Charlie, a slightly overweight adolescent in the third grade, sat down to eat his lunch at the same table he always ate. Sandwich, chips, an apple he typically played with until finally throwing it away, and his prized Blue Blast. This was just another normal day at school for Charlie, a day which was pleasantly interrupted by lunch. Charlie always looked forward to his Blue Blast, even though some of his friends’ moms didn’t let their sons drink it. “It’s bad for you.” “There’s too much sugar in that stuff.” “It’s not healthy.” All fairly valid claims.
One time Charlie looked at the label of his drink after one of his friends said that his mom told him once you start drinking Blue Blast, you’ll want one every day. Charlie did want one every day, actually. So he worried that there was some sort of magical ingredient that got him hooked on it. The label said it had sixty grams of sugar per bottle. That’s a lot of sugar, to be certain. An unhealthy amount, no doubt. But Charlie was in the third grade…he didn’t know what sixty grams of sugar meant. Even if he did, I would venture to guess that he wouldn’t really care about long-term heart health if it kept him from consuming his favorite beverage every day.
Charlie didn’t have a great home life, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, lunch was the one time of day when he felt he could be himself. We might call his soft drink a sort of crutch for him, but he simply thought it was something to brighten up his day. And yet, his teachers, who routinely took prescription pills, drank wine most nights and coffee every morning, looked on at Charlie’s “problem.” “Doesn’t his mother know how bad that stuff is for him?” “He’s going to get addicted!” “I would NEVER let my own kids drink stuff like that.”
One day, a few of the teachers reached a conclusion. A fairly logical one on its face. Just ban Blue Blast. Go to the school board, tell them how bad the stuff is for kids, and write a rule saying parents cannot pack it in their kids’ lunches and the cafeteria cannot sell it. There- quick fix. No more Blue Blast.
Charlie walked into school the next day and saw a new sign in the cafeteria of approved and unapproved items. Blue Blast was first on the unapproved list. He asked his teacher why he couldn’t bring his favorite drink anymore. “Well Charlie, it’s actually not very good for you and we don’t want you guys to upset your stomachs.” It doesn’t upset mine, Charlie thought. “We have a variety of other healthy choices for you over at the drink station,” he was told. He didn’t care…he didn’t want that other stuff.
The first few lunch periods after the rule went into effect, Charlie just sat through lunch in a stupor, not paying attention to his friends or the announcements being made over the intercom. To an adult, not drinking your favorite soda might seem like nothing more than a slight annoyance, but to a third grader who drank it every lunch period all school year, it was a big deal. Charlie started to feel different. He seemed a little depressed and unable to focus in class like he usually did. He tried some of the other healthy drinks but they didn’t seem to fill his craving. As it turned out, he wasn’t the only one annoyed by the new rule. He found other students in the lunchroom who could no longer partake in their beverage of choice. They started sitting together at lunch to talk about how annoying the new rule was. They found a collective identity in feeling like they were targets of a silly rule. “The other kids get to eat whatever they want, why are we being singled out?,” Charlie asked his new group of friends. Nonetheless, they couldn’t get their hands on Blue Blast.
This went on for a few weeks…catatonically going through the school day, not having much of an appetite at lunch, and trying to figure out a way to get their beloved soft drink. At the same time, a funny thing happened. The original posters outlining the new cafeteria policy were fairly tame…a list of approved and unapproved items set to a yellow background, with some cartoons of bottled water and broccoli mixed into the frame. Within a few weeks, though, the posters began to change. They no longer even addressed healthy alternatives, they simply targeted the unapproved items. Instead of cartoon vegetables, the graphics now depicted “unhealthy” kids – obese, pale, dejected, some even secretly trying to sneak Blue Blast into their lunchboxes. It was subtle, but the message was clear: Blue Blast and the like would not be tolerated. It was no longer a discussion of healthy versus unhealthy, it was outright prohibition. Charlie couldn’t figure out why his drink was being singled out. He saw teachers with coffee cups in their hands, the secretary shuffling her prescription pillboxes before and after lunch, the maintenance worker sneaking a cigarette behind the busses. Why could they all enjoy their simple pleasures but he couldn’t? Was it possible that Blue Blast was really that much worse than any of these other things? He didn’t understand.
A few weeks later, things got weird. On the television in the school lobby, students were greeted to a student-performed skit about the negative effects of drinking Blue Blast. “My little sister started drinking Blue Blast and a month later, she was in the hospital,” the lead actress says. “My parents started drinking it, and now they don’t have money for my Christmas presents,” another says. Yesterday morning, Charlie’s teacher had them write an essay entitled “Why I pledge not to drink Blue Blast.” What is going on, Charlie thought? A few weeks ago, nobody cared that he drank it every day. Nobody even gave it a passing thought. And now, it seemed his entire school was under some kind of spell. Now, Blue Blast was ostensibly the worst thing these kids could be drinking. It was poison, or so Charlie was supposed to think. He still liked it though, and missed its place in his daily routine. It gave him a few moments of forgetting that he hadn’t seen his dad in several months, and that his mom brought home strangers every night. The irony, he thought, was that no one would have even known he used to drink it every day, until it became against the rules. For all its supposed negative effects, he thought he was doing just fine. He had seen other kids who were more overweight than he, kids that also drank Blue Blast. But even Charlie was smart enough to know there were probably other factors involved in their health. Even as a third grader, he knew water would be a healthier option, but he didn’t really care. Now, in the weeks-long absence of his favorite drink, Charlie couldn’t tell whether his body or his mind missed the drink more. It didn’t really matter anyway. He just knew he wanted it back at lunch.
He wrote his assigned essay over what he perceived to be the facts about Blue Blast. It made him happy…it wasn’t the worst conceivable drink option…he had drank it for a long time with no discernable negative effects…and, he thought most importantly, the other kids seemed to be able to eat and drink whatever they wanted, so why shouldn’t he have the same freedom? Meanwhile, the intercom played the principal’s daily announcement: “Remember, kids, friends don’t let friends drink Blue Blast.”
A few of the kids Charlie used to sit with at lunch didn’t like him anymore because he was associated with the newly illicit item. They, their parents, and the faculty couldn’t understand why some kids wouldn’t just stop wanting the drink after it was no longer allowed at school. “It’s not that hard,” they thought, “just quit drinking it.”
“Good kids wouldn’t even want Blue Blast,” the parents muttered to each other in the pickup lines.
Even Charlie started thinking this way. The irony was that even as he continued to want Blue Blast, he simultaneously told himself that he was bad for desiring it. He started to think he was a bad kid simply because he wanted something that brought him momentary happiness.
One day in the lunchroom a kid came over to Charlie’s table. “You guys like that soda, don’t you? I can get it for you.” They were intrigued. “It’s not allowed,” they told him, as if this were their visitor’s first day in the cafeteria. “That doesn’t matter, I can still get it, it will just cost a little more than usual,” he told them.” Then he gave them a room number and time and told them to bring money. The deal went down at the arranged time and in the arranged way. They paid a little more for it, and they had to drink it in secret, but this could work, they thought. They had their drink again and they were happy. There remained the internal conflict of shame versus gratification, but this was part of the territory, the kids thought.
They continued to buy Blue Blast from this kid for the next few weeks. Every day in the arranged room at the arranged time, like clockwork.
The kid made money, the kids got their drink.
Then the anti-Blue Blast campaign around school intensified. “Attention students,” the principal piped into each classroom, “it has been brought to our attention that some of you continue to drink Blue Blast against the new cafeteria rules. If caught, punishment will be swift and severe.” Then the Nixonian voice vanished. Charlie sat at his desk and couldn’t decide if he was proud of being a deviant or ashamed to continue in his cycle of consumption.
The next week, the kid they purchased the Blue Blast from got in trouble. As it turns out, the teachers arranged for a student to buy Blue Blast from him and as soon as he gave it to her, they had the principal waiting to catch him. Busted. The kid was expelled immediately. Charlie and his friends worried they would face similar punishments if caught. This is silly, Charlie thought. A few weeks ago, nobody cared who bought, sold, or drank Blue Blast. Life was good. Now, one’s academic career and future in general was in jeopardy if caught drinking the very same thing that was perfectly fine a few weeks ago. It’s a topsy-turvy world, Charlie thought.
A funny thing happened after the kid got in trouble for selling the drink to the kids. For a few days, Charlie and his friends couldn’t find it anywhere. It seemed the school’s crackdown was effective. Kids were either too scared, or too obedient, to break the rules. But then a few days later, someone replaced the former Blue Blast distributor. Except this kid wasn’t nearly as nice as the last one. He bullied Charlie’s table into buying from him because he knew how bad they wanted their drink. He charged a higher price, gave them less soda each time, and threatened what might happen if they stopped buying it from him. One day, Charlie’s friend decided he could just acquire and sell Blue Blast on his own, without having to mess with the new kid that sold it. He did this for a few days and then he suddenly stopped, and was gone from school for awhile. No one knew what happened. All they knew was that when he came back to school, he never tried to sell the drink again. In fact, he was adamant that they buy from the new distributor. But Charlie noticed that his friend’s newfound endorsement didn’t stem from a satisfied consumer; it was fear. And so Charlie and his friends continued to buy from the other seller, even as his service became worse and the quantities he sold diminished.
A month later, Charlie was on the bus with his new friends when a student said he could also get them Blue Blast. They were again intrigued, as they were tired of the aggressive ways of their current seller. As it turned out, this new supplier could get them all the Blue Blast they wanted, at a decent price. The hook was they would need to also become sellers throughout the school. And the kid from which they bought would take 40% from their earnings as his commision. Quite an impressive scheme for third graders.
Charlie and his buddies began doing this regularly. Once a week, they would buy cases of Blue Blast from their supplier, keep some for themselves, and sell the rest to other kids who still wanted it. One morning Charlie’s friend got the idea to take a kid’s money and never give him his Blue Blast for which he had already paid. What is he going to do, Charlie’s friend thought. He can’t tell the teachers he was trying to buy an illegal drink. Another of Charlie’s friends decided to drink all the Blue Blast himself and replace the empty bottles with dish soap and water, since it was also blue. The kids that bought this concoction became sick and some even had to leave school for a few days to recover. All the while, Charlie’s community – friends, parents, teachers, administrators, pastors, police – continued to campaign against Blue Blast. It was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The logic went that bad kids drank Blue Blast. But Charlie felt that because he and his friends drank it, they were labeled as bad kids. He couldn’t figure out which was more accurate.
For kids who were caught drinking it at school, teachers would place them in a classroom by themselves as punishment. They thought this would force the kids to think about the bad decisions that got them there. Maybe, the school reasoned, if kids would just really consider their choices, they would decide that simply giving up something like Blue Blast was in their best interest. If nothing else, the sheer shame and isolation would make the kids never want to do it again.
But something interesting happened. Rather than choosing to stop drinking Blue Blast after their punishment was over, these kids wanted it more than before. It was as if their isolation turned them to the one thing that acted as a coping mechanism. Teachers couldn’t figure it out. The harder they tried to punish violators, the worse the problem became. The more time, money, and energy spent on finding out which kids were buying and selling Blue Blast seemed only to exacerbate the issue. If they found the primary distributor and punished him, inevitably another kid just like him would surface and begin selling the drink to the kids again. It was a vicious cycle. And yet, Charlie could recall a time when he just brought his drink to school and consumed it at lunch like a normal kid. No punishment, no looking over his shoulder, no sicknesses from adulterated products, no violent Blue Blast cartels, no inflated prices as a result of it being sold on the black market. He couldn’t figure out why things had become the way they had.
But one day, the signs came down. The announcements stopped. The teachers quit looking for violators. The principal quit castigating the kids who longed for their favorite soda. Once again, the kids were allowed to buy Blue Blast from the cafeteria. They sat down at their table, and simply drank their soda. Things went back to normal. There were no more violent kids who were able to establish a monopoly over the soda market at school, since Blue Blast was now sold in broad daylight by the cafeteria. There were no more sicknesses from buying what kids thought was Blue Blast. There were no more sting operations, no more expulsions as a result of violating this particular rule, no more isolation-room punishments.
One of Charlie’s teachers watched him drink his Blue Blast one afternoon. It seemed, to her, a tragic irony that the one thing Charlie found solace in would only serve to compound the source of his problems.
The drink still wasn’t good for him. She knew that. She thought he knew that, too.
If some of the concepts behind this story interest you, I encourage you to read a book I just finished titled Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari