We Must Catch Them When They Fall

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[The following blog contains mentions of bullying, child abuse and spousal abuse.]

One of the most formative moments of my young life came when I was on a week-long school trip to a campground in Michigan in sixth grade. At a time when my father’s physical abuse of me and Mom was at its peak, I still really didn’t want to go on this trip because I couldn’t healthily deal with most of my classmates. Making matters worse was that as part of the “fun” activities planned for this trip, we had to take part in the old trust-fall exercise, where we all stood on a ledge and fell back so our classmates could catch us and we could build “trust” that way. To be blunt, I didn’t trust my classmates at all, and that mistrust turned out to be very well placed, because I fell and they didn’t even try to catch me.

I dropped about five feet, flat on my back, on a gravel driveway. I’m almost completely sure that I suffered a massive concussion as a result, but I wasn’t even allowed to seek medical treatment; this wasn’t the first time this happened at this particular school, and it wasn’t the last. The two camp counselors who were there just led us to our next activity after that, and if any of our teachers who were there got told about what had happened to me, they sure didn’t bother checking in on me to make sure I was okay. I kind of developed even more trust issues after this incident, and given how well I can still remember it, I’d probably be lying if I tried to say that I’ve completely moved on from it now.

I’ll save the rest of the grisly details of that time in my life for another venue, but I bring it up now because a few years later, when the phenomenon of stage-diving at rock concerts hit its peak of mainstream popularity, it was kind of jarring for me. I never would have tried stage-diving myself — as much as I like the music that accompanied those kinds of concerts, the actual concert experience was something I would have stayed far away from for a plethora of reasons — but because of that earlier experience I had of not being caught during that trust-fall exercise, I always got a funny feeling every time I saw stage-diving on MTV back in the day.

About a week ago, I was watching the music video for Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow,” which is kind of legendary for that iconic scene of Eddie Vedder diving off a balcony, from a height far greater than most stage-diving ever achieved. Looking back all these years later, I can’t help trying to contextualize stage-diving within the greater framework of thrill-seeking “extreme sports” that became popular back then, like bungee jumping and base jumping. Those are also things I never would have taken part in, but they were just as prevalent in mainstream culture back in the day. I still remember thinking how idiotic all the old people who came out against these things were (a particularly clueless report anchored by Connie Chung still sticks in my mind for some reason), when very similar activities like mountain climbing had been considered acceptable for decades prior to “extreme sports” taking off. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized the classist undercurrent of those attacks, since mountain climbing is by and large a rich person’s diversion, whereas anyone with twenty bucks and a strong stomach could bungee jump back then.

Beyond these issues, however, the very root question of why Generation X got hooked on things like stage-diving and bungee jumping, setting aside the obvious thrill of experiencing a huge adrenaline rush, still needs to be addressed. That was a unique time in recent American history, because we were in that interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the events of 2001.09.11, so there wasn’t a significant external “threat” for those in power to scare us with. As a result, our generation looked more inward, as can be seen in the wonderful music that came from this time period, and our concerns were directed more towards things like environmental stability. Perhaps the desire to experience the dangers that we just didn’t sense from the world around us could be part of the reason behind why my generation was so big on things like bungee jumping and stage-diving.

More than that, though, I think these things were representative of the necessary rebellion of our time; remember that my generation was the one that adopted “this sucks” for a mantra. Largely speaking, our generation didn’t trust what the older generations were doing, because we’d lived through the horrors of twelve years of Reaganism, and we quickly deduced that things wouldn’t get appreciably better under the Clinton Administration in a lot of ways. In a time before neoliberals were able to start scaremongering around Ralph Nader’s role in the 2000 presidential election as a way to smother more leftist Americans, it was far easier for many of us in Generation X to give a well-deserved middle finger or two to those who would deign to tell us what to do when they’d done absolutely nothing to earn our respect or trust. We knew we couldn’t rely on them, so we relied on ourselves — think of the strong DIY culture of that time — and we dove off those stages knowing that we’d be caught.

Successive generations — first millennials, and now Generation Z — have only suffered worse at the hands of baby boomers, who now seem firmly intent on dooming this entire planet to irrevocable catastrophe, all in the name of hoarding more wealth. These new generations have yet to turn against Generation X, but I’m not sure that we deserve their trust, at least not yet. We might not have been complicit in what the baby boomers have been doing to all of us these past twenty-five years, but I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough to match these new generations, who have suffered more profoundly these past twenty years than we have, in fighting for a just future for all of us. It says a lot that it’s far easier to look for current heroes in Generation Z — amazing people like Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and David Hogg — than it is to find similar figures in Generation X.

When I started teaching, I vowed to myself then, as I vow every day before I teach, to be the kind of teacher for my students that I needed when I was younger. One key component of that approach is that even though I still suffer deeply from the trust issues I developed when I was younger, I have to trust my students to do what needs to be done for them to succeed both in and out of my classroom, and that no teacher deserve students’ respect and trust unless they’re willing to respect and trust their students. That’s one way I’m trying to help the generations that have come after mine, but I know that I could do more, and I’d argue that Generation X as a whole needs to do more right now, especially as our collective future becomes more and more dire with each passing day. Millennials, Generation Z, and those young people not yet named who will form the next generation, are being knocked down all the time by the baby boomers and their sickening greed. It’s up to all of us to be there for them, and to catch them when they fall, because we’re certainly going to be knocked down an awful lot ourselves before things start to get better around here.

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