Twenty years later, I have some idea what to do in a school club

...what was I supposed to do, say, at my high school's literary society?

Twenty years later, I have some idea what to do in a school club

I was never good with clubs at school.

Like, a party, that I can do. There's a protocol for those of us who are always uncomfortable at parties. Go talk to the host's younger brother. Try to get into the music. Sit in ugly clothes and watch TV. Crawl into a hole and die. Everyone can do any or all of these.

But what was I supposed to do, say, at my high school's literary society? Should I have dressed in a three-piece suit, brought tea, and talked in an English accent? (OK yes but wait on that a second, I'm gonna try to make a point.) I mean, I'm a teacher now, and I can see what's actually supposed to happen at clubs. People could get comfortable talking to each other and expressing themselves. Or exercise leadership. Hear about things they want to know better. Sign up for activities and do things together. Sign up for activities and contribute alone. Show they're supportive and paying attention.

What I didn't understand when I was in school is that clubs are an amazing form of learning and socializing, and they require special attention to navigate. You want to be attentive to what you're learning, how it's changing you, how you'd explain what's happening to you. And you want to make sure you're giving. Being present is a huge deal, especially if you take the time to listen and respond to other members at and after meetings.

So yeah. I think I'd better list how I've failed at clubs and talk about what I could have done better, giving concrete examples of what to do that should help with being more comfortable and productive.


High school, literary society. I spent lots of time reading everyone's submissions and putting the magazine together. I didn't even think to do what I would do now, which is write personalized notes to each writer, telling them what I liked about their work.

I made a bigger mistake. In college interviews I was asked about the work I did and treated it as no big deal, though I spent hours reading the writing of my peers and learning what was important to them. No one told me what I was doing was valuable, so I didn't talk about it at all. I saw the work as work anyone would do. But the truth was that I was one of the few doing it. I needed to detail to myself what I was doing, and how I was taking responsibility and demonstrating quiet leadership.

And I definitely did need to wear a three-piece suit and bring tea and an accent. I should have pushed to build a small reading group. Maybe it would have gotten some students extra credit.

College, Republican club. This was mainly a bunch of stupid jokes about professional wrestling, complaining about liberals, and talking about bringing in speakers we couldn't afford. People were pretty chill, though, and we were talking at one point about organizing something with the College Democrats.

The leaders of this were local students who wanted to have a good time. We did go to a local GOP convention. We also broke the bank at a Pizza Hut. There were always invitations to join campaigns, and every one of us did end up stuffing envelopes or doing flyer drops.

In retrospect, I could have done a lot more to reach out to everyone and ask them how they were. And I should have advocated for us to do more social events. The leaders of the club had the right vibe; they weren't particularly ideological. Their attitude paid itself forward. It encouraged the other students to help each other out. I got plenty of rides to places off-campus I couldn't have gone otherwise. I was getting attention while feeling lost on a huge campus. I should have pushed for us to watch Monday Night Raw at someone's apartment and spend club money on food.

I think a few people would be like "What's the point of that? Shouldn't you be fundraising and recruiting for causes?" Here's the thing I understand now: for every person that goes to school and is completely spoiled, there are 8 other people who are like "What is this place?" Especially if the school is huge and tens of thousands of people are there. It's very easy to feel insignificant and in control of nothing.

Being social in this context isn't just being social. It might be the one time you can talk about something interesting you heard during class to someone who can understand it. Big schools are only masses of people until they are made smaller. I knew this at the time, but I didn't understand how important it was to act on it.

Graduate school. I should have treated everyone there to coffee or a meal and asked them about life and work. Grad school is a club; it is already a select bunch. You have to treat it like one and advocate for more, not just hide in the library. Learn where you are, and don't be afraid to talk about it.


Some of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with joining an organization with real purpose. A robotics club, say, that tries to win competitions. Or one dedicated to service that tries to help supply local food banks. I've been heavy on the social aspects of clubs, but aren't there times you can just sign up, show up, and do real work? To that end, Alexander Chee opens this magnificent essay about reckoning with his father's legacy with a story about feeding the poor at scale.

I believe this. Most people want to grow, becoming more attentive to their needs and the needs of others. They want to practice skills which enable them to engage more of the world and they want to discover more skills and opportunities.

It isn't wrong to start somewhere and, over time, become more aware of how you can help in big ways. Maybe you start a podcast and build an audience. And maybe then it occurs to you to give voice to prison abolition, shedding some light on how horrible the most vulnerable are treated. That's fine, and it will happen as long as you're willing to grow. That's what I think is missing from how we approach clubs. We don't treat them as spaces we can grow. We kinda just stick ourselves there to see what happens. That can be useful, sure, but sitting right next to you is someone who could use a compliment. Or someone from your class is a row behind and you don't know each other's name after a month of being in the same room twice a week. Volunteering for the leader who needs people for Sunday's event is the easy part. The hard part is giving the actual members of the club the attention they deserve.