When I was 8, there was a girl in my class who all of us mocked because she was fat. Nobody liked her much, so we never had any qualms in making a joke or two on her being plump. One day, during recess, she told me that if she was fat then, so could be any of us in the future. Then we might realize how it feels to be mocked on a daily basis. However, that did not stop me or anybody else. Nobody knew who started calling her ‘Moti‘ in the first place, but we all continued because at that time, it seemed normal.
When I was 13, I went to Jaipur on a school trip. One night, after calling home, I was walking to my room from the lobby when a group of 5-6 girls appeared before me as if they were going to perform a flash mob. They began teasing me by making weird faces and calling me names. A few minutes later, they walked away. For that night and for the next few days, I kept on wondering who these girls were and why did they pick on me. I was scared of crossing paths with them because I did not want them to make fun of me again. I recognized their faces but I did not know them personally, I had never argued with them or talked to them. I could not understand their intentions. However, I never spoke about that incident.
That same year, I was after a pair of pink jeans. It was 2006 and I used to spend copious amounts of time watching Disney shows and playing games on the Disney website. I think I saw those jeans in Lizzie Mcguire and then I wanted them. I wore my pink jeans and a pink and white sweater to a friend’s birthday party. I did not know most people there. We were all seated in a round table fashion and while I was eating I saw two girls from the far end of the table sniggering at me. I ignored them. The next day at school, a friend told me that some people at the party found my attire queer; they devoted some time discussing how strange I looked and how strange I behaved. I never wore my pink jeans after that year.
I had access to a broadband connection and a printer at home. I remember that on our way back to our autos after school got over, we would sing songs sometimes. Among our favorites were ‘Kya Mujhe Pyar Hai’, ‘Dhoom Again’ and ‘Whenever Wherever’. I could never understand lyrics of English songs and I still can’t. I remember telling a friend that I simply Google the lyrics and sing along. She asked me, if I could get a print out of the lyrics for her. Then another friend asked for the same and then another 4-5 of them. Odd as it may sound, I recall a friend’s friend telling me that people in school believe that I am trying to win friends by handing out song lyrics. I felt sad, I felt like no matter what I did, it would always seem odd to someone.
It was in 9th, when I read Word Power that I realized what the problem was. I learned the word ‘Introvert’. I was an introvert. I was a person who was concerned with her own thoughts. I faced difficulty in communicating with people. I still can’t make sense of my first day conversations. Sadly, I assumed that when you do not talk to people, they do not know you and hence they do not concern themselves with you. However, the contrary was true in my case. Most people in my school believed the reason that I keep to myself is that I am arrogant about my grades or how they liked to put it ‘I was proudy’ (sic).
I remember waiting for a friend after a computer practical. She had come late and was perhaps one of the last few to take that exam. As we were heading back home, she said that she overheard a teacher telling another that my face reeks of arrogance, no wonder not many people like me.
In class 10, I was talking to the girls sitting in front of me. Then suddenly, one of them apologized to me for what happened on the Jaipur trip. I was taken aback. She explained that her friends were told by their friends that I was vain, that the reason I did not speak to a lot of people was that I was arrogant about my grades. So they took it upon themselves to teach me a lesson and poke fun at me. However, now that she has talked to me, she does not find me arrogant. I laughed it off and said that it did not matter. But at that point in time, it did. I found it hard to digest how easily people misjudge others purely on the basis of hearsay.
She was not the only individual to have come to that realization and confess that to me. In fact, a lot of people between classes 8-12th walked up to me to tell me that they have spoken unkind words about me on the basis of how others portrayed me. I always smiled at them and told them it was okay. I never knew what I should tell them. Should I tell them that their words had hurt me, should I tell them that their words had made me feel isolated, should I tell them that their words had forced me to render my personality unacceptable, should I tell them that I devoted almost 4 years on being pleasant to people who I knew where the chief conspirators of the rumor mill, should I tell them that I still cannot say ‘No’ to people, fearing that they will consider me to be arrogant, should I tell them that I still seek reassurances from good friends that I am not mean.
Why am I talking about all of this today? Because I want to talk about the show ‘13 Reasons Why’. For the uninitiated, it is a show that revolves around a teenager who commits suicide and leaves behind a box of cassette tapes recording the reasons behind committing suicide. The tapes contain narrations of incidents when she was bullied at her high school. Every day, I find an article in my Google Now condemning the show for its portrayal of violence and handling of teenage depression. Every time I read these articles, I feel that while some of the choices that the protagonist makes during the show are questionable but the show cannot be completely written off.
Throughout the run of the first season, you can find the characters saying that whatever Hannah faced at school was normal; whatever happened with her was nothing new or extra ordinary that she decided to kill herself. Thus it hit me that it is normal for people to be insensitive to other people in school. We have all been around a group of individuals in school who believed that they were entitled to pass unwarranted comments on others, to mete out ill treatment because of an assumed high ground. We have all spoken unpleasant things about people behind their back. Knowingly or unknowingly we have hurt people and to us, our words and actions seem inconsequential but to those they are directed at, our words and actions could be damaging. We must have made people cry on one or more occasions and we did not even bat an eyelid because thoughtlessness is deemed normal.
My parents always listened to the good bits from school not because they were unapproachable but because I always felt that they had their share of troubles to tend to. My problems seemed tiny in light of theirs. I am more open with my parents now while it was more essential to be vocal back then because I constantly yearned for assurance that my introversion is not an anomaly; that I do not have to reform myself to be more acceptable.
There is a tape where Hannah says, “You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own.” And it’s true because at a young age, it’s difficult to understand if there is a need to share our problems with others and if yes, then who should we approach.
I am not saying that ‘13 Reasons Why’ is an exact reproduction of our high school lives. But, it does depict correctly the callousness of high school children in their words and behavior. Callousness, that never opens for discussion in front of our adults. One of Hannah’s classmates mother constantly confronts her son with one question, “Have you been bullied Clay?” and he counters her asking, “What if I am the bully mom?” His question challenges an assumption that every parent holds dear to their heart. His question sums up why instead of dismissing the show entirely, it deserves to be watched and talked by parents and teachers alike. Because children howsoever unfettered they seem on surface, might be surrounded with a number of anxieties. Because children, howsoever innocent and beautiful they seem on surface, might have wicked tendencies. What ‘13 Reasons Why’ shows is that we are all capable of evil and we never fully comprehend the effect our evil bears on others lives. Because we are equally likely to be perpetrators and receivers, just like I have been both, a perpetrator at 8 and a receiver when I was 13.