Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Teaching and Thirteen Reasons Why

I've been teaching high school since September 2001.
I read a lot of YA novels, usually on student recommendations- we have independent reading regularly, so they know I read, and like recs.
I remember when Thirteen Reasons Why came out in 2007, and a student asking if I'd read it, and them recommending it. I vaguely remember saying I'd check it out.
I don't remember really thinking much of it afterwards.

This year, when the Netflix series was released, it was a totally different experience.
It was different in a lot of ways and although there is no specific order, it was different for the following reasons.
  • I lost a student this year. And while I cannot speak definitively, I believe I lost him to suicide. When students die in a car wreck or due to illness the school tells you. When a student commits suicide, you hear nothing. 
    • In fact, it's more than nothing. It's whatever is beyond absence. People assume talking about suicide causes suicide, talk of suicide clusters gets mentioned. Schools and districts worry about litigation, closing ranks, doing nothing out of fear.
  • I had an anonymous student write a suicide note and place it in my inbox on my desk at school.
  • This 8 June marks the one year anniversary of me almost committing suicide.
So this is the world, my world, that Th1rteen R3asons Why came into.

Students talked about it some. I could tell when they'd watched it, how far they'd gotten, as I listened to their conversations before class and in between activities. I made reference to it when I taught Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech this past April, explaining to my students that it was his "Thirteen reasons why not..." which they liked.
I sat in a department meeting where teachers (wrongly) mentioned it, and argued that it glorified suicide and was dangerous. The end decision seeming to be that we could have it on classroom library shelves, we wouldn't censor it, but we couldn't talk about it, or teach it.

And this is the problem.

When my student died. When he took his own life, we were left in the dark. We were given a bland, vague, statement to read to our students about seeking counseling.
When the student left the note in my inbox, I forwarded it to counseling in the hopes they could ID the handwriting/drawing. They contacted admin. They called every student I taught. They were vague to the parents and the kids. Counselors came to only one of my classes, made murmurings about there being help, and handed me a stack of contact number cards for the suicide hotline. My kids, confused, asked what it was all about. I told them.

Then I did what no one else apparently was doing. I told them the truth. I told them why admin had called all their homes. I told them that I understood, deeply, intimately, what it meant to feel like there was no hope, no way out. And I told them too that despite all that, despite what they thought of me, or the class, I loved every single one of them. That I was always there for them. That they could always reach out to me, that I would defend them to my dying breath.

I was there for them.

I can't tell you whether they heard me.
I can't tell you if it made a difference.
I don't know if I saved anyone. If I kept anyone from doing anything. From making horrible mistakes.

I can tell you that I had students text me their problems, asking for help.
I had students talk to me more.
I got a lot of hugs at the end of the year.
A lot of students wrote on their letter to future students that they, the future students, needed to know I cared, and that I would be there for them.

So maybe.
Maybe not.

The student this year was not the first student I lost, not to suicide, not to accident, not to tragedy. It never gets easier.

So I put off watching Th1rteen R3asons Why. Because it had been a hard year. Because I needed to wait. But this past week I finally sat down and watching 3-4 episodes a night, worked my way through the series.

I have issues with the show, some of which are in the source material. Part of it is that the story depends on Clay's point of view, and I have inherent issues with men being the mediators of women's stories. There's also the issue that if you move the series a bit narratively it's the story of a stalker, a crush, who thinks he's entitled to a woman's story.

But, despite what my colleagues think, the series does not glorify suicide. It does not glamorize it. It does not present depression, or teenage life, of bullying in any way that is not truthful.

What it is is honest.
Horrifyingly.
Desperately.
Honest.

Last summer, I was told through email, on 31 May that I would not be defending my dissertation. Not graduating.
And I spent the next week thinking through the logistics of killing myself. How would I do it? What were the details?
I also spent that week screaming into the void, begging for help.
I cut off all my hair, from below my butt to almost crew cut.
I got a semi-colon tattoo, on my hand, for all to see.
And I got nothing as a response.
It wasn't just that no one cared.
No one noticed.
Not. One. Person.

Not my then dissertation director. Despite Skype calls where I sobbed I didn't think I could do any of this anymore (their response was: I'm sorry you feel that way.)
Not my school.
Not my social media feed.
Not my family.

No body.

I was totally on my own. From 31 May, through most of the summer, I woke up every morning and tried to find a reason not to kill myself.

I tried to talk to people in my program. I sat in offices. I tried to talk. I tried to talk on Twitter. Nothing worked. No one noticed. Nothing changed.

Most days the only reason I came up with was that no one would notice for days, of weeks, and even then, probably only if Nehi barked incessantly about not being fed. That's if I left the door open to outside so people could hear her. And in my neighborhood, would people even pay attention? Who would respond? Who would care for her? Where would she end up?

I am alive today because I have a dog.
That is literally the only reason why.
In the series, Hannah makes a series of tapes, thirteen, that detail, and blame, all the people who failed her. She traces out all the little moves that led to where she was. All the people that saw her (or did not) and did nothing. On her last tape she talks about giving life one more chance. On trying to believe in people, in the concept of help, one more time.
Yet even then, everyone fails Hannah.
Everyone who should have been paying attention, who should have cared, didn't. Or did, and fell short.
She kills herself because she believed that no one cared.

I didn't kill myself for the same reason. I looked around and realized that the imagined comradery of social media was an illusion. That no one was coming to help. That if I wanted to be saved, to live, I was going to have to save myself.

So this is the world I watched Th1rteen R3asons Why in.

My life is not better than it was a year ago.
Nothing is significantly different.
I still teach high school.
I have written a whole new dissertation. But it's currently mired in committee revisions, so it seems like the same purgatory/limbo I was in last summer.
I still struggle with depression and anxiety.
I still believe I am alone.

Many days, though less than it used to be, I am only alive because I have Nehi.

But I do think I see my students a little more clearly. I am more willing to be honest with them. Transparent. I don't talk about my depression or my anxiety, but they can all see my tattoo. They listen I think when I tell them I understand how hard it can be because they know I don't lie to them. I am transparent about growing up poor, and struggling, and how I can understand all the things that can intrude on school, and doing well, and even getting through the day.
I think it makes me a better teacher.
I know it makes me a better person.

And if nothing else, I hope they believe me when I say that I love them. That I am there for them. That I would do everything in my power that I could to help them. Always.

Th1rteen R3asons Why doesn't glorify depression. It does not glamorize suicide. What it does do is present a clear and accurate picture of what these things are like. It puts a very difficult topic right in front of your face. Where you can't ignore it. And it demands that you acknowledge it. That you talk about it. That you stop ignoring it and hoping it will go away. That you no longer turn away from it, or the people who suffer from it.

We need to listen to what Th1rteen R3asons Why is saying.
We need to hear.

Because people's lives depend on it, many of them young, fragile, beautiful lives.
Lives that I very desperately want to see continue.

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