Once Upon a Club
Lessons About Business, Money, and Life Learned Between the Ages of 7 and 13
When I was in second grade, a classmate walked up to me in the hall one day and asked if I wanted to join the club that he and a few other boys had started. By all rights, as the painfully shy introvert I was at the time, I should have just made a squeaking noise and scurried away. But the classmate in question was a fellow bookworm, wore thick corrective glasses, and seemed to always be sporting sweater vests and nifty Buster Brown shoes. All of which made me more inclined to trust his offer. So I said yes, and the next thing I knew, he informed me that I was now the club’s treasurer.
So there you have it. At age seven, I was given my first official title. Treasurer. As it turns out, “The Club” would not only survive but thrive for the next six years, gaining and losing members along the way, until eighth grade. During that time, I would also hold the title of Secretary, Vice President, and even President once or twice. To be honest, all of us were everything at some point or another. It was a wonderfully democratic organization in that regard, complete with regular (if sporadic) elections, Robert’s Rules of Order, meeting minutes, and even a multi-page constitution.
Whenever I tell people about The Club, they assume I’m exaggerating. I guess because it sounds too much like something out of the movies. How could a pack of boys keep something so organized together for six years? Well, it helped that we were all pretty much bookworms, nerds, and/or social misfits who didn’t have a taste for sports. Instead, we were more inclined toward things like playing chess, building and launching model rockets, and doing things we shouldn’t do with chemistry sets.
It also didn’t hurt that we grew up in a very small, Mayberry-like town, back in the 70s and early 80s, before the internet and cell phones and 9/11 and regular school shootings had complicated the world of children so much. All we had to deal with back then was the vague threat of Russia lobbing some missiles at us and listening for the sound of our mothers yelling out the door that dinner was ready. Which left a lot of time for a handful of eggheads to dream up ways to rebuild society from the ground up.
I can’t speak for the other boys who were involved, but The Club gave me both a purpose and an identity. The day I was recruited as treasurer in that hallway, my parents had only been divorced for two years. My mother was raising three of us on her own, and my father was barely in the picture. I was the middle child, dealing with hearing issues, the shortest kid in my class, and spent most of my time engaged in largely solitary pursuits like reading and writing and drawing and either taking things apart or putting them together.
If it hadn’t been for The Club, I don’t know what would have become of me. I’m sure I would have made some of the same friends, if only because of shared interests. But I don’t know if I ever would have appreciated the value of being part of something bigger than myself. My sense of the value of teamwork and collaboration, which I’ve carried with me and embraced throughout my career, was born in those crucial years.
During that time, I also got my first taste of being an entrepreneur. Somewhere around fifth grade, we (The Club) got the idea to buy some popsicles in bulk from the corner store and sell them individually at a mark-up during lunch to the kids in the cafeteria. We asked the school for permission, of course, and the endeavor turned out to be a huge success. So huge that we asked the school if we could do it again the following week. They said no. We asked why, and they offered no reason. Just no.
The following week, the cafeteria started selling ice cream. I distinctly remember it was those Dixie ice cream cups, half vanilla and half chocolate, that came with a little wooden spoon. Which I admit were a big step up from popsicles. But still, the original idea had been ours, and so having it co-opted stung a bit. That day, we learned a valuable lesson about the realities of small business and trying to compete with a much larger competitor.
Undaunted by this setback, we continued to find ways to build up our treasury over the years. Once, we organized a car wash in the bank parking lot downtown. It proved to be so successful that every other more “official” organization in town copied the idea, and so the bank never gave us permission to do one again. Clearly, we hadn’t learned our lesson very well the first time.
One year, we spent weeks building a float with a Monster Mash theme for the town Halloween parade and won the first prize of $10. (For the record, I played the part of the werewolf that emerged occasionally from a giant test tube being pulled along on a red wagon by Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and a Mad Scientist.) All in all, we considered that initiative to be a big success, with very little downside except the time it took us to create the float.
In seventh grade, we rented a table at the local flea market outside of town and sold various unwanted items raided from our garages and attics. I can neither confirm nor deny whether our parents considered all of these items to be as “unwanted” as we did. Regardless, as I recall, we didn’t make a lot of money on that one, in part because we didn’t yet understand either the concept of “net profit” or how hard it is to actually sell things. So the little bit we did manage to make that day barely covered the overhead of the cost to rent the table. And thus was another hard lesson learned.
Setbacks and challenges and stolen ideas aside, by the time we reached eighth grade, The Club’s treasury had grown to a whopping $60, which in today’s money would be something like $174. Which certainly wasn’t enough to put any of us through college, but to a handful of thirteen year olds, it was a small fortune.
It also left us with a big question: What should we do with the money?
This is when our participation in The Club taught us yet another brutal business lesson. That money changes things. It changes people. For six years, we had managed to defy society’s expectations of how a bunch of boys should behave. With no adult mentor, instead of devolving into The Lord of the Flies, we had become a highly organized, productive, and even profitable team.
Yes, we also experienced our share of disagreements and drama during that time. For instance, there was that brief period during sixth grade where we split into two opposing clubs. But I like to think this was just our way of understanding firsthand the dynamics of a civil war. Also, the twisted layers of espionage and double-agents and the stealing of each other’s documents that accompanied this split were well worth the price of admission.
Ultimately, though, we always deferred to the shared ideal of The Club and what it stood for. We understood that it was not only something worth being a part of but worth fighting for. Worth checking our egos at the door for. That somehow, by being a part of it, by supporting it, we were elevating ourselves, improving ourselves, and bringing our best selves to the forefront.
That is, until we were faced with all that money.
As I recall, some of us wanted to buy a new Atari video game with it. Others wanted to keep saving up to buy a computer from Radio Shack. I don’t even remember what the other suggestions were, only that we couldn’t even come close to a consensus and that the arguments were getting ugly fast.
What we weren’t mature enough to recognize back then, of course, was that the money was really just the tipping point for a larger issue, which was that The Club had been on its last leg for months. After all, we were thirteen. Like our bodies (and our crackling voices), our priorities were morphing on an almost daily basis. Girls were suddenly more intensely important than they used to be, our opinions about anything seemed to matter more deeply to us, and our emotions ran as hot and cold as a shower in a house with five toilets.
Most importantly, though, our hormone-driven adolescent instinct for rebellion and independence and a lack of empathy had kicked into high gear, leaving us not only less inclined to care about being a part of something bigger than ourselves, but in some cases, downright resentful of it.
In the end, and in rather short order, one member after another left The Club, until the last teenager left standing was the friend who had asked me to join back in second grade. If it had been any of the rest of us, I suspect we might have spent the $60 treasury on ourselves, if only to reward our own loyalty and persistence. But not my friend. He instead donated it to our school’s marching band, which was collecting money for new uniforms at the time.
Even though in the years to come, we would rib this friend about his ridiculous choice of a charity, it was hard not to respect the hell out of his decision not to keep the money. To divest himself of the red hot potato that had brought down the very institution he had co-founded years before. That act alone taught me a big lesson about integrity, and about what it means to be a leader.
After the dissolution of The Club, we all went our separate ways … but not for long. Some of us regrouped again the very next year on the cross country team. Others intersected in the band room or on the student senate or the yearbook or in school plays. After all, in high school, there is never any shortage of clubs and teams to join. By the time we were seniors, most of The Club’s alumni could be found going to movies and concerts together, sometimes working part-time jobs together, and regularly spending late nights at the diner together.
Even now, several decades later, the core members of The Club — now scattered across North America — are still connected in whatever way is possible, even if it’s only occasional group chats on Facebook.
We’ve attended and been best men at each other’s weddings.
Some of us have lived together and others have worked together.
And one of us is no longer with us.
Underpinning everything that has happened in those several decades is the shared experience of a handful of ambitious boys who had enough vision to create and sustain something unique for far longer than should ever have been possible. Something I am grateful to have been a part of. Something that taught me more lessons than I can count. Something without which I don’t think I’d have managed to accomplish even half of what I have so far in my life.
And I am grateful every day for the wisdom and bravery of that meek and mild second grade version of me. For being able to see past his many fears. For being able to trust somebody else’s vision. For having the good sense to say yes.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn on March 20, 2019.