#1 – Aaryn Kealty (Winner)
“A lot of you cared, just not enough.”
My friend Anna and I met in grade school.
Anna was the first girl to get unnatural blonde streaks added to her already blonde hair that she straightened everyday. She was the first girl in our class to wear eyeliner and mascara. She listened to rap, pop, and R&B music and filled her walls with concert posters.
Even at ten or eleven, when the rest of us were watching Disney Channel shows, Anna was going to Usher and Christina Aguilera concerts with her older sisters.
In middle school, Anna was the first one to have a boyfriend in one of the grades above us. She was the first girl to get kissed under the stars, and the last one to be sent to detention for talking over our teacher.
Anna walked with confidence, spoke with enthusiasm and treated all of her classmates, especially her close friends, with respect.
Today, Anna is the happiest I have ever seen her. She’s finishing college, celebrating the birth of her older sister’s first child and most importantly, planning the wedding of her dreams to the man of her dreams. Anna’s life is full of adventure, promise, excitement and warmth.
But Anna’s future hasn’t always seemed so bright.
I was in middle school the first time I read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.
The words resonated with me, every page turn churned my blood. For those of you who don’t know the book, I highly recommend you go out and pick up a copy and set aside time to read it in a day, just as I do once a year.
Clay Jensen is mourning the loss of his classmate and crush Hannah Baker when a strange box of tapes finds its way to Clay’s doorstep. We quickly learn that before killing herself, Hannah Baker recorded herself on 12 sides of cassette tapes, a “Baker’s dozen” of people who played a role in her decision to kill herself.
This story is one of pain, misunderstanding, loneliness, and most importantly betrayal. Betrayal in any form you can imagine. Betrayal at a time in one’s adolescence when betrayal is the worst thing that can happen.
From personal experience, I think educators should be required to read, discuss, workshop and maybe even teach this book.
I remember exactly where I was when Anna called me crying about her dad’s affair. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I was when she called me from the hospital saying she stole her dad’s phone to call me. She was ok, but on round the clock watch. No calls. No texts. No contact with the world outside. She wouldn’t be out for a while. They were keeping her there. They didn’t want her to try to hurt herself again.
After the affair, Anna and her three older siblings dealt with the rupture of their family differently. The oldest child, her favorite sister, moved out of state, cutting herself off from not only her parents, but her younger siblings. The second child, who was just starting school not too far away developed a taste for parties, boys, and leaving her phone at home. She communicated with her family often, but at a distance, in vague words and promises to visit that she never kept. The third child, the only boy, threw himself into the drug scene at our high school. He had been suspended one less time than it took to be expelled and he was riding a fine line between certainty and uncertainty. He didn’t care for much at that point. He was never home.
This left Anna alone in a war zone. She felt for her mother, but understood her father. Before the affair, her mother worked all the time, paid little attention to her family, and was burned out from her first three children, leaving Anna unsupervised.
The first time Anna cut her hair, I wasn’t too concerned. It looked cute, a nice bob with bangs. It shaped her face well. But when she died her hair brown and then black, I began to wonder whose attention she was seeking. In the book Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah gives herself an extreme haircut hoping that others will notice and compliment her on the change. I made a point of being supportive of each of Anna’s hair decisions. Her parents didn’t even notice.
She started meeting boys online and talking to random stranger in chat rooms; everyone at school knew. At first, I thought it was because she was lonely at home and needed someone to talk to in the silence of her room. She came into school one Thursday with bags under her eyes and a fake smile on her face. I had sex with Joe last night. I had no idea who Joe was. Turns out, he was almost double our age and they had sex in the back of his car after she took some strange pills and drank booze from a water bottle. This is where I started to panic.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker is sexually assaulted in a hot tub after a series of sexual exploitations by her male classmates. In this scene in the book, Hannah explains how she gave up, how she laid there and how she let someone else control her body. She had no fight left. I was scared Anna had no fight left.
Mr. Porter, a teacher and confidant, fails Hannah Baker in Thirteen Reasons Why. Essentially, she goes to tell him that this is it, this is the end, she is going to kill herself, and he doesn’t help her. She pretty much tells him that this is it. And what does he do? He doesn’t listen. He- not only as the adult, not only as a teacher, but as the person she confides in- has the power to help her, to call her parents or to call for some sort of help. And he doesn’t. Hannah Baker killed herself because the people around her who saw the signs of someone who was thinking about suicide did nothing.
In February of 2010, Anna called me around 9:30 p.m. as she usually did on Thursday nights. There was nothing out of the ordinary that night when I picked up the phone, until I heard Anna breathing on the other end. She had been crying, I could tell. I asked what was wrong. Nothing. I can’t remember what I said back to “nothing” but I remember what she said next. Do you ever feel like you can’t breathe? Sometimes I feel like I can’t. Sometimes I feel like every day is a bad day with no good things in it. Sometimes I don’t want to have days at all.
She changed the subject quickly, but I couldn’t stop repeated her words in my head. The conversation went on as usual, we went over the answers to our math homework, we talked about the cute boy who was a new student a week earlier and who was already crushing on him, we talked about how much we hated our English teacher, and then my dad came in and told me it was time for bed. Five more minutes, Aar, please. I stayed on the phone with her for ten more minutes until my dad came in and threatened to take away my phone for the next week.
When I finally said “good-bye, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said: I love you, Aar. And hung up without saying “I will see you tomorrow.”
I told my dad. I told my dad Hannah Baker killed herself because she was alone. Hannah Baker killed herself because she couldn’t bear to live another day. Hannah Baker changed her hair and no one noticed. Hannah Baker was abused by men who saw her as weak and easy to use. Hannah Baker had been trapped in a rumor mill of lies and broken friendships. No one listened to Hannah Baker.
I laid in my dad’s arms and I sobbed because no one helped Hannah Baker. My dad held me in his lap and I pulled away. Anna is going to kill herself.
In retrospect, I would have expected my dad to hesitate, to not want to believe me. But he didn’t. He kissed me on the forehead and stood to leave. I could hear the hard steps he took as he hurried down the stairs to our living room. I didn’t hear him dial numbers or the phone ring on the other end. But I knew for some reason everything would be ok.
Anna’s mom answered, annoyed, tired, and still working late into the night. She hadn’t seen Anna since the afternoon when she got home from school and went to hide out in her room.
Kill herself? No, not her Anna. Please, my dad said. Go check on her. Anna was making a loop with one of her dad’s belts when her mom threw the door to her room open. On the floor next to her were three letters. Mom. Dad. Aaryn.
To this day, I have never read the letter Anna wrote for me in what she thought would be her final minutes. I do, however, have all of the notes she wrote me in the weeks after she was rushed to the psychiatric hospital. I keep them all in the front cover of my tattered copy of Thirteen Reasons Why.
Thirteen Reasons Why has changed my life in so many ways. Most importantly, it saved my best friend’s life. But it has also inspired me to go back to school and pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a high school English teacher.
The knowledge, understanding and passion that I have gained from this book is unmatched. It has taught me to listen, but also to look, and not just to look, but to see. I listened to what Anna was saying, she was saying she was ok, and she was trying to look like she was ok, but I saw that she was not. I looked beyond what we both wanted to see, an unbreakable version of Anna, and I saw what I needed to see, the broken mess of a girl who was ready to take her own life. Without this book, I never would have known, and Anna may not be with us, inspiring us and pushing us in life today.
Thirteen Reasons Why has given me the eyes to work with adolescents. It has opened my eyes beyond my own experiences and shown me what pain and social injustice can do to a vulnerable teenager. I hope that in my career as an educator I am able to take what this book has taught me and I am able to play Mr. Porter’s part the right way. As an educator, I will be a vessel for this book, a means of transfer, a mode of communication, and a teacher of compassion and awareness as this book has been for me.