Poor Mr. Ambrose. The faculty adviser to the Fitchburg High School class of 1994 had what seemed like an easy side gig lined up: Get the seniors pumped to graduate!
But his charges that year were no ordinary clatch of teens.
We were grown-up bicentennial babies with zero interest in rallies or field days. We were staunchly anti-pomp, anti-circumstance, and held a deep disdain toward institutions, obligations, expectations, and anything that forced us to look up from whatever we were scratching into our literal desktops with long-dead pens. If there was anything we shared as a “class,” it was a borderline antagonistic indifference toward just about everything — your dumb prom included.
We liked Mr. Ambrose more than most of his colleagues, so it wasn’t like we were trying to turn him bright pink. We weren’t trying to do anything.
Nor were we clawing at the walls of good old FHS (again, too much effort). It was more like we were unconsciously drifting through its halls like bored ghosts, and our dour presence haunted our assigned adult, who blasted us through a distorted PA at optimistically regular assemblies for sucking so bad (and yet so dutifully), eventually throwing his hands up and dubbing us the “Who Cares?” class — it’s even emblazoned on the cover of our yearbooks.
Mr. Ambrose’s frustration was understandable — not just because his primary audience spent more time texting one another (i.e. passing notes) than tuning into his hopes for us. Imagine the ennui of “The Breakfast Club” multiplied by the epidemic chaos of “Gremlins.” He had no reference point, no plan of attack against this army of the dead. We were peak Gen-X. Whatever.
I think about the plumes of steam firing from Mr. Ambrose’s ears a lot lately, as Gen-X itself appears to be joylessly enjoying a moment of recognition. (Which, irony registered, is the only thing we wanted all along!)
A sprawling recent New York Times package — “This Gen-X Mess” — was true to its name, offering a virtual Trapper Keeper stuffed with the “tech, music, style, books, trends, rules, films, and pills that made Gen-X . . . so so-so.” (In a well-executed design nod to the restless malaise of it’s subject, an invisible hand doodles ambivalently over the screen if it sits still too long.)
A Washington Post piece by Petula Dvorak declared “time’s up” for baby boomers, making the case that while Gen-X is small (just 25 percent of the population because you didn’t want two kids) we occupy a generational sweet spot that predisposes us to solving big problems. (Like the ones we have now.)
The cycle of generations, she argues, synchronizes Gen-Xers with “Heroes” like Eisenhower, Grant, and (“the Gen-Xer of his day”) George Washington. “Our parents were both the hippies and the wolves of Wall Street,” Dvorak writes. “And we are experts at surviving both. It made us the repairers, the fixers, the uniters.”
Hmm. That sounds a lot like caring.
Dvorak’s impulse may be part of a larger cultural fantasy about waking the oversleeping giant of Gen-X, which has found a comfortable place in the discourse high up on the bleachers, listlessly observing the battle between the millennials and the boomers like goths smoking cloves and watching a football scrimmage.
It’s hard to say why, beyond the odometrics of a quarter century, this reappraisal of Gen-X is taking place. This “early onset nostalgia” feels thick in the pop-cultural air right now (the brazen Gen-X bait that is the lineup of the recent Just Like Heaven festival makes for a nice Exhibit A). It’s hard to say how long we’ll hang out in this feedback loop. (“Bill and Ted Face the Music” won’t arrive for another year, if that’s any indication.)
Can a generation united only by its shrugging consensus that reality bites truly be called on to repair anything? As the steadily graying area between more vocal generations, we find ourselves back in a familiar state: both neutral and neutralized. And as the generation weaned by worn-out VHS copies of “The Never Ending Story,” losing Artax to the Swamp of Sadness taught us stubborn and valuable lessons about the efficacy of struggling against the quagmire.
So what wisdom can be wrung from Generation X’s chronically Ringwaldian ennui? Mr. Ambrose may not approve, but I’m going to suggest an old tradition that now counts as a radical idea: Not Caring.
We Gen-Xers were raised in a vastly different attention economy, one where the currency of actually caring was primarily exchanged in person (and had to be worked for). Those eye-rolls we fired at Mr. Ambrose’s plea for someone, anyone, to run for class president were the very same eye-rolls we shot across at the neo-Nazi losers poorly skateboarding around the parking lot of our Denny’s.
The sneer, the groan, the sigh, the knowing look, the labored silence, the mastery of “whatever” — this retired arsenal of antique social weapons still seem more effective to me than the Facebook argument, the furious Tweet, the one-star Yelp review, and the myriad “cancellations” of social media.
If Gen-X has one thing to offer those who come behind us (even you Gen Y weirdos who insist you’re not millennials) let it be the power of targeted, weaponized apathy.
He may not have known it at the time, but Mr. Ambrose struggling so earnestly to engage us was actually a teaching moment. I’ll have to thank him at our 25th reunion.
Oh wait, I missed it. Whatever.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.