Friday, September 3, 2010

If MTV Really Knew Us...

Given MTV President Van Toffler’s recent comment about how the network is “pushing Generation X out” for the “more civic minded, less cynical” Millennials, it’s no wonder very little of their programming interests me anymore. I didn’t care what rapper T.I. was doing with his pre-prison life (if I’d have said he’s just going to end up in prison again anyway, I would have been called cynical…but guess who was just arrested on drug charges a few days ago. Ahem.) And I won’t watch anything featuring Tila Tequila.

So given this waning love, I was surprised to be so taken with a recent addition to the MTV lineup. If You Really Knew Me is an hour-long documentary taking place at a different high school each episode. Students from every social group participate in a day-long activity called Challenge Day, facilitated by leaders from Challenge Day/Be the Change, a California-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide youth and their communities with experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression.

Through different sharing exercises the students slowly let down their privacy walls and confess facts about themselves, first in small groups and then later to the entire assembly. Every confession begins with “If you really knew me, you’d know that I….” The students divulge everything from the pain of losing a parent to personal mental illness to regret felt after having treated a friend badly. There’s a lot of crying, a lot of hugging, and a dash of Gen X-aged leaders trying to be hip by throwing street lingo into their presentations. It’s like a cross between the Oprah show and a church youth group convention.

What most amazes me is the ease at which many of the students tell their secrets. Even more so is that they tell these secrets to the very people who could most use that knowledge against them. I tried to imagine such a day taking place at my former high school and the thought seemed absurd. No WAY would I have told what was really going on in my life to 98% of my classmates. No way would I have trusted 100 other students to not tease each other incessantly with all this juicy new gossip. (Woops, there’s that Gen X cynicism rising up again.)

In every episode I’ve watched there’s been a girl who lets out that she lost her best friend but doesn’t know why. Across the room, the former best friend admits to her small group that she treated her best friend badly and now they don’t even speak, and how bad she feels about it. Everybody in each group knows exactly who each girl is talking about. Having been in the shoes of girl #1 my sophomore year, admitting what she admitted would have been social death for me. My former best friend’s social group would have crucified me.

But amazingly, as the confessions flow, so does the peer support, in a fascinatingly strong way. It often reminds me of the scene from The Breakfast Club where the detainees are talking about their respectively sucky home lives. Remember Allison’s confession, “They ignore me.” Also like in the movie, students at the end of Challenge Day often ponder to each other whether the message will stick once they’re out of the confines of the program and back in the halls of everyday school life. Will the homecoming queen who feels alone really say hi to the quiet bipolar girl nobody knows? Will the cowboy really stick up for the nerd who’s incessantly teased?

The show does a phenomenal job of showing how you never know what is going on in someone’s mind, life, or family. One of the most powerful examples of this was Eric, the physically imposing Texas football player who completely broke down when the leader asked, “Who never got the chance to just be a child?” Poor guy could barely hold himself up he was so overcome with emotion. A redneck in a 10-gallon hat was the first to step up to support him, and a sassy black girl was so moved by his unexpected breakthrough that she truly appeared to see everyone in her school in a new light. Clearly these kids are motivated to break through the social and racial barriers that normally plague the high school experience.

Challenge Day/Be The Change has been in existence since 1987, when many of its group leaders were still in high school themselves. So in a way, MTV has Gen X to thank for this popular show. Our own experiences are what shaped a desire to incite change in the next generation. If Gen X was truly so cynical, we wouldn’t have faith that things could be different, that high school didn’t have to be so awkward, judgmental, or vicious.

So don’t be so quick to dismiss us, MTV. While I still haven’t forgiven you for taking JUST SAY JULIE off the air in ‘92, I will hold on for just a little longer thanks to this latest offering.

New episodes of If You Really Knew Me air Tuesdays at 11 p.m., but are repeated often throughout the week.

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