By Judy Cole
When Jay Asher’s novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why” was published, the author couldn’t have anticipated the profound impact it would have. Taking the form of a tape-recorded “suicide diary,” the story follows a teenage girl’s escalating depression—that ultimately leads her to take her own life.
Ten years on, and a month after the premier of a new NETFLIX series, the international bestseller has become a touchstone for troubled teens around the globe. The book’s message: Everything we do can affect someone else in ways we might never even imagine.
This holds especially true for teens dealing with peer pressure, bullying, and/or problems at home. Without a safety net, some kids simply can’t cope.
It’s a message that resonated with Gaston County Public Library Director Laurel Roe Morris. She knows firsthand the value of teenagers having a safe place to express themselves because growing up, she was granted just such a haven.
Morris’s Girl Scout troop leader, also her best friend’s mom, offered sanctuary from what she termed, “craziness at home.” Morris believes that having positive adult reinforcement at a critical age put her directly on a path to pay it forward.
Morris spent years working with middle and high school kids as a scout leader herself. “Part of my goal was to be that adult they could talk to when maybe they didn’t feel comfortable talking to their parents or a teacher or somebody else,” she explained.
A few months ago, Jay Asher’s publicist was arranging a 10th Anniversary book tour for “Thirteen Reasons Why.” The author was coming to Columbia, S.C. for a reading in mid-June and was looking for other area venues that might be interested in hosting him—for one-third the regular fee.
Morris, a devoted fan of the book, jumped.
Where to go for help:
Emergency Hotlines National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Help Line for Substance Abuse: 800-262-2463
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Hopeline: 800- 622-2255
Alcohol & Drug Abuse Hotline: 800-729-6686
State/ Gaston County Resources:
With Friends, Inc. (shelter for homeless teens and free services for youth and families):
Discovery Home Care Inc. (shelter and services to homeless or transient youth):
AVID (Assault, Victimization, Intervention & Deterrence) Family Services (Crisis intervention, counseling, advocacy, and accompaniment to medical care, law enforcement and courts for victims of rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and incest): 704-864-7704 www.greatergaston.org/avid
AVID Rape Crisis Line: 704-864-0060
Partners Crisis Help Line: 1-800-898-5898
Alliance for Children & Youth: 704-867-3512 http://alliancecisgaston.org
Gaston Boys & Girls Club: 704-810-9524, 704-864-5681 www.bgcgreatergaston.org
Greater Gaston PAYS and PALS (serves at-risk youth by providing them with a positive adult role model): 704-867-5320 www.greatergastonpals.org
Gaston YouthWorks (Gaston County’s Workforce Investment Act Program, year-round employment and training program for in school, out-of-school, and at-risk youth ages 16 – 21): 704-862-7525 www.gastonyouthworks.com
Time Out Youth (Drop in/ Community Center for LGBTQ ages 13-23): 704-344-8335 www.timeoutyouth.org
Gaston County Dept. of Social Services Emergency Phone: 704-862-7500
Alcohol Drug Council of NC: 800-688-4232
A Call to Action
In November 2016, a 16-year-old Gaston County teen ended her life by jumping from an I-85 overpass into oncoming traffic. (A male driver on the interstate also died when his vehicle was rear-ended in the resulting pile-up.)
The horrific event shocked and saddened the town. By some accounts, the girl’s Twitter feed bore an eerie similarity to several passages in Asher’s book.
“Knowing how this community was hurting, I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something more,’” Morris recalled. Her answer was to organize a community read: 1,000 Reasons Why You Matter, with Asher’s book as its centerpiece.
Using state funding, more than 560 copies of “Thirteen Reasons Why” were purchased for distribution—plus another dozen Morris bought out of her own pocket. (Friends of the Library and a generous anonymous donor are paying the author fee and other incidentals.)
During the planning phase, Morris reached out to the Gaston County schools administration. “We were talking about such an important topic, we knew we’d need experts,” she explained. “We also wanted to get the book into the hands of teens through the schools as well as the libraries.”
Morris met with Ami Parker who serves as Director of Counseling Services for the Gaston County Schools. By a stroke of luck, Parker was in the process of organizing Gaston County’s first system-wide mental health awareness week with the theme “Erase the Stigma.”
Both events were scheduled to coincide with spring break, a time when at-risk students can be more vulnerable.
“There’s research to show that when students don’t have the structure of school and the immediate access to resources—school counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists—they can get off track,” Parker said. “Away from those opportunities, we wanted to make sure students knew what community resources were available to them should they need them.”
Copies of the book were sent to every middle school and high school in the district, plus several charters.
“Due to some of the subject matter—the book does have a bit of drinking, some sexual activity, and cuss words—we were understandably unable to bring them to area Christian schools,” Morris said, adding “They’re putting their heads in the sand if they think these things aren’t going on at their schools … but I get it.”
Morris also contacted several area counseling services for input.
Opening the Dialogue
For the next phase, Morris initiated a series of three interactive talk-back sessions, open to students, school and private counselors, parents and teachers. Members from each group were represented in the audience for the first two events.
Morris looks for a similar mix at the final session scheduled for April 24.
The library has provided a host of related reading for each session. Table displays include books on anti-bullying, mental health and suicide prevention, along with materials listing community resources for those seeking help.
“We wanted to have the fliers and books out because we know someone might not want to ask, but there’s a chance they’ll pick it up if it’s there,” Morris said.
Throughout the month of May, each library branch will also set up a designated “Express It!” corner, equipped with art and writing supplies to offer kids another outlet where they’ll be free to explore feelings, concerns and insights through art, poetry, prose and conversation.
Selected works will be put on display (with permission). A forum for online submissions will be made available as well for those who can’t come to the library or wish to make anonymous contributions.
“These are deep issues,” noted Morris. “We just want to encourage people not to bottle up their feelings.”
Why It Matters
Understanding why kids get so caught up in what other people think of them speaks to the central theme of “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Morris and her staff see kids struggling with peer, scholastic and parental pressures almost daily.
“Some people have a good, strong sense of themselves from a very early age,” she noted, “but approval is a deep-seated issue for a lot of people, and when you’re a teen, everything in your body is working against that.
“It’s making you feel strange and weird and unusual. You don’t know where you’re heading or where you want to end up.
“You’re struggling to learn all these new things, and at the same time, the hormones do come into it. You want to make somebody out there care about you.”
That’s why Morris believes arming teens with crucial information required to make healthy choices, giving them positive reinforcement, and providing a nonjudgmental place to express themselves are all so important.
“You can’t shelter kids forever. There’s a big crazy world out there. The more tools they have, the better they’re going to be able to cope,” she said.
The 1,000 Reasons Why You Matter campaign culminates with Asher’s reading on June 15 at 4 p.m. Thanks to the book’s huge following, the urgent relevance of its message—and a bit of NETFLIX notoriety—Morris is planning for an overflow crowd.