21st Century Children’s Crusade

It seems prescient that I re-posted my defense of “kids these days” just before the March For Our Lives this weekend. I’ve seen more than a few strong, passionate, erudite defenses since then. Way better than mine.

I’ve also been a weepy mess. Part of it is that I’m stuck in a depression spiral right now. The Nothing is kicking my ass, and it’s ugly. But the other part is that I simply can’t disengage from the crushing shame that these kids have to shoulder a burden like this. Not just that they have to, but that they’re so raw and honest and goddamn successful at it.

As a former parentified child, I have strong feelings about what kids should or shouldn’t  be responsible for. And, if I do say so myself, I successfully protected my own child from that fate. She’s a marvelous adult, but she got there in her own time, and I’m relieved about that. But I still project all over these smart, engaged, determined kids and I have hours – no, years of film to unspool. There is a furious, resentful child within me still railing at the unfairness of having to save the grown-ups, only now she wears the armor of a full grown woman ready to slash and burn in her defense.

When we watched Emma Gonzalez stand in silence on the stage after her brief words, the silence of the crowd was deeply unsettling. You could see the steel of her straight spine, the resolve in her eyes as she forced everyone to wrestle with themselves in the barren sound field. I’ve always been a defender of common sense gun laws, so that’s not what I wrestled with. Instead, I had to fight the shame that I didn’t do more personally to protect her. That my generation, long accused of apathy and cynicism, absolutely earned those criticisms. That I, a parent and advocate for children, somehow failed to spare this girl, younger than my daughter, from having to watch her friends die, then make the adults around her sorry for it.

And maybe… maybe I’m a little jealous, too. Jealous that she has the strength to stand up to real power, while I quietly excused the adults who betrayed me for… my entire life, basically. So as tears streamed down her face while she shoved silence down the throat of the country, maybe I was being drawn and quartered by jealousy and shame. I don’t say that to garner sympathy. On the contrary, I deserve it. I’m mad that there are people out there celebrating her as a hero instead of wrestling with their own shame. Yet, at the same time, she is a hero and deserves to be celebrated. It’s complicated.

I remember reading about the 13th century Children’s Crusade as a young person. Though now considered largely apocryphal, the tale was nevertheless framed as a tragic tale of idealistic, courageous children and their proud and weeping parents. I never once thought to myself that those kids were brave and amazing. I thought, Where the fuck are their parents?? Who let them do this? Why isn’t every adult waving handkerchiefs as children march through the streets rushing out there to snatch them back? What the shit is wrong with these people?? Joan of Arc – same story. I thought, She’s fourteen you sorry motherfuckers! Why does she have to lead your pathetic, useless army?!  Not that children are incapable of these things – I knew with a profound certainty that they absolutely were capable. But the injustice of adults watching, encouraging them to do it was nauseating.

This feels much the same. Except worse, because I know now what abnormal amounts of stress and responsibility do to immature brains. I know what sort of lifetime conditions these kids are going to have to battle that, on top of the PTSD they likely suffer, will snake into every aspect of their lives and create storms and struggles they didn’t earn. I know that some of them, statistically, won’t survive. It’s terrifying. If it doesn’t terrify you, you probably don’t get it. Lucky you, I guess.

I don’t know how to reconcile any of this. I thought maybe writing it out would help, but it doesn’t. I thought maybe I could find a way to escape the conclusion that I – even inadvertently – did to these kids what was done to me. All I can do is beg you, myself, anyone who listens, to not let them fight alone. Don’t wave handkerchiefs or have parades or share their pictures without standing in front of them first. They’re literally in the line of fire. We owe them the protection of whatever is left of our integrity.

nbc march
photo credit: NBCNews, Shawn Thew / EPA
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