I stumbled across Heather Havrilesky's writing at Salon.com where, among other feats, she spun witty and brilliant critiques about culture and my favorite television show Mad Men. Havrilesky recently resigned her position at Salon when her memoir came out, and I was one of the first in Amazon's queue to purchase a copy.
Havrilesky speaks to my Gen-Xer self. She, like most of us, spent her formative years in the sprawl of post-Watergate suburbs, watching endless hours of Fantasy Island and Happy Days and feeling grateful when her parents divorced because her home was finally calm. Pac Man, tube socks, red-swooshed Nike's, boom boxes, Reaganomics, Tab, Tylenol tampering, skateboards, Farrah versus Dorothy haircuts, After-School Specials, shuttle explosions, Happy Meals, microwaves, the Iran crisis, Growing Up Skipper, the birth of punk rock, the Facts of Life, and The Morning After muttered to our inner fears and dreams. Collectively we developed a comfortable, balanced sense of doom and apathy.
In Disaster Preparedness, Havrilesky recalls an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Taylor, whose fear-mongering classroom antics terrified her captive audience of 10-year-olds. Mrs. Taylor taught current events by using them to whip up World War III predictions. When current events didn't suffice, she turned to urban myths.
Mrs. Taylor's tales reminded me of my own daughter's fifth grade teacher. S came home with accounts of Petey Peterson, abortion-surviving extraordinaire who escaped death as a fetus but was born lacking arms and legs. Urban legends have no place in the classroom, but they do provide parents with teachable moments. Not only did I explain urban myths to my daughter, but I also called the principal who eagerly corrected the errant teacher.
This is not an attack on teachers. These two stories are simply examples of a slug not hitting its mark. Fear is a powerful tool in behavioral modification. But we don't change our behavior because we believe our actions or motives are wrong. Fear teaches us to change our behavior because of the reaction it receives from another. Maybe that is where apathy begins. Maybe Gen-Xers tend to conduct our lives under the radar in order to avoid getting hassled.