest pains that prompted my parents to run heart tests. At 12, I had an EKG and a stress test to determine what was going on. At school, two girls saw what was happening and befriended me. Both of them were on the fringe too. Lisa and Tibby, you saved me. 

My teachers had no idea all this was happening. One saw me crying a lot and told my parents I was “too sensitive” for a seventh grader. No one should be that lonely or misunderstood, particularly a child who is surrounded by adults. 

Go watch the show.

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