For elementary school, your parents had enrolled you in some kind of commie pinko alternative learning program, and though it was not required, you would stay there until sixth grade, going on communal family campouts, learning about Che Guevara, and eating morning snacks made by class mothers who had hair growing from beneath their arms–until you were no longer a girl. Even then, you knew it was a little weird, but you figured there must be some kind of altruism behind the practice, even if you could not yet understand it. Even if you suspected the whole exercise was designed at least in part to serve as some kind of social proof of your parents’ liberalism–their liberalism against the odds, their limosine liberalism (or as close to that as you could find to that in your little town north of nowhere)–you went along with it. You endured, along with the other leftist progeny in your classes, the relentless taunting at the hands of the other, “regular” children in the school–the poor provincials whose parents had told them that you and your classmates required “special” circumstances in which to learn, who needed to believe that you could not make it in a normal classroom. You would patiently listen to their bemused questioning about the circumstances of your education: was it true that you didn’t have desks? And did you get to do what you wanted all day? And how could you learn that way? And what would you do when you had to live in the real world someday?
The truth was that yes, you did get to do what you wanted all day, more or less, provided you were good at time management. And you were, oh yes! you were–which was why you would breeze through your math assignments and “science” experiments, reading requirements and art projects, as quick as you could every day. Because the sooner you finished, the quicker you could get back to your Judy Blume, which you sped through equally fast, on the old lumpy couch in the back corner of the room, the same one where Taj had asked you to be his “friend,” with a weird look in his eye and a strange enunciation. And you had said, “Yeah, OK,” though you were pretty sure he meant something different than you did, but deciding to just go back to your book all the same.
Your first teacher there was named True, and the second was called Jock, and that was not the half of it. Over the course of your elementary school career, you met a brother and sister named Mercy and Sky, a set of siblings named Love, Truth, and Mercy (gender is irrelevant here), a Jefferson, a Strawberry, and a Morning-Star, and probably several others along the way who had since been erased from the official record–the oddities of their names not enough to counterbalance the blandness of their personalities, and the memory of them fading into the background amongst all of the other wheat germ snacks, carob chip cookies, Kefir shakes and homemade peanut butter. Even amongst all the self-consciously cultivated difference, there were still some normal things: on rainy days, you would play “Heads Up, 7-Up!” inside the classroom instead of going outside, and dodge ball or four square were popular alternatives when the weather was good. You had your first schoolgirl crush, and your first hearbreak. You broke your arm. You were a normal kid, after a fashion.
Still, weird was usual there. Weird was expected. And maybe for the last time in your life, you found that you weren’t weird enough.
One day you got to school and True was at the door, handing out stickers and instructing people to put them on their shirts. They were badges that read, “Monster Club.” She made a point of not giving one to you, though to be fair there were many of your class who were excluded. Still, you were annoyed not to be given preferential treatment. So you decided to ask, even though it sickened you to do so–to be so needy.
“Can I be a part of the Monster Club?” you asked, embarrassed that you wanted something that was not offered to you readily, ashamed to be willing to impose yourself upon a figure of authority in order to get it. For despite her name, or her behavior, True was an adult, and now you had made yourself weaker by asking for something from her. She was not even acknowledging your question. Instead, she was looking right past you, continuing to give out Monster Club badges in haphazard fashion, left and right, willy-nilly and without any kind of discernible logic. This confused you, and it made you feel bad. And these were feelings you had already trained yourself to avoid at all costs.
True was an adult, and even if you knew that adults were mostly full of shit, this was irrelevant. They made the rules. And so, when throughout the day the members of the Monster Club were given special privileges–cookies, candy, extra play time, the freedom from schoolwork, you had kept your mouth shut. Even when they were allowed to spend the whole day outside on the playground, and you and others of the non-Monster Club were stuck inside, after finishing everything, after meeting all of the expectations–however strange you thought them–you were quiet. Instead of rising up and questioning the righteousness of the Monster Club itself, which was surely the point of the whole exercise, assuming there was a point, you quietly seethed, and searched inside of yourself, determined to find the mistake. Because in your world then, as now, you did not–could not–wholly believe in a system devoid of logic, and you thought that there was no way that this travesty of justice was unwarranted. There had been some kind of standard, and you had failed to meet it. And even if there was just a little bit of outrage mixed in their with the shame at having missed the mark, it was wholly directed at yourself, for what pragmatist–seven years of age notwithstanding–would place their dreams in the downfall of a system, of the trampling of an institution? Was this not the world that we lived in? Were we not expected to make of it what we could?
And that was why, even as people started to grow weary of their Monster Club membership and the strictness of its rules–the candy and cookies of which they had developed an acute case of bourgeois malaise, the inability to befriend Non-Monster Clubbies, even for just one day–you still plotted and planned, trying desperately for a way to prove yourself worthy of that badge. Eventually, some of the weaker-minded members of the Monster Club started to offer to relinquish their badges, suggesting that it would be best to let everyone share in the privileges of the Club. They would stand up in front of the class, such as it was, and in very dramatic ways offered to give away their badge to one of the unfortunates, and you sat nearby, watching them–wondering what kind of person would want to give up a space in the Monster Club, and wondering if you would take a proffered second-hand badge. And if you did, would it be enough, under those circumstances, to erase the psychic trauma of not having been given one in the first place?
But the adults would have none of this charity. They said that once you were in the Monster Club, you were in it for life. And by the same token, if you weren’t in the Monster Club now, then you could never be a part of it. It was all very strict and draconian. And besides, it was too much for a bunch of second graders. Conversation had come to a standstill: none of the children knew what to say or what to do, or what was expected of you. So eventually True, or Jock, or maybe the art teacher, Roni–someone–said that no, you could leave the Monster Club, there were certain ways to do this, after all, and that maybe leaving the Monster Club was the right thing for some people to do. And with that, a little boy named Pat (who would grow into a young man named Pat, and later, die a heroin addict named Pat) gave up his badge. He said it felt wrong to be a part of the Monster Club, if everyone could not be a part.
He said a few other things that were all probably very meaningful and heartwarming, but you were too busy snatching up his badge, feeling only marginal regret at the unfortunate circumstances of your acquisition of the badge. But ultimately you figured that the fact you had the badge was what mattered, and that it outweighed all of the all of the other considerations. There was no candy to be had in taking a stand, and this was not the proverbial hill on which you wanted to die. So you grabbed the badge, catching it as it fell from Pat’s tiny hands, holding it close to your heart as you ran for the table filled with candy and the other spoils of the Club of the Monster.
Maybe it was the adult’s ultimate disappointment in you–their horror at your haste to grab that badge that you should have learned to shun–that led them to take that final action. Because how else could you explain that then, after that whole day of unexplained exclusion and punishment, and risk and reward–just as you were finally able to partake in the goodies reserved for the Monster Club, they announced that there was no more Monster Club, and no more Monster Club rules. That all of the treats and benefits belonged to everyone as much as they did to no one. And that, just as you reached into the bag of M&Ms, they told you that you would have to share it.