There were five girls in fifth grade that grouped together as the "popular girls" clique. Who was a member any given week would change, but their number was always five because that made it easier for them to pretend to be the Spice Girls. They had a tendency to act like everyone else was beneath them, but they would say it to your face when they were playing make believe.
It was both expected and shocking when they all turned up at school wearing brightly colored plastic bracelets that read, "WWJD?" Expected because they already bought into every other fad. Shocking because I found it hard to believe a single one of them could tell anyone about something Jesus did.
Ian and I scoffed at the nominal attempt to appear godly and righteous, especially when their behavior stayed the same as it always was. They would call other girls bitches and whores behind their backs and spread vicious rumors, all while wearing their Jesus accessories. We called them out as hypocrites. (The hypocrisy of me calling anyone a hypocrite was lost to me.)
Our teacher announced that the school was trying something new. There were more students than ever that came from broken homes, so group counseling sessions would be held once a week for anyone interested. I was constantly looking for any way to get out of class, so I was one of the first to sign up. What I didn't realize, but should have expected, was that the school would contact my mother for permission before pulling me out of class.
"Your school's office called. Did you sign up for divorce counseling?"
Admitting that I was just trying to get out of class wouldn't go over well, so I went with it. "Yeah. I mean, the divorce was the good part, but I just thought that it may help with some stuff. It's worth a try, right?"
"It could. I'll call in the morning and let them know you have permission."
I was happy she agreed, but for a reason I didn't expect. Somehow, my explanation for why I signed up was true by the time I finished saying it. Maybe this could be more than just an escape from class. Maybe I could actually get some kind of help.
Imagine my disappointment when I realized that a few of the Spice Girls had signed up, as well. I thought I might actually prefer going back to class.
Our counselor introduced himself and Rule Number One. It was the only rule, but it needed a number. We were free to share what he said and did with anyone we wanted, but things that other classmates said and did were to remain within the group. He warned us that he would find out if we broke this rule, and he would kick the offender out.
Even with the ominous Rule Number One looming over our heads, I wasn't about to trust the Spice Girls farther than I could spit. And the last time I tried to spit for distance, the wind had whipped it back in my face. Regardless, we all agreed that everything would remain confidential.
Once that was out of the way, he had each of us introduce ourselves. There were only about eight of us, and the majority were from the same class. Maybe it was a test to see how much we believed in Rule Number One: the only information he wanted us to share, other than our name, was why we were part of the group. Because there wasn't a volunteer to go first, he decided that we would go clockwise around the room. I was grateful that I would be close to last.
"My name is Lucy. I'm here because my parents got divorced."
The counselor said, "And that makes you feel…?"
One of the Spice Girls was surprisingly blunt, "I'm here because my mom heard about it and made me come."
The counselor raised an eyebrow, "You don't want to be here?"
"It's a joke. My mom thinks that just because she feels bad about it, I have to, too. It's actually a lot easier now. I don't have to listen to them scream at each other all night."
The room was quiet for a few moments before the counselor decided that we would continue with the introductions and unpack what she said later.
I was debating between being brutally honest, mostly honest or lying completely. By the time it was my turn, I had decided exactly how I was going to introduce myself. My eyes were half closed; my lower lip was jutting out the smallest bit. "My name is Michael," I said. "I'm here because my parents are divorced, and that makes me feel bad."
The counselor looked over a sheet of paper he had nearby. "I don't see a 'Michael' on my list."
That broke me out of my little act. Letting out a deep sigh, I groaned, "The list will say Joseph Wilkinson."
"Oh, there you are." The counselor's brow furrowed. "If you don't mind telling us, where did the name 'Michael' come from?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's just...the list has your whole name on it, and 'Michael' isn't any part of it. Did you take the name from an uncle, or…"
"I mind." Everyone was still looking at me. I didn't want anyone to look at me. "I don't want to talk about it."
"That's fine. That's fine." The counselor had the next kid start their introduction.
It didn't take me long to be thoroughly disgusted by how ungrateful the other counseling kids were. Every week, they would complain and whine about how hard it was to have divorced parents. "Boo hoo hoo … try to buy my love … wah wah wah … going back and forth between houses." It was exhausting.
They might not have had a perfect family, but at least they had two parents that tried. At least they got to see their fathers, even if it wasn't as often as they liked. Every week, I stayed silent, swallowed these thoughts, let them rot in my gut.
The last week I attended, one of the Spice Girls broke down in tears. "My dad never wants to talk to me unless I'm telling him what my mom is doing or who she's been talking to or where she's been going… I'm only a spy to him. I hate it. He's the one who cheated on her. Now he's jealous of her when they aren't even together. If I tell my mom he's still doing it, she'll tell the court and try to make it so I can't ever speak to him. No matter what I do, it's the wrong thing."
Somewhere in the middle of her rant, something clicked in my head. It must've been plain on my face, because the counselor called on me when she stopped.
"Michael, you look like you have something to say."
I didn't think it was the right time to voice what was going through my head, but I also didn't know how to express that. "I come in here every week and think horrible thoughts about all of you."
Everyone was looking at me again, even Crying Spice. This was going to be fun.
"Um, when I was five, my father made it pretty clear to me that I'm not good enough to be his son. I haven't seen him since. When I hear everybody else talk about what they're going through, I'm jealous. I would give anything to be of use to my father. I wish he would fight to see me. I listen to all of you and think that you have it easy. I know it's not fair to say, but I can't help but think it."
The counselor jumped in, "The important thing to remember is that it's never about who has it worse or better. Pain is pain. It's not better or worse, just different."
"I know," I mumbled. "I kind of just realized that. But I don't think this group is for me." Everyone was still looking at me. I hated it. "I'm sorry."
Ian and I were jumping on his trampoline later that day. I had just told him about how I was going to be stuck in class with him instead of going to the counseling group.
"Now that you're not in the crazy group, what kind of juicy secrets can you tell me?"
Ian had needed to be reminded of Rule Number One many times.
"Come on. They can't kick you out for it, anymore. You think none of them have told?"
I stopped jumping. "Ian, I'm not breaking their trust."
Ian's smile grew. I knew that look. It was the look that meant he was about to go for the jugular. He spoke with an exaggerated kid voice, "What? Did daddy touch one of them?"
I can't remember if I said anything. If I did, it wasn't much more than, "Wow." I made one final jump off the trampoline, grabbed my shoes and walked home.