Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Th1rteen R3asons Why

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher was recommended to me by a student in the early part of the semester, and I only now got a chance to read it. The story revolves around a high school junior named Clay Jensen, who mysteriously receives voice recordings of Hannah Baker, a classmate who committed suicide. It most likely falls into the YALit category, but I wouldn't let that deter you from reading it. This is a powerful story. It would make a great addition to a high school syllabus, especially in 9th or 10th grade.

I don't want this to be a book review, though. That's not really why comPOSITION exists. Instead, I want to talk about this book's take on education and writing, especially education about writing.

For Hannah, like real life student Phoebe Prince, writing became an outlet to address the confusion she was experiencing in her life. Hannah particularly took to writing poetry. It should also be noted that she made fun of the self-indulgent "miserable poets" in her poetry class. Outside of class, she shared with a classmate what she considers to be her real poetry. At first, she found this experience freeing and thought it might be her ticket to finding comfort, but eventually, writing was not enough. It wasn't enough because her words became twisted by others, just as her reputation does.

This became especially true when classmates tried to interpret a poem they did not know she wrote. The professor refereed to the assignment as akin to interpreting a "dead poet." As the students tried their hand at revealing the hidden meaning of the piece, Hannah became more and more upset with their inability to understand her meaning-- which, underneath it all, was clearly a cry for help. This moment only further severed the ties between her peers and herself.

Eventually, the only way Hannah believed she could express herself was through her 7 tapes. She would be the "dead poet," with the power of her name left behind, but this time, her meaning would not be hidden by imagery and meter.

If one looks back, though, the problem for Hannah was not that she was not allowed to express herself, but that she felt that her voice was never heard or that her messages were contorted. As a writing teacher, this is a major concern of mine, especially when I either congratulate a student for using voice well or tell them that I can't really hear "their voice." Am I hearing them correctly? Am I helping them to express themselves? And even if I am, so what? What do I want those words to do? Do they have an effect if they stop at me? These are questions to which I have no answers.

Speaking more towards education as whole, Hannah also talked about her favorite class, Peer Communications. This is a class that encourages students to talk about the real issues they are facing in their lives, including topics like abortion, drug abuse, and, eventually, suicide. The teacher promotes positive reinforcement between peers, as well, which is something that almost never happens in classes that rely on tests and grades to separate the strong from the weak. Hannah noted that despite her suicide she believes that Peer Communications class should continue. She also talked about how the class must be defended every year against those who believe it is a waste of time because it does not teach the "hard facts." Several of the teachers of those "hard fact" classes, Hannah said, resent the Peer Communications class because it is "fluff" and, more likely, because they are jealous that students are so engaged. Hmm... reflection of real life much?

For me, Hannah's trials speak directly to what is going on today with our youth. So many of them feel unheard, especially at school, the place that is supposed to be preparing them for the real world. School often fails to be a microcosm of the real world, to prepare students to be socially responsible citizens, and to deal with the things that are really happening in the lives of students. I think many times, when in front of a classroom, we forget that we are not supposed to fill empty vessels, but to help our future generation create progress. We worry about "correctness" rather than building imaginations and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, little is done to deal with the subtle ways that students-- and even adults-- tear one another down. The competitive nature of the classroom translates into social lives.

The last note-- and possibly the most important one-- that I want to make is that Hannah doesn't want to "move on" from her experiences, which is the advice she is given. She doesn't want to just get over her traumas, but she does want to own them and live. Yet, no one is able to help her take ownership of the things that have happened in her life because they are all too focused on reputations and expectations. Agency is really the matter at hand here. Like Hannah, many students feel trapped and unable to act. They want agency, but they are confined to a set of rules, social practices, and fears of being outcasts. As a teacher, I'm still wondering-- as I did in my earlier post about the recent teen suicides and writing-- how we can give students this agency, or anyone really.  How can we make sure others do not share their traumas only to have them thrown back in their faces? And what does it take to move a someone to use a trauma rather than to repress it?

The scariest thing for me... Hannah's final tape goes to her English teacher.

Trauma. Writing. Agency. Education. Microcosm. Expectations. Social Responsibility. Those are the key words of this book.

For a sampling of the novel, as well as clips of Hannah's voice recordings, you can visit: Bonus: This book is an easy read. I finished it in a few hours.

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