Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Absurdity of Youth Fundraising

In my life,  the biggest regret in my attempt to achieve coolness is the self-worth I derived from fundraising back when I was in middle school.  My school may have been atypical, but where I’m from, a level of status was guaranteed with your ability to fundraise.  But fundraising, unlike other factors that determine a person’s coolness, is not a product of the obtuse minds of 12 year olds, but rather an enslaving activity forced upon us by adults. 
Fundraising is the most asinine activity that adults could ever make their children or students do. Take away all of the promises of parties and hover-craft rides and  all that remains is an institution enslaving an underage work force to generate revenues under the guise of it being “cool.”.   It’s almost as if our educators stole a trick from the opening chapter in Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer.”
             Follow this logic:
Painting fences is work.  Work sucks. Kids look up to those who have more “coolness” than them. Have someone “cool” convince a child that painting fences is cool and those who are not painting fences are therefore un-cool.  Suddenly the masses want to do the WORK for free (and get the alleged status bump) while those perceived as “cool” sit back and reap the benefits. Replace painting with fundraising and let that sink in.
As a twelve-year-old, someone who was older (and therefore cooler) could have convinced me to do anything.  So in order for fundraising to gain legitimacy, the idea and the encouragement needs to come from someone.   Someone older (but not too old).   Someone daring.  Someone who could be perceived more like an older brother than an adult or a teacher. Enter: the Fundraising Ringleader.
            Every great fundraising initiative has a seasoned sales person to sell the idea of “cool” to the kids.  I'll refer to this person as the "Ringleader" from now on because he really was a master of showmanship, rather than just a salesmen.  The prototypical ringleader is a male with a rad birth name (or a hoaxy stage name) like Chaz, Taz, or Barkley; he needs to have dark hair, preferably a substantial amount of non-pedophile-esque facial hair, skin that is bronzed to the likening of an iced black-tea diluted from the sun’s sweltering heat, chest hair that protrudes from his strategically unbuttoned dress shirt, a thick lather of product in his hair, and of course, a pair of Ray Band shades. His personality needs to have the enthusiasm of a Regis Philbin but also the subdued smoothness of a MarkWhalberg.  Essentially, the Ringleader needs to be a modern day “music man.”  Riding in on a golden chariot, causing an insatiable buzz around a group of highly motivated yet misguided teens with the promises of money, novelties, and above all else, elite “coolness.” Through my years as a member of sports teams, youth groups, and as a student, I have seen many of these salesmen, all of which are eerily alike in too many ways.  I first encountered this type of person as a bright-eyed 6th grader in my middle school Gymnasium.  The spectacle the Ringleader put on for the crowd was like a cross between a circus and the halftime show at an arena football game; there was music, demonstrations, and bizarre stunts, all that was missing was a t-shirt cannon and a near naked "danceteam".  They always seemed to have a glare in their eyes suggesting that they were more of a one-faceted personality than a true person.  They never humanized themselves to the crowd by only talking about life in the abstract,  throwing around words like “team” “family” and “camaraderie” like a youth-league t-ball coach trying to rally the morale of a depressed, winless team.   However, this person who feasts on the ability of the young to peddle magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper, and novelty candies in order to make a living cannot be compared to a well-minded coach.  But his ploy works.  Twelve-year-olds are easily convinced with promises of vanity items, a status bump, and ludicrousincentives.  These incentives were purposely constructed to be unobtainable, but the striking Ringleader made it all seem so feasible.  The epitome of these hyperbolic incentives was called the Money Pit.
 The Ringleader’s pitch on the logistics of actually selling the products is always concise and ambiguous because in order to entertain an ADD infected youth the spectacle must be simple, loud and aesthetically pleasing.  Now, I do not remember exactly how many magazine subscriptions I needed to sell in order to get inside the money pit but it was my proudest goal as a ripe teen. During every fundraising presentation, usually in the final ten minutes, the Ringleader would signal to his stagehand to roll out the money pit.  The money pit really was just a glorified transparent trash bag with breathing holes and a leaf blower attached to circulate a mass of George Washingtons, but it was a show worth seeing.  I had aspirations of one day skydiving, winning a Superbowl, and even curing cancer before my 30th birthday, but those weren’t on the top of my to-do list at 12 years old.  Getting the reward of grabbing cash in the money pit was something I could achieve now; I decided that it was imperative to attack aggressively. The money pit seemed like the most obtainable surreal experience of the moment.  It is difficult to have foresight at a young age (I once swapped my Game Boy Color for a bag of War-Head sour candies), but I knew my future would be brighter if I could just get in that money pit. As soon as the Ringleader would roll out the pit the crowd would begin to thunder, flexible limbs would reach for the ceiling, pubescent chanting and screaming always ensued, anything to draw attention to one ’s self in hopes of being selected as the oneluckycandidate to get a chance to walk home with some cash.  But money was not nearly the biggest part of the equation.  The real appeal was that if you were selected as the one amongst 400, you were instantly catapulted to the rank of school celebrity and became the envy of every student in the room.   Unfortunately, I was never selected in my three years of middle school, but still it was always entertaining to watch someone else partake.  Everyone watched in amazement as the lucky individual danced for his/her dollars.  Everyone in the crowd instantly became a critic, cringing at every strategy flaw and dollar bill that slipped through the participant’s fingertips.   (I suspect that the origins of mostwomen whobecame strippers can be traced back to Money Pit fundraising demonstrations in middle school.) 
 For the Ringleader, it was a simple ploy to turn hopes and dreams into a perceived possibility.  By demonstrating the glitz and glamour one can have by selling a certain amount of worthless trinkets, he essentially was able to generate everyone’s interest to GET OUT AND SELL! And we did, willingly. 

            The incentives offered by the salesmen progressively became more outrageous as the years passed.  These prizes ranged from twenty dollar carnival games to limo rides and the money pit;  I swear one year they offered a customized VW Bug shaped to look like Pikachu.  But, of course, anyone who has actually tried to unload hundreds of dollars of crap on friends and family knows the incentives are made to be unreachable…for most.  The biggest fundamental problem I have with forcing kids to fundraise is that it reiterates a socio-economic class system that is already in place, but most young-adults are too involved with the innocence of youth to comprehend its evil presence.  Fundraising brings this idea to the surface because kids from less fortunate families do not have a surplus of rich adults to sell to.  The network of a 12 year old is only as strong as his/her parents.  The Ringleader always made a point of saying “never sell to strangers,” when in actuality, that was the only way someone from less means and a broken network would ever have chance to dance in the money pit or take their friends on a wild ride in a stretch Hummer after school.  On the other side of the coin, the rich kids begin experiencing their birth right entitlement in the world with little to no work.  This is where the fundamental problem lies: in order for the poor students to reap the same benefits as the rich, they must work ten times harder.  This is a sad revelation for the youth because the reality of this becomes more evident in everyday life after this point.  A network of connected people with buying power/influence will always lead to the path of success in fundraising, applying for colleges, finding employment, and life in general.
            After the selling ended, revenues were tallied and prizes were divvied up.  Most of the incentives took place at the “Mega-Party,” the lowest incentive which required only fifty dollars in sales.  Though I never stepped foot inside one of these parties (my extended family is tiny and my parents have never had any wealthy friends, which means I never even got close to the fundraising goals), it has been described to me as the12 year old equivalent of a Playboy Mansion outing.  So essentially, think Chucky-Cheese meets the Discovery Zone with unlimited Mountain Dew Code Red, Meat-lovers pizza, and ice cream.  The party always took place during the last who hours on a Friday afternoonin the same gymnasium where the Ringleader first made his pitch.  Those who did not make the minimum amount of sales were forced to sit in study hall rooms blankly staring at the wall, reading three-day old horoscopes and trying to figure out what the hell “sudoku” means.  Those who did not comply with the above stated options were forced to copy words and definitions out of the dictionary.  Some daring souls tried to sneak out of the study hall room and work their way into the mega-party but the parents of the top sellers heavily guarded the gym doors. There is no way the elite would allow that type of injustice and social welfare.  Outside the room, you could hear the screams of elated young adults bathing in their affirmed coolness and position in the class system.
Sports Teams
 School fundraising was only one facet of exposure and a type that you could avoid with limited consequences besides exiling yourself from an elite club of cool.  Fundraising for sports teams was a whole other machine to grind with.  Sport teams required participants to fundraise in order to pay for equipment and (most importantly) to secure a relic of your game jersey with your name on the back at the end of the year.  Admittedly, Seroogy’s Bars (a locally produced version of Hershey’s chocolate bars) always seemed to be the easiest product to push because they were cheap and delicious. However, during the early oughts there was a growing concern for a health conscience population that led to the direct demise of candy bar sales and thedepletion of self-esteem for youth athletes around the country.  In the world of middle school sports, your fundraising revenue was somehow directly related to your playing time and your perceived commitment to the team.  Skipping practice, missing games due to academic misconduct, and even having a meltdown on the mound in front of your coaches and fans were all secondary to the consequences of not meeting your fundraising quota.  How can you expect a kid to perform on the athletic field or even the classroom when they know that the candy bar money is due to tomorrow and they still have seven dark chocolate almond crunches to unload?  Nobody likes almonds; no one is buying that candy bar.  The child is fucked.   
            If you didn't sell all of your candy bars in time, you had to come up with the money somehow.  This obligation obviously fell on the parents of the athlete.  (A feat that would bring family shame equivalent to a third generation male baring the same name as his father and grandfather from a strict catholic family coming out of the closet at Thanksgiving.)  I ended up taking advantage of my parents as much as possible by forcing them to buy all of my candy bars. Thankfully, they recognized my general apathy (laziness) towards everything and agreed to take care of it.  My brother, however, was a very pragmatic individual who liked achallenge.  Every year in the summer, he set out to sell as many candy bars as possible.  He fared decently well until one summer when our neighborhood became saturated with Seroogy’s Bar sellers from the same league/team as my brother and he could not meet his quota. In an act of desperation, I witnessed my brother line up his remaining thirty candy bars and run them over with his 95’ blaze-orange Schwinn.  He came running home and told my parents that he had fallen off of his bike and destroyed his supply.  My parents saw through his obvious lie and told him he needed to try to recoup the losses by selling the candy bars at half price.  A lot of crying and destructive activities ensued.  My parents were stuck with thebill and a child whose self-esteem had been completely ruined by fundraising.  I can still remember that my brother’s slugging percentage dropped over 200 points during the dog days of summer that year.  His personality, and especially his baseball prowess, was never the same after that. 
Youth fundraising needs to stop, but how? CALL YOUR CONGRESSMAN. Well, we all know that doesn't yield anything valuable these days.  I personally vow to never purchase a coupon book, a frozen pizza, a roll of wrapping paper, or whatever else Ringleaders around the country dream up during my lifetime (unless we are talking girl scout cookies).  I refuse to put a child through what I went through; a false sense that my fundraising revenues somehow made me a better person in society.  Someday when I have children, I will make sure that they never are forced to sell anything for any reason.  That is, if the stress and gut busting ulcers caused by fundraising during my formative years haven't render my semen impotent.....Cheers.