Recently, Netflix began to air an original series called Thirteen Reasons Why, based on the novel/novella of the same name by author Jay Asher. Having read the book years ago, I pulled it back up on my Kindle iPhone app and read it again tonight, to refresh my memory. It took about 2 hours. I cried. Again.
The purpose of reading the book again, although I do intend to watch the series and include my 11 year old daughter in the viewing, was to write this blog entry. It is in direct response to all the comments I’ve seen from many, many people, and also because, like Clay, I’ve sat and done nothing until I finally was no longer able to. Now I am the person who does something, even if that something makes me unpopular or look foolish. Being wrong out loud is better than silently being right.
The first thing I’d like to say is that many, many adults do not know anything about school except what they learned from having attended school. Which is not an admonition or reproach; it’s simply a fact. Having taught grades 9-12 for 11 years and grades 6-8 for an additional 5 now, I’ve had an opportunity to get to know more details about school in a more intimate way than I could possibly have as a student. I’m also raising 4 children of my own, the eldest 3 of whom are in elementary school at the time of this entry. What I’m going to write here will not be comforting, so if that’s why you are reading, well, far be it from me to tell you what to do…
Yes, school is pretty similar to what was described in the book. Having not yet seen the series, I have to assume it is accurate to the book, and once I have seen the entire series I will hopefully be able to verify that. Kids are mean, especially when they are hurt. Many kids can’t regulate emotions and are inherently self-centric, by which I mean their world view is limited to themselves and what things they interact with as opposed to being socially conscious. They make lists and include names to hurt others. They take advantage of situations and cover up for friends who have done truly awful things. They sneak out of the house, they take inappropriate pictures of themselves and each other, they spread rumors and gossip around without finding out the truth (and without really caring about the truth, if you want that level of detail), and they speak to one another in ways that are borderline abusive but increasingly accepted (even normal) in today’s society. Phrases like “snitches get stitches” and “bros before hoes” or even “chicks before dicks” are definitely common, and even upper elementary students use language that would make a sailor’s momma blush.
Actions do have a snowball effect in some cases, and I’m absolutely certain you have immediate memories that pop up of times a seemingly-innocuous event turned into something much, much larger. That time I saw the little plastic “flameless” tea candle lying on the floor and thought “I should pick that up before someone gets hurt” and then got distracted, only to end up in the urgent care unit with my 2 year old bearing a deep puncture wound because he ran through the foyer and his tiny foot landed directly on top of that same damned candle….
And we can never, NEVER, know the full and total impact of an action ahead of time. Especially not in the life of another person.
So what do you do? How do you protect, prepare, prevent, etc.? The long and the short of it is you have to accept responsibility yourself and take action. You cannot place all the hope or all the blame on the schools. First and foremost, your child is in school a sum total of 180 days a year. And of those days, only ⅓ of them are spent in school, and much of that time is spent in various classroom settings with a variety of students. At elementary the transitions are minimal, but after grade 5, or 6? Depending on the school, you’re looking at 4-8 different classrooms a day. Plus hallways, restrooms, locker rooms, athletic fields, the cafeteria…. School staff can do a lot – and believe me, we do. There are times and places where student interactions are not, and CAN not, be monitored. Furthermore, different schools have different types of issues. While you might be concerned about fights at one school, the next school over has an issue with pharming parties, and the one up the street has an online group of female students proudly dubbing themselves “sluts”. None of that is available in the online demographic page from the Department of Education, and much of it will never be disclosed by staff, students, families, or anyone else who has awareness. While you can typically find reported statistics on school violence and the like through a direct inquiry or even on a district website, that’s hardly the only (or even worst) thing your child is likely to face in school. In ANY school. Traditional public, charter, private, or parochial. They all have their own issues. I promise you this.
Again, what do you do? How do you protect, prepare, prevent, etc.?
Raise your child with compassion, empathy, awareness, understanding, and kindness. That is the first thing. Seriously. It sounds trite, and most parents would probably say they are already doing this. But are you? Are you, really? Are you talking with your white child about being a witness or an upstander when they see a person of color being addressed by authority? Are you teaching your daughter that it is never okay to call another student names or cut her out of the group because of the influence of the “popular” girl? Are you teaching your son that he is to never put his hands on another person ever, not even pulling pigtails to show he likes her? Do you use the phrases “boys will be boys” and “little girls are mean” with a “just saying” attitude? Do you write negative reviews after seeing gay characters featured in Disney movies? More importantly, because more is caught than taught as my mother in law says, how are you modeling this behavior at home? Do you share jokes that are “off color”? Do you say condescending, mean, or hurtful things to people in your household, even “just joking”? Have you erased the phrase “that’s retarded” from your own vocabulary? These observed behaviors have an impact on the little people around you. Your behavior becomes theirs. It truly does.
Talk with your children. Talk with them about everything. By the time they are receiving “the talk” in school, it’s way too late and they do NOT want to hear it that way. No one wants their first exposure to the words “penis” and “vagina” to be in a classroom full of pre-pubescent 11 year olds who can’t stop giggling and are grossed out by the thought of tongues in each other’s mouths. Tell your kids! Tell them about how they are similar to and different from other kids. Tell them about love, and how regardless of whether you agree with it or not, sometimes love doesn’t look like a man and a woman. Read books that tackle difficult subjects like racism and xenophobia and sexism, read them together, and discuss them! Ask probing questions to make sure your kids understand and aren’t embarrassed by what they don’t know. And for heaven’s sake, be real about it. Share with them your thoughts and teach them to make decisions on their own.
One other thing you can do is educate yourself and your child about bullying. Teasing, name-calling, picking on each other, that isn’t necessarily bullying. Please please please look into it and help yourself and your child differentiate between what true bullying is and what it isn’t. None of that behavior is okay, and we should not be encouraging our children to call each other names “affectionately” or in jest, but the system gets so slowed down when the initial complaint alleges bullying, and that means less time to look into and monitor what’s going on in other places as well as reduced resources for students who truly need help. Students like Hannah.
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, build your community. If your kids aren’t going to school where they live, which is quite common in a “choice” state like Delaware, help them to be connected to both their school AND their home communities. Attend events in both. Know the neighbors and other key players. To the greatest extent possible, provide your children with the safety net of an extended group of people who care and will look out for them. Remind them who they can trust and talk to when they need to. Let them know it’s ok if that person isn’t always you. Be their parent, not just their friend. Tell them you are proud of them, and that you love them, and that they are good people even when they sometimes make bad choices. Let them move on from those bad choices. Move on from them yourself.
The world is big for these tiny souls. So big, and so very full of dark. Give them a light that will never burn out; give them the ability to BE the light themselves.