Somewhat ironically, what brought me back to the blog after a break of more than a year and a half is a television show, of which one of the messages is the damages caused by our addiction to the net in general and to the social networks in particular.
I wasn’t prepared for the storm stirred in me by the Netflix show ‘13 Reasons‘, which aired only a month and a half ago, and is based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher. And it’s not because it deals with the suicide of a high school student. It’s also not because the show surprised me or made me understand how little I know about the lives of my students (not to say my private children). It also wasn’t the extraordinary TV making of the show. I mean, I think it’s wonderfully made, but in these matters I really do understand very little.
I think that the main reason the show took such hold of me is that I was able to identify in it so much of my students, and also – to be frank – of myself. While probably exaggerated and sometimes quite melodramatic, 13 Reasons provides an important – and in my opinion reliable – glimpse at the lives of teenagers, an experience we all went through in this manner or another; but of the lives of teenagers in the 2000’s, a thing that none of us adults – teachers and parents alike – ever was. And no, it’s not about looking for this character or another in class, or trying to identify which students is in danger of taking their own lives. Moreover, in my opinion Hanna’s suicide is not the focal point of the show, but the backdrop of the real, day-to-day story experienced by the other students at the school.
The show, if there is still someone around who hasn’t heard of it, tracks the ‘gift’ left by Hanna Baker to her classmates, in which she describes to them, over six and a half tapes, the part they each played in her decision to end her own life. Throughout the episodes of the show we are exposed to the deeds, the misdeeds, the omissions, the innocence and the blindness of Hanna’s classmates, but no less than that – of the adults surrounding her, both at school and at home.
But it isn’t the show about which I wish to speak, but of the educational-psychological discussion that had arisen around it, and of what I decided to do with it as an educator. Almost immediately after being aired, the show spurred fervent discussions and debates about the show being an encouragement to youth who are in risk of attempting suicide by presenting it as a legitimate, almost romantic solution to the ills of adolescence. Psychiatrists called upon Netflix to pull the show off the air, parent associations cried out against it… it seems as though half the world had just found out the puberty is no picnic, that teenagers are complex, that they hurt others and themselves, and in extreme cases even commit suicide.
I think I know why people are so disturbed. It’s scary. It’s scary to think that our children, who at this age are beyond our ability to solve their problems for them, might be exposed to all that is bad in the world. It is even more scary to think, that they don’t have the tools required to deal with those evils. That is quite clear. What I find less clear is the thought (which ironically is typical of puberty) that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t exist. That if we just pad the walls for them, trim all the thorny branches along the path and pave over the potholes, the road will suddenly become easy, and the evils of the world will remain behind the wall. But this, if anything, is one of the main accusations raised by Hanna against her friends, her teachers, her parents – if only you hadn’t overlooked, if only you had said a kind word, if only you were less preoccupied with yourselves…
We don’t have a right to overlook the contents that occupy the minds of our children and students. With all the pressure, and the workload, and matriculation exams, we don’t have the privilege of saying ‘I don’t have time for that’. The teenagers are there. When I asked in class who had seen the show, at least five girls raised their hand (and not coincidentally, some of them are among the students that worry me the most, emotionally). So, if I don’t relate to the show they’ll understand on their own that suicide is wrong, and will never attempt it? Alternatively, if I do speak of it in class, does anyone seriously believe that their conclusion will be ‘wow, I guess my teacher thinks it’s a legitimate solution’?! Any attempt to hide, to look away, to overlook, will only intensify the dangerous contents, will only increase the chances that they interpret the show in ways that could endanger them or others (and this is not to speak of all other content they are exposed to on the net).
And frankly? I really don’t have the time. I have one “education” lesson per week. That is, a gross 45 minutes, which is about 30 minutes net. As of today, I held 32 education lessons this school year. Six were cancelled for various reasons. A large part of the time is dedicated to system-dictated contents such as the annual class trip, memorial ceremonies, preparation for military service… that leaves us with 14 half-hour session. Which means that to date, I have dedicated no more than 7 full hours to “deep” educational contents. And let’s not forget that this is all done with 35 students at the same time – not exactly the best group for intimate discussion…
And still I decided I was unwilling to give up, and told the students that the show will become the subject of the education lessons still left this year. Every week I’ll send them links to one or two episodes (which I have downloaded and uploaded to my drive in order to prevent unsuitable advertising – but that’s a story for a different post). They are asked to watch the episodes, and then we’ll hold an open discussion in class. When I decided on this course of action it seemed to me the most natural and obvious thing to do. But so many people around me, hearing about my intentions, said ‘How can you?’ and ‘What training do you have for this?’ and of course ‘Aren’t you afraid it will encourage them to attempt suicide?’…
True. I don’t have “training”. I haven’t studied psychology, and no one taught me in my teacher’s training how to engage in these contents. And yet, I engaged in them already as a counselor in the Scouts, in tenth grade, and I know teenagers – I’ve been working with them quite closely for nearly twenty years. In the real world, I don’t think there are a lot of people who have better “training” than educators to deal with these subjects. And yet, when I opened, this week, the first class discussion, I felt the chills. And what if it blows in my face? And what if things arise there, that I truly won’t know how to deal with?
And so, we sat in a large circle. I showed them the excellent video on Empathy vs. Sympathy, and presented the mandatory rules for having such discussions:
- We only speak when given permission
- We don’t interfere when others are speaking
- We avoid criticizing or judging others – we can disagree
- When someone is finished, we can ask clarification questions
- Whatever is said in the circle remains in the circle
Then I asked them to divide into pairs and share with one another a complex or unpleasant experience, to practice sharing.
After a couple of minutes I stopped the discussions and asked the students to summarize the events of the first two episodes, so that we all remember the plot. I also asked all those who have already seen the entire show to make sure not to spoil it for others, and to try and judge the episodes we’ve all seen without using what they know about the rest of the show (for those of you who have already seen the show – I told the students that in fact, the situation created in the class, where some have already seen the whole show and others haven’t, is similar to what happens in the show itself to the group passing the tapes from one to the other). And then I asked for responses.
‘What do you want us to do?’
and then –
‘So, they distributed a picture of her…’ ‘so they said that she was easy…’
and on the other hand –
‘There’s a lot of objectification there’
‘And how this objectification ends, to you remember?’
‘Oh, right, with sexual harassment’
‘Yes, OK, but these things happen all the time…’
‘Girls who go to a club, for instance, do it for a reason…’
‘If she dances first with one guy and then with another, then of course she’s looking for someone to hook up with’
They’re good kids, my students. Honestly, they’re charming. But no one ever talked to them about these things, because their parents want to be their friends, and their teachers didn’t feel qualified, and the system tells you there’s no time for it, and it’s not our job, and like the counselor said to me: ‘I want to set a time with you for the nurse to come in for sexual education lessons’…
13 Reasons isn’t about suicide. It’s about teenagers and about the code of silence that exists among us adults about what they go through during these complicated years. When our response to the show is to try and overlook it, we are perpetuating and enhancing this code of silence. And the kids are left alone to cope with a thousand and one things that they have never experienced before. A bit like Hanna herself…
For me, the show is for parents no less than for teenagers, perhaps even more so. I even recommended to the parents of some of my students to watch the show together with their kids.