13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Penguin Random House, 2017)
On a blustery Friday afternoon in March 1982, one of my Honors English students walked me to the faculty parking lot at the end of the school day. Andy had never done that before, but we were both excited about our upcoming field trip to the annual Columbia Scholastic Press Conference in New York City. We parted and wished each other a good week-end.
That Sunday morning I received a devastating phone call from one of my newspaper editors (I was the faculty advisor to the school paper). “Mrs. Moroney,” Karen said, “I can't go to the conference tomorrow.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because Andy died.”
“What do you mean, Andy died?”
My Andy? My 6 foot 4 inch boy, whose brown hair fringed his forehead, dead? No! Not possible! Andy had walked me to my car on Friday afternoon. Andy could not, could not be dead. Andy was 17 years old. Andy could not be dead!
The story that his family released about Andy's death was that he had been tuning up his car in the garage on Friday evening. The temperature had dropped severely so Andy had closed the garage door, accidentally asphyxiating himself.
The shock waves over Andy's death reverberated in the school for months. Andy was popular, intelligent, handsome, talented, and fun to be around. He was a great writer. For the first week after his death, I greeted every one of my students with a hug. In Andy's class we could not discuss literature for days---we talked about our loss. We were silent. My students and I grieved together. Andy's empty seat was a gaping hole in the tapestry of our classroom for the rest of the school year.
My husband and I attended the viewing. But it wasn't my Andy in the casket. It was a young man in a suit, with his hair parted on the right side, slicked back carefully, away from his beautiful forehead. No, this wasn't my Andy, who wrote insightful articles for the school paper and walked me to my car on the Friday afternoon of his death.
I chose to believe the story of Andy's fatal mistake for years. I accepted that his death was an accident. And then, one day, years later, I opened my eyes wide and the pieces of the puzzle all fit together. Andy had committed suicide. He had walked me to my car to try to tell me something was wrong, but I didn't see it. Andy was a smart kid. He had to have known that if he drew the door down in the garage that he would die of the carbon monoxide fumes. He knew. He took his life willingly, and his parents chose to keep it a secret from the rest of the world.
If Andy were alive today, he would have been 54 years old. He would have had a great career, a family, friends. He would have traveled all over the world. He would have been somebody, other than a memory of his old English teacher. He would have had an astonishing life.
Once I understood what had happened, I asked myself, “How did I miss it? Why didn't I see the signs?”
The answer to this question leads me, finally to Jay Asher's controversial young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, which is also now a Netflix series, starring Dylan Minette as Clay and Katherine Langford as Hannah, a young woman who commits suicide and bequeaths thirteen of her classmates a set of tapes in which she reveals the part each one of them had played in her decision to take her life.
The protagonist of 13 Reasons Why, Clay Jensen, is the most recent recipient of Hannah's tapes and as he listens to her story, he is tormented by what she will have to reveal about what part he had in her suicide. Half of the narrative, delivered in Italics, is the tapes that Hannah recorded; the other half is Clay's reactions as he listens to Hannah's story and visits the sites that she has mapped out for the listeners of the tapes to visit while listening to her. This compelling drama is driven by the reader's need to know how Clay factored into the tragedy of Hannah's death.
The novel and Netflix series have been deemed controversial because there is a fear that both genres glorify death by suicide and may plant ideas in the minds of vulnerable children. As a teacher and assistant principal for 40 years, I can tell you that adolescents are ego-centric. To clarify the term ego-centric, most youngsters, even as late as college age, have difficulty seeing the world outside themselves. They tend to be the sun in their universe and events revolve around their reality. I do not mean this to be condescending; it takes a long time for young people to get that the world is a much bigger place than their physical and emotional needs dictate.
13 Reasons Why offers parents and teachers an opportunity to have important discussions with their children about topics central to student lives. Is there bullying or harassment occurring in their lives? Is the weight of their school work, the pressure of getting into the right college dragging them down? Do they know kids who are struggling with issues such as sexual identity?
Hannah's narrative explains the world from her ego-centric place. She mentions that since the new mall in town has opened, her parents' business is floundering, and the weight of their financial problems have made it impossible for them to “see” Hannah, even though she acknowledges that they love her dearly. And, although Hannah details the cruel events that play into her decision to take her life, we can't help but hate the legacy that she has left for the kids she blames for her unhappiness because they, too, are adolescents lost in their own ego-centric universes. All of the teens who are subjected to Hannah's tapes will carry the burden of her death with them forever. It is not enough for Hannah to destroy her own life; she has found a way to make others suffer for it.
One of the other major issues that 13 Reasons Why addresses is the inability of teenagers to be forthcoming and to communicate openly with adults when they are having problems. Not one of the kids in the story goes to their parents with the tapes; they are too afraid to reveal their imperfections to the people who could help them cope with the pain and loss of Hannah's suicide. Teens need to talk, and they love to talk to adults whom they trust and respect. In my years as an assistant principal in both high and middle schools, I dealt with all kinds of issues that students brought to me. Although I thought some of these problems were minor, to the teens even a minor problem was major because their problems impact their view of the world.
Sharing 13 Reasons Why with your teen gives a wonderful opportunity to a parent to dialogue with one's children about important issues in the life of a high school student. I believe that the novel, as well as the television series, are among the most important works for young adults today. Seize the opportunity to engage in a meaningful discussion about what teens experience in their lives today by reading this engaging novel or watching the Netflix version.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at email@example.com.
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