Watching 13 Reasons Why has induced in me an unexpected sense – I think – of nostalgia. Is it nostalgia, I ask myself, or is it something else? I’m not clear on that even still, but reckon there’s a bit of nostalgia anyway, or perhaps just familiarity, mixed in with a bunch of other things. It’s not unpleasant, and in ways, it’s welcome, because returning to me are memories and thoughts that I have not come across for some years.
Watching the show there was certainly a sense of familiarity, even if things have changed since I was a teenager going to school. It made me question things too.
You become a man and you look back and what you see is filtered through your man eyes. The purity of the moment when you were an actual teenager is no longer available to you. Watching this show and walking in Clay’s shoes I got closer to it than I have before.
I tend to think who I am today is a clear linear progression from who I was as a boy. You don’t think about it really, as if it’s a given, but it isn’t really, and probably not true in my case anyway. I’m sympathetic to Clay. I recognise something, but it’s hard to articulate what it is. Perhaps it’s his sensitivity. Or maybe the sense of yearning, so common to adolescence. Was I as intense as he is? No. I wasn’t as troubled either, or as awkward. I wasn’t brash or particularly confident, and I was thought shy by many. I was very independent though too, which was heavily tinged with rebellion. Maybe stubborn. That hasn’t changed. I liked girls and was erratically good with them, but I was rarely confident with them (though might have acted it at times). I played sport and had good relationships with the ‘in’ crowd, though I went my own way.
I had quirks. Every teacher knew I was a brainiac, but I seemed to resist the categorisation. I’d earn perfect scores and then slacken off to mediocre marks, much to the frustration of my teachers. Looking back I can see the seed of the outsider I grew to become (quite deliberately). I didn’t like being taken for granted. I didn’t want anyone expecting anything from me. I wanted to be myself only. At times I would express that in unexpected ways. I remember once I finished a science test early, whereupon I whipped the folding comb from my back pocket and began combing my lush hair in the classroom, just like the Fonz. My teacher didn’t like that and let me know, but I carried that comb everywhere.
I was cute more than handsome, but the sort of cute that becomes handsome, and for most of my high school years was slim and of average height, even a little less than. I grew late, and left school a lanky thing.
Life hits you after that and shapes the man you become. Everyone says I’m confident now, even arrogant. I still think a part of me is shy, but there’s also a brash aspect to me. I can be intimidating, mostly inadvertent. All of that came later. Back then I was a lovely boy I think, a good kid who erred in being unexpectedly rebellious and individual.
I watch Clay with his family and heading off to school and lots of that is familiar to me also. I came from an upwardly mobile middle-class family and the living was pretty easy. I went to a private school and most of my schoolmates were at least as comfortable, and mostly more so. I never doubted anything and looking back I think there was a general sense of expectation, even indulgence in school. That comes easily to a kid who knows no better about the world. I would walk to the bus stop every morning and catch two buses to school and another two heading home. The buses were full of the raucous behaviour of schoolkids everywhere.
I lived in a leafy street and on the weekends I would ride my bike with friends riding their bikes. Sometimes we’d kick a footy in the street or play cricket in the backyard, depending on the season. I had an often fraught relationship with my father, but felt much loved by the extended family, particularly my grandparents, who would dote on me. I had real close mates I shared everything with, and had great adventures. It was easy, and that’s certainly something you take for granted. You live in a cocoon and mine, like Clays, was pretty snug.
Those things resonate with me as I watch the show, but ultimately what really connects is the recollection of how intense adolescence is. It’s a ride in which you feel keenly every thrill, every spill. Looking back I think of it as a kind of carefree intensity, because life really is pretty good and most of the things you feel – no matter how extreme they feel – are common rites of passage. I look at the kids in the show and witness their dramas and a lot comes flooding back to me – yes, I was there, I did that, I felt that too. You forget sometimes – once upon I was a teenager as well. And that’s what I remember – how often do live as intensely as you did when you were a burgeoning teenager, when everything was vital and anything was possible? That’s the resonance for me.
What is different is the hard edge portrayed in the show. I wasn’t bullied. I don’t recall ever witnessing it (though it looks different as a child from an adult). I was a rugged kid at primary school – I had a lot of fights and won every one of them – but I was always righteous, and never bullied myself. No doubt it happened, but in one way at least my time was more innocent. There was not the pervasive influence of social media and the 24/7 cycle it enables. If it occurred it was more straight up – I saw a few fights, and there were probably people sidelined in the popularity stakes – but I have no distinct recollection of any of that. Really, I sailed through.
I like remembering because it feels forgotten. Maybe it’s my imagination, but too often we seem divorced from our teenage self. Certainly, I look about me sometimes on the train and try to imagine the weary, the unfit, the cynical about me as they might have been when they were young, fresh and innocent. Often it’s very hard. And that counts for me too.