When I press play on each new episode of #advicetomyHSself I do so without any expectation of where things will go. I do not give a fancy introduction or a guiding question. This is generally considered poor teaching practice. But my goal is simply to release these personal anecdotes into the world and let them land as they may. Often I do not know who is affected by the message. I watch closely for body language and I see where the conversation goes.
Today we heard Alicia Meyer (whom I have known since 5th grade) talk about heartbreak and hope. When Alicia recounted a low moment in high school, crying in the bathroom at a school dance, I saw a few of my girls clench their hearts. A couple more softly floated an empathetic, “awwww…” into the universe. I told them this story surprised me because in high school Alicia was well-liked, a cheerleader, an academic standout. Not the kind of person one imagines might be crying in the bathroom during Homecoming.
Later, we were reviewing for the students’ upcoming exam by reading and analyzing a blog entry written by a young doctor who revisits his childhood home on a vacation ostensibly to “find himself.” As we looked at the positive connotation of his diction, the nostalgic tone, and the contrast between what he says and what he does, the students were curious. Why wouldn’t a 30-something-year-old doctor have “found himself” yet? I explained that our journey of self discovery never ends. We are forever in a struggle between peace and war within ourselves.
Through a series of turns, the discussion came around to 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix series based on the best selling book by Jay Asher. I, for one, am binge-watching it. But as I get deeper into the series, I worry about the students who are watching it, too. I asked my group what would have happened if Alicia had bought into the idea that she was an “unlikeable troll” like Hannah does in that series? I told them about my husband’s experience with suicide–when a close friend in high school, who was popular and well-liked, took his life. My husband and his other friends still contact one another on the anniversary of his death. Every year. It shook them. It shakes them. He did not leave 13 tapes behind. He did not even leave a note. Suicide is not glamorous, nor is it the action of a healthy, sane mind. I want my students to know that and I used my position of power and influence to deliver that message today.
Student J.V. was brave. He asked our little group (I had split the class in two, so we were sitting in a comfortable conversational circle together) if anyone else ever wonders why we’re here. Heads nodded in agreement–those heads had had that thought, too. Some mouths opened with surprise and discomfort…”okayyyy, that’s going a little too far.” I listened. I didn’t say a word. I watched student J.V. handle the different reactions to his thought and I watched him bravely expand the idea. A few more heads nodded and voices chimed in, “yah, I think that all the time…” I was so proud of J.V., and his peers, for bravely talking about the untalkable.
When I began the #advicetomyHSself project, my only hope was that it would let these young, impressionable, precious minds know that they are not alone. Alicia’s high school experience from “a long time ago,” as she said, is not so different from the experience of my students today in 2017. I am sure there was more than one girl crying in the bathroom at the prom a couple weeks ago, her beautiful hair, makeup, and gown masking her naked heart. And if we know we are not alone, that others have shared our experience and have come through the fire rising like the phoenix, then we will know we can rise, too.
Unlikeable trolls, to borrow Alicia’s term, ought to make their own 13 Reasons Why it will be okay.
I promise, it will.