On May 1 at Oxford High School, students gathered in their classrooms, settling in for the weekday grind.
But instead of morning announcements, they heard a powerful message from their classmate about overcoming hardship and depression.
“13 Reasons Why,” is a video-on-demand series that debuted March 31 on Netflix and chronicles the aftermath of fictional Hannah Baker’s suicide. The episodes revolve around tapes created by Baker that single out classmates she says are responsible for her death.
A group of students from OHS have fired back at the largely-criticized show with a message of hope.
Throughout May, students shared “13 reasons why not,” telling stories of the acts of kindness that helped them through tougher times. A personal story has played over the loudspeaker at the school each morning since May 1, and will continue until 13 stories have been shared.
Abusive relationships, body shaming, and bullying were just a few of the tough issues the students talked about in their stories.
At the end of each story, instead of blaming a classmate, students thank a classmate who has helped them.
The project was organized by Dean of Oxford High School Pam Fine in memory of Megan Abbott, a freshman who killed herself in a wooded area behind OHS in 2013.
Most of Oxford’s 1,800 students didn’t find out about the project until Senior Riley Juntti’s story was played on Day 1.
“A lot of times, parents don’t want to talk about those (tough) situations or they try to guard kids from those situations… But the truth is these events happen in high school and you can’t hide from that, so we’re trying to make a proactive spin,” said Juntti, who tackled the issue of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in her recording. “A lot of times we think there’s this stigma around mental illness that we can’t talk about these issues, especially being so young… I think it’s important to get the message out there to other young people that it’s okay and to create this environment where we’re all comfortable (opening up).”
Each student’s speech is pre-recorded so the speakers can organize their thoughts and perfect their message.
Dylan Koss, an 18-year-old senior at Oxford, spoke to the school on Day 6 about coming out as gay and singled out a longtime friend as his “reason why not.”
“This is bringing up a dialogue that you don’t experience ever… Oxford gave us an opportunity and I think that is what makes this so important to all of us… It’s amazing what you can learn about each other. How much we actually have in common even though our stories are completely different,” said Koss.
The project has also resonated with Amy Hafeli, Megan Abbott’s mom, who says witnessing this project has aided her in the healing process after the loss of her daughter four years ago.
“This is basically fulfilling one of my daughter’s wishes… for people to go out and be kind and embrace each other and to listen and that’s exactly what they’ve started here is to get kids to listen and to open up… I’m very proud of these kids,” Hafeli said.
Students who have shared their stories say the response from other students has been friendly and warm.
Kayla Manzella, who spoke on Day 4 about a teammate who was kind when everyone else on her volleyball team picked on her, said people in the halls offered her hugs and she received reassuring messages on Twitter.
Alexa Alban, who shared on Day 5 that
she has struggled with her weight and been mocked for it by other students, said she’s been approached by others who said they could relate to her story.
According to staff, students have been talking more openly with one another and are asking for help as a result of the project.
This response, said Principal Todd Dunckley, shows that students want their voices heard.
The school is working to create counseling “circles” where students can come together to seek support from their peers and share their stories.
“When this project is finished, it is certainly not concluded,” Dunckley said. “It just opened the door and it created the spirit of a greater piece of work that we will carry on. We will never be finished… we need to continue to nurture it… There’s more to come.”