As a mom of seven daughters, a professional in the film industry, a teacher, a social worker, a self-proclaimed child advocate and someone who cares about the future of our human race, I watched what is now the most talked about new Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why.
And I am glad that I did.
I found the series gut-wrenching, sad, and tragically real.
I know there is a lot of controversy about its explicit content and grave concern about its impact on young viewers. That’s an important conversation to have. But for now, and for me, the show is a reminder of many important truths. As a believer in the “show, don’t tell” way of teaching, this series is a must-see for adults.
Why? Because we need a wake up call. While all of us are arguing about whether this series should have been made for young viewers, let’s not miss the elephant in the room: adult cluelessness. We need to open our eyes and realize that grown-ups often have no idea what might really be going on with their children: pervasive drinking, drugs, sex, and myriad mental health issues. It’s time for us to take a long hard look at what we are doing, what we are seeing, and more importantly, what we might be missing.
I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished binge-watching last week, and I am haunted by questions for myself and for all the adults who have the power to make a difference for our children.
So here are my 13 questions for 13 Reasons Why:
1. Why must adolescence and high school be so painful and wretchedly lonely? How can a student standing in a hallway filled with hundreds of other students feel so completely alone and invisible?
2. Do we work hard enough to know the stories of all of our high school students? Do we listen enough? Do we hear? Do we read between the lines? Do we slow down to notice the subtleties in their spoken and written words?
3. Why are cafeterias and lunchtime ALWAYS horrible? Since my John Hughes movie days, nothing has changed. The lonely girl looking for a place to sit is trite and yet not an anachronism. #schoolfail
4. Don’t even get me started on how the show portrays class time in the school: dull, tedious, boring, and overall something the students appear to tolerate at best. A teacher puts a movie on and instructs the class to pay attention, and not use their devices while he gets comfortable for a nap. Did the millions of children watching the show relate to this depiction? #ShameOnUs
5. WTF. OMG. Social media have completely changed the high school experience. Watching the wildfire of destruction from a text and a WhatsApp was sobering and horrifying. Are we doing enough to help our young people make good choices, do what’s right, and understand the power of social media and its potential for causing pain?
6. Do schools see themselves honestly for what they really are and what the school experience is like for ALL of their students? Can a school be completely oblivious to a bully culture? Do schools still celebrate the athletes with hidden curricular messages of winners and losers ? Are there schools with the courage to hold up a mirror and truly see what they are? And if our schools aren’t brave enough, which one of us will make sure to hold that mirror for our children’s sake?
7. Parents. OMG parents. This aspect of the show was the most painful for me, because despite believing that I am a fairly good parent, I have been guilty of seeing through my children. Always loving them but being preoccupied with life and inattentive to their needs. It’s haunting me, and hard for me to write this next sentence, but could Hannah have been my child?
8. Peer pressure is intense and dangerous. The scene in which a ring of students watch and cheer on two brawling students felt contrived and yet totally possible. But how could that be possible? One boy almost killed the other boy while the voyeurs were cheering, taking videos, and egging them on. I don’t want to believe we live in a world like that. But maybe that’s why the producers included it…to end adult naivete.
9. Did the mental health counselor blame the victims? Do we blame victims? How can we ever blame the victims? Just like teaching, mental health professionals require extensive training. Being a good listener does not suffice, and poorly trained counselors are dangerous. Do our schools understand the critical importance of superior mental health care in schools? It’s a matter of life and death.
10. So many of the characters were suffering from their own family or personal issues. And yet, no one knew. Do teachers understand that they are on the front lines, and often spend more time with our children than we do? How many teachers scan the faces in their classrooms and wonder what life outside of school is like for that student? Do teachers seek to know the full child? How many children are suffering silently?
11. How do schools manage tragedy? How do they balance protecting themselves and taking care of their students?
12. How many parents knew their children were watching this show? How many parents knew about the mature and upsetting content? What other content are our children watching that we might not know about? What kind of impact will seeing the horrible rape scene and suicide scene have on all of the young viewers? Will they ever be able to un-see those images? And now that we know, what is our plan? What do we do to help our children understand and process the show’s complicated themes?
13. And finally, why is this show so popular with our children? What does it mean for us, for them, and for our future?
My plea to my fellow grown ups: This show does not reflect well on us. We can brush it off and dismiss the charges as false and a mischaracterization of reality or we can stare down the truth and see the show as a harsh indictment of our neglect, and a magnifying glass held to our failures. I know many of you are actually trying, doing good things, and are not accurately reflected in this series. But too many of us are. And it’s time we came up with our own 13 Reasons Why we need to do better.