Although I have often heard Green Day’s “Wake Me up When September Ends” ridiculed as an emo anthem, the song has been a constant in my life, and one of the few songs I know all the lyrics to. The song’s theme of loss, particularly dedicated to the death of singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s father of esophageal cancer when he was 10, has universal applications to all disasters. The Internet has used the song to depict the carnage of 9/11 and then the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The music video itself depicted a young couple separated by the Iraq War.
At the core of the song is a loss of innocence story. Sarah Boxer of The New York Times comments that “parts of the song make no sense at all.” The lines “like my father’s come to pass,/ 20 years has gone so fast” talks about loss and the passing of time, but can be applied to a lot of situations. “Perhaps that touch of incoherence is the song’s key to universality,” Boxer continues.
And I agree. The song’s emotional tone and universality make it so it touches each of us uniquely and personally.
I should have outgrown the song, but every time I hear it now, I’m reminded of the frustration that came with being a transient kid living in a home where we moved almost every year. Growing up in an immigrant family with upwardly-mobile minded parents, I went to six elementary schools and two middle schools, moving as frequently as many military families.
My father worked as a researcher and academic while I grew up, and academics move very often. I would make good friends only to be a hundred or so miles away the next year. When September ended, for me, I was in a whole other school, whole other town. I had no long-term relationships, no long-term stability, and my parents worked all the time to make ends meet. Every year I would be the “new kid,” and I felt like I didn’t have a real home.
One particular move was especially painful to me: we stayed in an apartment complex in middle school close to New York City, and I’d made friends who, 10 years later, I still try to keep in touch with. We played soccer, basketball, or handball every day after school in the courts of the complex. We played communal video games like WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw for days on end during the summer.
We were in the process of moving boxes out and putting them into a U-Haul, and I was in my second week of 7th grade. It took several days and we were almost done, and by that point, I tried and pleaded with my parents to commute an hour and a half to my school every day, or just threw fits to try to stop us from moving.
They weren’t budging. At this point of life, I understood the realities and financial constraints that motivated our previous moves, and that my parents wanted to do what was best. But this was peak-recession 2009, and my dad saw a foreclosed house in a “great area” on the market, and he had several more years of his residency to go.
This move was the last straw because it seemed unnecessary. It was short-sightedness on my part, being 12 years old. I thought we were moving just because we could, but I completely neglected the fact that we were moving to the town where my brother was going to college, and they wanted him to live at home.
I couldn’t see that at the time. We were almost done moving and had one more night to stay at the apartment, and I wanted one more act of protest. With my mom reading at the kitchen table, sleep-deprived and weary of my yelling and bickering, I took out a small kitchen knife from the drawer, yelled to my mom, and put the knife to my wrist. I didn’t have any intention of harming myself, but I did want to make sure my mom really knew the severity of how hard difficult being in a home where you could never settle down.
My mom screamed, started sobbing, and took the knife out of my hand, and put it away. That was the last time my mom co-slept with me to make sure I was safe. I’m not sure if my mom slept at all that night.
I’m fine now, and the story is embarrassing to admit. But “Wake Me up When September Ends” always brings back nostalgia and painful memories of moving that were very real to me, and probably many kids that moved frequently.