It’s a brave new world, this Netflix.
Recently, Netflix produced a series based on Jay Asher’s best-selling young-adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why. The show is proving itself to be both an unheralded success and a societal lightning rod.
The story follows the suicide of a 17 year-old protagonist named Hannah Baker, who left behind audio tapes addressed to the people who bullied her, tormented her, and ignored the warning signs leading up to her decision to take her own life. The show’s themes—such as cyber-bullying, sexual assault, mental illness and teenage suicide—reside in the forefront of our society’s discourse on how we can better serve our young adults.
Unfortunately, the Netflix show, while a compelling narrative, fails to address these issues with any real compassion for Hannah or the issues—particular her mental health problems—that lead to her tragic death. It is a missed opportunity to have an important discussion. It also depicts the teacher, counselors and school administration as a bunch of bumbling idiots.
Full-disclosure: I am a public high school teacher. I’ve taught high school English for 15 years, first in Las Vegas now in New Hampshire. Like many of my colleagues, the bureaucracy and paperwork can be overwhelming, but I genuinely love working with my students, encouraging them to read deeply and think critically.
In my experiences, however, no one smells bullshit quite like the adolescent. Adolescents experience life viscerally, in the moment, with an intuitive bullshit-sensor—think Holden Caulfield—that howls whenever someone or something feels “phony.” And the adult world, sometimes, appears as caricatures to them.
So the adult writer looking back on adolescence, who can tap into that visceral adolescent narrative without being didactic or condescending, has done something exceptional. They’ve built a time machine that allows them to tap into their own pasts and connect with the present.
It’s that old human condition that my students will invariably roll their eyes when I bring it up.
Therefore, I applaud Jay Aster and the writers and producers of Netflix’s ‘Thirteen Reason Why.’ It is a compelling series. For any young screenwriter or fiction writer wanting to learn how to plot a story, how the release of information works, how the almighty hook—the questions that keeps readers turning pages or viewers binging—this is a graduate class in marketability.
But for those of us working in high schools, waking up every morning to teach and help kids, ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ is an abject humiliation to our profession. Watching some of the scenes in the classrooms where the dopey teachers look dumbfounded and unprepared, where lessons are all taught off the cuff, and the counselors sit in their offices all day and shoot the shit with students is painful for those of us in the profession. It is a patently false depiction of what we do.
Did these teachers and counselors at the fictional Liberty High School skip out on every undergraduate education class? Did they skip every college class—including Common Sense 101—when you’re taught that any student hinting any signs that they are being harmed or could harm other must, legally, be reported? Were these counselors plucked from a college beer pong tournament at some distant frat party in Never Never Land and given contracts? Is all the administration in every district in this country so concerned about litigation that they shrug off their students’ well-being?
The fact is most educators and administrators, nowadays, have master’s degrees in their fields, and we care more about your kids than our paychecks. It’s been said that teaching is the easiest job in the world to do poorly and the toughest job in the world to do well.
The traditional myth is that we work part-time jobs so we can kick our feet up and sip drinks during the summer. For anyone who believes this, who believes these goofy portrayals of adults as buffoons in adolescent dramas, please, come into our classrooms and see for yourself what we really do.
This is to say nothing about the way ‘Thirteen Reasons Why,’ a series captivating our kids, misses a prime opportunity to talk, in a serious way, about mental illness.
Most teachers wouldn’t sleep if Hannah Baker was in our class, and we thought she was in danger and didn’t act. Most of us cry when there is a suicide in our school and ask endless questions about how we failed these students, how we can prevent this from happening again, which, of course, we can’t. Most of us care about your kids and want them to be safe and happy and successful. In this sense, the writers of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ failed to do their homework, thus rendering it implausible and making the educators appear as indolent stooges.
As an educator, the depiction of us—I think I’ll read a poem from some underground student publication aloud in my class because, you know, I didn’t have anything else planned—is demeaning.
Sadly, the show pits the school against the parents, and if there’s any solution in education, the opposite has to be true: When we all work in the best interest of our kids, good things can happen and bad things can be averted.
Hannah Baker could have lived.
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Photo Credit: Screen Cap of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ Trailer