My school district doesn't have a Spring Break, but we have Good Friday and Easter Monday off, so I'm at the tail end of the last bit of down time I'll have before end of the year madness sets in. Aside from other goals, one of the things on my to-do list was to finish watching the Netflix version of 13 Reasons Why.
I haven't read the book, so my reaction is entirely based on the series. And, to be completely honest, I'm not sure that I would have picked up the book. I love YA lit, and I revel in the grittiness of books for teens that don't talk down to them. I know I've read the back cover of this book before, and I always moved on to something else for one major reason: the plot surrounds a young woman's suicide and the events that led up to her choice. It's an important topic, but I know exactly why I've never taken this book off the shelf.
Suicide hits uncomfortably close to home in my family. It's something I care deeply about, but it's not something I like to read about from a fictionalized standpoint because it brings up a swirl of emotions. I can read about it from a mandatory reporter viewpoint and I am always willing to have honest conversations with my students about it, but I don't like to read about suicide for pleasure.
To say this show is insanely popular right now might be an understatement. Most of my students are watching it; many are also picking up the book if they haven't read it. I've heard from quite a few fans of the book who are dismayed about the popularity of the show. Some have said the show opened their eyes in a lot of ways. Many are furious that it's taken a show like this being popular for teens to be more reflective about how they treat each other.
My thought is that any book or show for teens that can open up discussion about serious topics like rape, consent, bullying, and depression is important, especially if it becomes popular. That might sound superficial, but it matters. There are countless anti-bullying PSAs out there for kids to scoff at, no matter how well-intentioned their creators meant for them to be. Do any of them have the same impact as a Netflix phenomenon? You have to respect the power of something that teens can discover for themselves instead of having us force it on them.
And yes, I would love to have more kids pick up a book like this instead of watching it on tv, but I'm sure there are plenty (like me) who would simply never want to pick up this particular book. If the show is the only way for them to interact with a story that pushes their comfort levels about teen life and social interactions, then it's better than avoiding these discussions all together. I hope there are classrooms out there taking advantage of the current popularity of this story and it's themes to have honest, non-judgmental discussions with teenagers.
One of the hardest parts of watching (and the whole thing is hard to watch) was the role of adults. There were so many adults who cared, but were ultimately oblivious to what was going on in teens' lives. That stung. The truth always does. I read so much in my students' writings, and I am always encourage open dialogue about serious topics with them. I think I know a lot about them based on their writings, but the truth is that I only know what people are willing to tell me. Many teens (and adults) go through life never sharing their pain with others, so it's easier for most of us to stay oblivious.
The show was a beneficial reminder to me of the parallel worlds we live in as adults and teenagers. We are together, but not. We see glimpses into each other's lives, but not the full picture. Just as my students don't really know all of the intimate details of my life, I don't know theirs. We show each other what matters, and sometimes we hide the stuff that matters even more. It's the nature of growing up that we experience these stages of life in a staggered mess, never really knowing quite what is going on inside the people we spend every day with.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.