One of the self-deprecating jokes I make when I introduce myself to someone for the first time is that I peaked in high school.
I say it not because I think it’s true, but that it demonstrates I have a sense of irony and perspective on the world not found in all humans. In my experience, the people who actually did peak in high school rarely have the self-awareness to admit it.
The truth is, despite spending my high school years alternating between being the Millhouse of my friend group and attempting to mask my insecurities behind a wall of malicious snark, I was pretty well-adjusted. I had friends and hobbies, I dated a respectable number of wholesome girls, and I participated in activities like marching band and youth group.
Since I mostly enjoyed my high school years, it bums me out when I see some of my students foundering during their adolescence, their eyes darting around the hallways looking of a meaningful connection. It’s clear they’re searching for an identity, desperate to fit in somewhere, anywhere. It’s something I wish I could help them with more, but I know it’d do more harm than good. There’s nothing more damning to a teen’s social status than befriending the English teacher.
I feel bad, but I know there’s hope on the horizon. Though I look back fondly on high school, there was a time in my life when I too sought a clean, well-lighted place.
Because in 8th grade, I was a pre-teen Juggalo.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a Juggalo is a super fan of the shock-rap group Insane Clown Posse, a couple of dudes from Detroit who paint their faces like clowns and spit shitty rhymes about fornicating with your mother.
Violent J, Shaggy 2 Dope, and their Juggalo clan have become caricatures of themselves over the years, lampooned on shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics. But in 1998, they were very serious and alluring musicians…at least to a 13-year-old suburban white boy such as myself.
So how did I find myself down with the clown?
Middle school was a tough time for me. For the majority of my childhood, I lived a pretty normal existence. I played football in the fall and baseball in the spring, and in between I earned merit badges and learned cool shit in the Cub Scouts. But puberty can do interesting things to a young man’s social circle.
All of my friends started getting bigger, more muscular, more…dude like. I remember coming home from my first day of middle school horrified, sitting down at the dinner table and telling my parents about the hormonal giants I passed in the hallways.
“Mom, there are guys with MUSTACHES.”
That same year, my dream of playing quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles was unceremoniously squashed when I sustained both a concussion and a neck injury requiring Valium that sidelined me for most of the season. The kids around me grew taller and hit harder, and I could no longer see over them when I dropped back to pass.
My transition from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts was equally disappointing, when I discovered all of the older boys in my new scout troop were absolute fucking nerds.
The thing I liked most about Scouts was being outside: camping and fishing and hiking, and having an excuse to play with fire and axes and shit.
My troop, unfortunately, wanted none of that. The one camping trip I went on with them, they sat in the lodge and played Dungeons & Dragons for 12 hours.
“You should really think about making a D&D character,” one nerdlinger said to me. “It’s an awesome game.”
I quit the next week.
So there I was, too lame for the jocks, too cool for the nerds. I was stuck in the abyss, the no-man’s land between middle school social identities.
Enter Fred and Wilson.
Fred and I were pretty close in 6th grade. For awhile, we decided we were going to write and record our own comedy radio show and sell cassettes of it to our friends. Then we spent a few months in a band together, despite the fact neither of us could play guitar.
We’d drifted apart since then. Fred was given the gift of puberty, so he hung closer to the cool kids he played football with.
For some reason, Fred and his buddy Wilson loved ICP. They’d sing the lyrics in the cafeteria and in the hallway between classes. What do you do with a drunken hillbilly? // Cut his fuckin’ eyes out and feed ‘em to his Aunt Millie
They also did this thing where they’d accost random passerby by yelling “You down with the clown?” It was the eye-rolling sort of thing shithead pubescent boys do to get attention, but one day, when Fred leveled the question at me, I answered the call.
“You down with the clown, Sam?” Fred asked.
“Yeah, I’m down with the clown.”
“Hell yeah!” Fred said, giving me a high five.
Fred must have known I was lying. Most of the t-shirts I owned had classic rock bands on them: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. There was no way in hell he believed I was a fan of ICP.
But the weirdest thing happened. It was the kind of thing that happens in a shitty teen movie that makes you groan at the screen because it’s just too convenient and doesn’t make much sense.
That day at lunch, Fred flagged me down in the cafeteria and asked me if I wanted to sit with him.
I think we all want to believe we’re strong in character. We roll our eyes when faced with cliched warnings and screeds about peer pressure or low self-esteem. But at one point or another, we all do shit to impress someone. It’s not our fault, really. We’re pack animals at heart, and we’re afraid if we don’t relate to the rest of the pack, we’ll be thrust out into the wilderness.
For the rest of the school year, I became part of Fred and Wilson’s clique of preteen Juggalos.
Yes, there was a bit of Faygo chugging, and yes, there was some skirting of the house rules regarding explicit music and indecent television.
My parents were sticklers for shielding their 13-year-old son against the obscenities of the world, and with good reason. While the alternative music movement of the late 1990s brought such memorable, family friendly hits as Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumper” and Smashmouth’s “All Star,” it also brought less morally desirable material. Since my parents had no interest in sifting through hours of forgettable noise to determine what was appropriate, they relied heavily on the Recording Industry Association of America’s parental advisory stickers to censor music for them. This meant the Hedenberg family music collection could include no Metallica, no Marilyn Manson, no Rage Against the Machine, and certainly no Insane Clown Posse.
They held similar beliefs about television. Despite being allowed to watch any war or action movie under the sun (I specifically remember staying home sick from school with my dad one day when I was 10 and watching the Steven Segal classic Under Siege) and listening to Howard Stern in the car every morning,I was forbidden to watch animated shows my parents deemed too mature for my pre-pubescent brain. No Ren & Stimpy, no Beavis & Butthead, no South Park.
The only problem with this ban on explicit media was that Fred and Wilson spoke exclusively in the language of pop culture smut. South Park had just debuted that summer, and if you didn’t watch the new episode on Wednesday night, there was no chance you were going to be involved in the lunchroom conversation for the rest of the week.
Having just made inroads with Fred, I was not about to squander my opportunity to be cool. I got creative.
Not long after I started sitting with Fred and Wilson at lunch, I smuggled three of Wilson’s ICP CDs into my bedroom and dubbed them onto a 90 minute TDK cassette. For added security, I labeled the tape “Top Gun Soundtrack,” knowing it was unlikely my parents would get a hankering for Kenny Loggins anytime soon.
I also began taping South Park Wednesday nights on my bedroom VCR, and I’d watch it Thursday after school before my parents got home. I wasn’t able to be a part of the fresh, episode-specific jokes on Thursday morning, but at least I was hip for the rest of the week.
I didn’t like disobeying my parents’ wishes. I was never much good at rebelling — I didn’t drink until I was 21 out of fear my parents would find out and I’d have the car taken away or something — but these micro-insurgencies were fueled by a desire to survive in the cutthroat world of middle school social politics.
I studied up and managed to chameleon myself enough to fit in. I contributed South Park jokes and ICP lyrics when appropriate. I must have passed the culture test because within a few weeks, Fred and Wilson invited me past the Juggalo lobby and into the inner circle.
They asked me to be a part of the JWO.