5 Reasons Why I, a 43-Year-Old Woman, Binge Watched ’13 Reasons Why’

Over the recent spring break, I binge watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same title. I am not the target audience for this work, but I could not stop watching this story about adolescence, sexual assault, and teenage suicide. The following is a list of five reasons why I, a middle-aged woman, was enthralled with the story:

1. I teach high school social studies

When I returned to work on Monday, I felt myself scanning the faces of the adolescents that I teach in a large suburban high school north of Syracuse, NY. As I was getting through a lesson on the cold war, I began to wonder how many of my students sitting before me had watched the series? At least half of my class? What were their takeaways? Which character(s) were they most like? Which part of the story resonated with them? Who among these classes was suicidal? Were my students like me, did they continue to live with the characters like I was?

Occasionally a film or a book will strike a chord with my students. I had previously heard students discuss Jay Asher’s novel, but I think the movie will have a deeper impact on adolescents — a group that is tremendously visual. The story is slick, a California cool. If a tired old lady like myself felt compelled to binge watch this movie, adolescents will watch this on repeat. A myriad of conversation topics arise from this story — sex, alcohol, drugs, parents, school, sports, cliques — it covers the spectrum of the high school experience.

2. I have had students attempt suicide

Almost every year I hear about a student attempting suicide. Thankfully, I have not known a student to be successful, but every year at least one student whom I have taught attempts to kill them self. The school I teach in has wonderful social workers, counselors, and teachers, but schools are not equipped for mental health issues.

As a classroom teacher, I hear about the suicide attempts with a statement of confidentially. Teachers get bits and pieces of a student’s story. We hear things like: “Jimmy took a shotgun to the gut last night.” “Nicole took a lot of pills.” These students are absent for a time period. They return, and I am supposed to act like nothing occurred. My job is to teach facts, not to counsel. I am completely useless when it comes to my student’s mental health.

As I watched 13 Reasons Why I searched for signs that might be apparent to me in the reality of my teaching. The main character, Hannah Baker, continually showed me that she was so normal. She was interacting in a typical high school. The actress told the audience that there were no signs. There was only silence. Silence is the enemy.

3. I am raising two daughters

The stupid internet went out two nights in a row during the time when I could watch the series without my daughters’ awareness. So, I found myself hiding in my bedroom, the door shut, trying to keep my daughters away, as I finished watching the series. My twelve-year-old daughter was my biggest concern. She had caught me earlier and commented that her fifteen-year-old cousin was watching this. I said, rather abruptly: “You can’t watch this.” I said it so quickly. I had to protect my daughter. It wasn’t just the sex, it was the entire story that made me pucker. I just don’t think she is ready. I am not ready for her to see rape.

“You can’t watch this.”

However, it is not the sexual aspects of the story that bother me as much as the mental health issues. Two students in the story kill themselves and others locate weapons or escape with substances. As I watched the anguish of Hannah Baker’s parents in the film, I connected with their struggles. They were having financial difficulties and marriage problems. They were not “seeing” their daughter. I worried about my own parenting. Am I missing my daughters, especially the oldest? She is entering adolescence. I want to give her freedom. I want her to be independent and competent. I also want to be the wall that she swims to — I want to give her a safe place to rest and restore herself from a hurtful world.

If you are interested in exploring the parental side of this issue, Ijeoma Oluo, in her piece ’13 Reasons Why’ Scared The Shit Out Of Me — And It Should Scare You Too, does a fantastic job of explaining every parent’s worst nightmare.

4. I wanted to compare

I was curious to see if my own high school experience compared to the one portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. It held up. Although I graduated over twenty years ago, the setting of the story is iconic: the American High School. I also remember watching teenage movies in my youth. 13 Reasons Why was reminiscent of Pretty in Pink’s images of rich and poor kids. There were The Breakfast Club similarities with the cliques and the social outcasts. There were also times that I thought about the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, especially in terms of the pressure of sexual interaction.

However, my generation did not have fucking social media, and cell phones equipped with cameras that could instantly message the entire school. Images of our worst choices were not permanently stored for continual humiliation. My generation could escape school. We could go home. Adolescents today are tethered to their phones and are bombarded by drama, images, and a fake sense of intimacy.

5. I am Hannah Baker

And so is every girl. The female teenage body is the most objectified and fantasized image in the world. Every time the picture of Hannah Baker’s underwear peeking out of her skirt was passed around we understand why women are not yet equal. It is portrayed as “boys being boys.” When her ass is grabbed in public and rated the “best” rear end at her high school, nothing about her intellect is celebrated. When the student president reaches up her skirt as she drinks her milkshake, we witness the constant assault to her innocence — any ownership of her sexuality is eroded away. Her vulnerability is so raw that by the time she is raped it almost feels inevitable. As the crime is committed, the camera lingers on her expression — one of complete frozen resignation. Her soul is depleted and the sexual act evokes a scene of a veteran prostitute.

Ultimately, I will watch this movie with my daughters. I am confident that this story will come up in conversations with my students. The degree to which I am disturbed by this work is a positive force for my teaching and parenting. It is a wake-up call for me to see my students and my children in the world in which they need to navigate. Maybe I was not the target audience, but I urge anyone who loves an adolescent to watch this series.

Here is another article about ways teachers can discuss 13 Reasons Why: https://www.weareteachers.com/discussion-questions-13-reasons-why/

This piece on medium.com:  https://medium.com/@brownberryfarm/5-reasons-why-i-a-43-year-old-woman-binged-watched-13-reasons-why-5c1ca46f1cbb


“Will there be homework over break? “

This school year brought six snow days (or was it five?). Either way, when you teach in a block scheduling format loss of days matter. I was schooled long ago that only one major concept will be learned each block, so trying to cram multiple ideas into sixteen-year-old’s developing frontal lobes is just futile. The result of block scheduling is that I only have about 90 chances to teach 20,000 years of history.

When a teacher only has 90 opportunities to instruct, they must make strategic decisions about pedagogy. Decisions like these require editing topics with a scalpel, not a hatchet — regardless of the time constraints, the students still need to learn the basic content to perform well.

I also have some basic values about instruction and assignments. Instruction needs to be clear and assignments must be valuable. When spring break arrives, one question looms: will there be homework over break? I always try to answer that with no. I want to be the reasonable teacher. I want to be fair. I want students to return refreshed, ready to tackle seven weeks of intensive study and review for a major exam. I also do not want to have homework over break, or a pile to grade after the break. I need to put on my oxygen mask as well.

With the loss of classroom time this year, I decided to shorten my research assignment and declare the due date the day before break. Students were instructed to hand in their assignment via Google Classroom and then were set free for a long spring break. Well, that was my plan. Instead, my honors’ sections convinced me that they needed until Wednesday over break, and my academic sections seem to feel that due dates are suggestions. The reality is that today is Thursday, and the assignments are still trickling in. It is like when you hand wash the last dish, clean up the soapy water, and someone hands you their dirty plate (with a smile). So, with every email notification of dear Johnny handing in his research project, I take out the dishpan and fill the sink up with warm water and a drop of soap.

Teaching is so much like housework — it is never finished, and it often goes unnoticed. Unfinished grading hangs over my head like cobwebs in a neglected corner of my house. I feel the weight of each student’s work — the responsibility is great to give them honest, constructive feedback. The pressure is mounting to return to work with a clean desk and a free mind.

The next seven weeks will test my resolve and require my expertise, patience, and humor. I have responsibilities first to my AP students, then to my sophomores, and then to my own children. Sadly, my family knows that May and June are not mommy’s favorite months! My husband often says that he doesn’t like me in September, but he hates me in June.

So, will there be homework over break? Yes. The work will be mostly mine, however. The work involves resting, reading, grading, and planning for the last leg of this school year — a year that has included an incredible amount of soul searching, reflection, and discussion.

Ultimately, I am accountable to my students and they deserve the best version of their teacher. They demand my ability to plan dynamic lessons, coach their skills, and prepare them for success.

I am the NY Excelsior Scholarship

Confessions of a middle-aged debtor.

Hello, my name is Laura, and I am a debtor. Last year, at forty-two- years-old, I wrote my final student loan repayment check. Phew…that sounds like a confession at an AA meeting — Hello, Laura. People with student loans might need a support group. Debt, like addiction, is a deep hole one climbs out of day by day. Repayment is similar to a twelve-step recovery program that for many people can last 252 months.

For the first 21 years of our professional careers, my husband and I paid for our education. We never missed a payment, but student loan repayment limited our financial trajectory — it impacted where we lived, what type of cars we bought, decided if we took vacations, and determined how big of a house we purchased. I will never regret my education, and I accepted that it was the price of doing business, but I will always feel the weight of that heavy burden of debt my entire life.

My mother, a single-mother most of my childhood, made very little money, so I did qualify for grants, but most of my education was funded by work and loans. My husband did have the support of his parents, both educators, but with three sons in college and other expenses, their help could only go so far, and their income was too high for my husband to qualify for grants. This perfect storm caused us to begin our marriage with a giant monkey on our backs.

In 1995, I began my teaching career making $28,000 a year. After taxes, rent, student loan payments, food, and utilities, I had about $100 remaining every month. There was absolutely no wiggle room in my monthly budget. When my husband graduated, he earned about $20,000 as a chemist and so with our meager $48,000 combined gross income, and $25,000 in student debt, with mortgaged a $70,000 split-level in the burbs. We were college-educated, we were employed, and we were maxed out. The numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, but this reality is true for many college-educated people across the nation. Increasingly, college graduates are beginning their lives in a deep hole — many are not living the middle-class lifestyle that college education promised.

In 2003, our financial life began to slowly improve. I transferred to a higher paying district, and my husband opened our own business (which deserves another post.) However, we still could not wipe our student debt clean — we bought a more expensive home, we had children, we needed new cars — life happened, and the cost of living increased.

Besides paying the student loans, the mortgage, the car payment, the utilities, food, etc, we have managed to put aside a small amount of money in our daughter’s NY529 college funds. These funds might allow our daughters to begin their lives without that ball and chain of student debt. The Excelsior Scholarship gives me hope that by 2022, the year our oldest is ready for college, she might qualify for the scholarship. (Under current income guidelines, she would qualify.) If tuition was not an issue, my husband and I could swing the room and board for our girls. Furthermore, as currently written, they would need to stay in NY for four years post graduation. This would encourage them to remain close to home. Our oldest has already chosen the northwestern corner of our 40 acres where she will build her dream home.

Although I fear that the political winds will change, or that we will make just a hair pass the qualifying income in 2022, I am happy that states like NY are rethinking the value of investing in higher education. lnvestment in public education (pre-k through college) is truly what a modern, industrialized nation needs in order to compete in a global world.

For thirty-eight years, I have been connected to public education in the great state of New York. Never straying more than 100 miles away from central New York, I attended the Marcellus, West Genesee, Jordan-Elbridge, and North Syracuse public school districts. These four school districts gave me a sanctuary, opportunities, athletics, and quality instruction. I earned my BA in History from the State University of New York at Geneseo and landed my first teaching gig at Wellwood Middle School in the Fayetteville-Manlius public school district. Fourteen years ago, I began teaching at my present location, Liverpool High School. Regardless of size, location, or funding, every time that I have participated in public school education in New York State, I have grown both personally and intellectually. I am a full product of public education. I am made in NY.

When Governor Cuomo announced his plan to offer “free” tuition to SUNY and CUNY students I was excited but skeptical. I wondered how would a state like NY, that has lost people, jobs, and stature, pay for this program? Politicians like Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin of Troy, and Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse oppose the idea of the scholarship, these men wonder how the program will be funded. DeFrancisco opposes the tuition hike to non-qualifying students. McLaughlin promotes tax credits instead of tax subsidies. I ask these men a Dr. King type of question: “If not now gentlemen, then when?” Now is the time to amplify what our state still has — quality public education. We may have lost Carrier, GE, and other manufacturing. Those types of jobs are not coming back. Automation has also changed manufacturing and shifted the workforce. New York needs to concentrate on what we do well — we need to continue to lead the nation in education.

Furthermore, I say to Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblyman McLaughlin, please consider New Yorkers like me. I would have qualified for that scholarship. If my daughters were currently college-aged, they would qualify for that scholarship. The cost of education is holding people back and it is helping to erode any semblance of a middle-class lifestyle. New York is not alone, Rhode Island is introducing tuition assistance without income requirements in its upcoming state budget. Tennessee and Oregon already have similar college assistance programs.

If we really want to make America great again, we need to get off the student-debt cycle. It is decreasing the value of education and it is depressing the middle-class. Our children should not have to pay the bill for our unwillingness to invest in their future. Furthermore, states like New York have bled out — young people are not staying. The Excelsior Scholarship and similar programs offer people encouragement and incentives to remain.

The Rules of Democracy are made to be broken.

The U.S. Senate went nuclear and the U.S. President bombed a sovereign nation in the same day.

The founding fathers, being students of the Enlightenment, read the works of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hobbes, and Rousseau — thus creating rules for our nation to play the game of representative democracy. Over the course of American history, amendments have been passed and revisions made. The U.S. Constitution is extremely amazing because it is a living, breathing document filled with defects of character just like any human. However, the constitution is only as strong as the rules it upholds. The founding fathers recognized the many paths tyranny could walk, and so they put in place safeguards like emoluments clauses, powers reserved to specific branches, and protocols for supreme court appointments.

Since the election of 2016, the constitution playbook has been tested. President Trump is not the country’s first wealthy leader, but his real estate and business dealings are pushing the boundaries of the emolument clause.

Recently the Washington Post reported that a liberal watchdog group has filed a lawsuit against President Trump citing this clause. However, this lawsuit is unlikely to lead to impeachment, and the case is difficult to “win.” Basically, the emolument clause is as difficult to say as it is to prove.

On April 6, 2016, the Senate went “nuclear,” changing the rule from 60 votes to a majority of votes to confirm a supreme court nominee. Interestingly, the Senate is probably the most changed component of the U.S. Constitution. For the first 125 years of America’s existence, senators were appointed. It wasn’t until the progressive era reform movement of the 1900s, that the 17th Amendment was ratified, granting the direct election of senators. Previously senators were appointed by state legislators, which caused problems of political puppetry and vacant seats. This week, however, the Republican-held chamber changed its own rules to expedite the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. The Republicans are changing the rules and very little is being done to stop them.

Also on April 6, President Trump dropped missiles on a sovereign nation without congressional approval. Although many people (both private and public citizens) support the president’s decision to take action against a country that has been suspected of using chemical weapons on its own people, the president did not follow the rules. Many Americans went to bed after hearing Nikki Haley’s impassioned speech at the UN thinking a diplomatic or unilateral solution was imminent, only to wake up to learn that President Trump had bombed a Syrian airbase. President Trump did not allow for the political process to unfold — the democratic rules were ignored.

American representative democracy is fragile, special, and delicate. Like a garden in July, it needs constant weeding and care. Unless the American people want the words etched in the Capitol building to say: by the president, for the politicians, and of the corporations, every American citizen needs to be a constant gardener.

Furthermore, regardless of which political “team” an American citizen roots for, every person has the responsibility to make sure the “game” is played by the established rules.

To every politician (Republican and Democrat): shut your face holes about education.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the last twenty years, politicians (red and blue) have told the American people what schools need. Here is a list of their collective blubbering:

Schools need common standards.

Schools need teacher accountability and student testing.

Schools need to weed out the “bad” teachers.

Schools need teachers they can fire, tenure doesn’t allow for that flexibility.

Schools need teachers living in a right-to work state because teacher unions squash creativity.

Schools need data driven models to improve instruction.

Schools need local control instead of federal mandates.

Schools need “choice” — charters, vouchers, private, etc.

Schools need to be fixed because public schools are failing.

Schools need more rigor; we are not keeping up with China.

Schools need to focus on STEM, STEM, and more STEM.

Schools need more technology so that students learn 21st century skills.

Schools need students to have a plan for graduation to earn their diploma.

Are you a teacher? Have you ever been a teacher? Have you lived the “teacher life”? 

No? Then shut up! 

And, if you are not a teacher, but you believe that politicians know what schools need, then you can shut up too. Because after years of politicians talking their faces off, nothing has been gained. Schools are not getting what they need.

We are listening to the wrong people. Furthermore, we are allowing politicians, with whom we would not trust to babysit our children for an hour, full decision-making powers concerning our most important social institution. Teachers, on the other hand, with whom we entrust with our children on a daily basis, are not celebrated for their pragmatic ideas. Politicians, don’t say: “You know what, I am not a teacher, let’s have teachers make those decisions.”  Instead, teachers are given no voice, and in many states no union membership as well.

Obviously, this is a very blunt post — very adolescent in tone. It is also very clear. If we continue to give power to these men and women who lack any expertise in education, we will continue to get more of the same.

Furthermore, because teachers are such reluctant activists, politicians have been allowed to usurp the power of educators. In piece on the BAT (Bad Ass Teachers Association) blog, Justin Williams writes a piece entitled, “Because Educators Do What They are Told,” where he explains why teachers have been so reluctant to speak up. Williams outlines that politicians (as usual) follow the money and that education has become profitable.

 “The business of educating children is becoming more and more of a profit-making venture, shot through with vultures very qualified at making money and not much else. For now, education remains a sitting duck for these capitalists.”

Williams outlines the reality of the 3.1 million American teachers when he writes:

“Teachers, the largest professional workforce on the planet, follow orders better than any other workers in history. It’s why we’re the last great union, wherever we are “allowed” to unionize. We’re the most educated group of discounted, disrespected, go-with-the-flow, wherever-it-goes workers on Earth. And it’s why we’re failing our children, all over the world. Miserably.”

If like Williams writes educators continue to follow “like sheep among wolves,” then education will be consumed by the heirs of Amway, and other for-profit business people. These educational entrepreneurs will continue to lobby politicians. Politicians, in turn, will continue to speak mindlessly about education. Teachers need to tell their political representatives to shut-up about education. Teachers need to tell politicians that their jobs are in permanent jeopardy until these elected officials stop talking about educational reform and begin listening to the 3.1 million American teachers who actually know what schools need.

Being observed by a stranger…

A teacher’s observation, not a stalker story.

I was greeting students in the hall when I saw a person I did not recognize. The woman, nicely dressed with a district badge, quickly offered her name (which I did not catch), informing me that she was here to do my walkthrough observation. Mentally scanning my lesson plan, I thought okay, game on!

Beginning in 2015, New York State Law requires that teachers be observed by both a lead administrator and an independent one. A lead administrator is the professional with whom a teacher has a working relationship with, the independent observer cannot be attached to the school’s BEDS forms, and in my case, she was a stranger.

I have been observed countless times in my career, many observations unannounced. However, I have never been evaluated by a professional with whom I had absolutely no relationship. I have never had someone evaluate my teaching who was so unfamiliar. Furthermore, I have never had my yearly “score” tied to someone’s opinion of my teaching based solely on 15 minutes of classroom time.

Although I am a veteran teacher, I was still a bit apprehensive about this unannounced stranger observing my classroom. I quickly assessed the seating arrangement, needing to actually move a student’s seat because, with 29 students, a nurse, a teaching assistant, and myself in this classroom, it is almost standing-room only. Fortunately, it is also a fantastic class filled with thoughtful and reflective adolescents.

Luckily, I had a dynamic student-centered class planned. The class was engaged — showing both analysis and depth. The stranger smiled and nodded, she didn’t seem that out of place.

The following Danielson rubric, sent via the magic of the internet, relieved my anxiety because this stranger deemed me Highly Effective on that famous HEDI scale. I was, of course, relieved, but I can’t help but wonder how much time these “independent” observers are spending outside of their normal duties. Moreover, why has the teaching profession become a place where teachers are so untrustworthy that they need two different observers? Is this the wave of the future? Since 2012, many people have told me to calm down. They tell me this too shall pass. It is not “passing.” These changes are here. The high stake testing, the scoring of teachers, the reliance on DATA seem very permanent.

After the evaluator exited my classroom, a student asked me who “that person” was. I laughed and said: “I don’t know. New York State has mandated that teachers need to be observed by an independent evaluator.” My students let out a collective, uncomfortable giggle. Side conversations occurred, until one student, raising her hand, said: “That is stupid. You should be evaluated by your students.” I smiled. It was a very adolescent comment, but a very interesting suggestion.

When I teach as an adjunct at the college level, I do receive student evaluations. That feedback helps me learn and grow as an educator. Who better to “score” me than the people I have the most contact with and influence on? Although I could see many problems with adolescents “grading” their teachers, I would like to think on average, I would be evaluated fairly.

Overall, the entire APPR evaluation process has been very disillusioning. I am an experienced teacher — since 2012 each subsequent school year has been reduced to a score — my teaching fitting nicely in a rubric. Having many years remaining in the classroom, I am aware that flexibility is the key. However, I am not sure how much more that I can bend.