They took our lunch money
In school. The bullies who needed affirmation that they were accepted.
The ones who needed a group of people clustered around them
Because they felt small. But they weren’t, they were the same as you and I. And some of us were called names; fatty, meany, ugly, stick… and at times most of us joined in, even though we felt bad. We felt it was wrong; it was better than when we were called names. So we helped at times. And other times, we didn’t. We sold our friends; we took their lunch money instead of losing our own, because everyone was up for bid.
Some were the ‘cool’ kids; but ‘cool’ never meant anything other than they decided they were ‘it’. They couldn’t create, like the girl with the bent nose in art class who we all secretly admired but pretended to hate. They couldn’t run like the freckled redhead who ran for his life through the bad streets after school, or the little black boy who didn’t make it home to his grandma half-way through the school year; we knew they ran fast, fast as the wind, but pretended not to notice or called them chicken-little. They couldn’t sing like the quiet, pretty girl in the back who still had heart, who still knew how to feel. And they couldn’t see or hear like the “special kids” who only spent a half hour in our room, but knew how to smile at bent-nose, at freckles, and song-bird. It was they who noticed when chicken-little was missing.
I never lost my lunch money. I was big. I learned to do things I didn’t want; I pretended, I joined in, I was wanted by the ‘cool’, but I missed something they didn’t: I wasn’t ‘cool’. Yes, I was tall, yes, I was stronger than most my friends, but I was awkward, I was too eager to be accepted to be myself. I was sasquatch, I was stick. But I was big. And from time to time, bent-nose, freckles, hobbit, speedy, mighty-mouse, squints, and skunk would hang with me, on me, hoping to keep their lunch money, because they were hungry. Just like me.
And we’d eat, from time to time, until Chicken Little never came back. The ‘cool’ people kept going, and usually didn’t change. The same group. High School came, and the pretty girls got a pass, if they were willing to take other’s lunch money; pretty was cool. Pretty was access. But creative, smart, heart… wasn’t enough.
And through HS, I suddenly learned that stick, that Sasquatch, was ‘popular’. I played on the team, I finally fit my clothes, I was learning to sing, learned that smiling at the not-cool no longer brought the heat, because that’s what ‘the cool’ did. And then it happened; I started getting lunch money. I didn’t take it, it was given. And I knew they just wanted to be ‘cool’, I knew they were trying to reach higher, but I knew I wasn’t ‘cool’. I didn’t sing like song-bird, couldn’t run like freckles, didn’t smile like nice, didn’t feel as easily, and didn’t love as fast.
That’s when I knew that ‘cool’ was nothing more than a willingness to take lunch money. Some sell it, some work to keep it; the ‘cool’ take it. “Born Leaders” - that’s what the teacher called them. “They’ve got the ‘something’ that others don’t, they were ‘enlightened’, they have ‘The spark’.” What they have is your lunch money; because you gave it to them, because they took it.
And that’s not all wrong, but the ‘cool’ are just pretending. No one is better at pretending. Pretending they’re safe, pretending they can make you ‘safe’. Pretending that everyone wants to be ‘them’. And maybe they do. But I learned that lunch money buys nothing; it is holding it that makes you ‘something’, Except that ‘something’ is only pretend. You see, you get someone’s lunch money. It’s gone as soon as they give it; disappears when it leaves their hands. And you pretend, pretend that you’ve got it. But you don’t. It’s the smile, the song, the heart, the speed, the power to create something that is SOMETHING.
So I stopped accepting lunch money. I stopped giving my lunch money. I was cut from ‘the team’ because coach wanted all my lunch money. I stopped being a ‘leader’ and became a social landmark. I didn’t go back to ‘stick’, but I did learn to sing. I wasn’t the team captain, but I did have friends. They still tried to give me lunch money from time to time, but they didn’t mind when I didn’t take it, and we all ended up with lunch. Others came, pretty, stubby, freckles, speedy, squints; they came and tried to give me lunch money. Tried to give my friends lunch money. Left when we didn’t take it.
Then we graduated, and I expected the world to change; I expected adults to be “mature”. I found nothing changed but the ‘issues’ that matter now, if they changed at all.
They haven’t stopped. Upper and lower classmen are now upper and lower class. That they still want my lunch money. I’m ‘stick’ again, except this time squints, freckles, fatty, and bent-nose have been replaced with ‘hater’, ‘bigot’, racist, player, faggot, conservative, liberal, communist, terrorist; but no one calls the last group, the group that keeps their lunch money, by their name: Free.