In 1998 I was 12 years old. Every news channel and radio station chattered repetitively about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, the Oval Office, cigars and blue dresses. My mom, my younger siblings and I were crashing at my aunt and uncle’s house outside Sacramento, California after two tumultuous years of homelessness. We had run away from my dad after he threatened to kill us, so we lived in hiding all over the west coast as my parents’ divorce dragged on. I was grateful to live indoors again with a bathroom, washer, dryer and kitchen, but my aunt and uncle’s guest room was so small that my siblings and I slept in a walk-in closet. This would become the inevitable punchline to a joke years later when I came out of the metaphorical closet.
Before I was old enough to vote, I loved politics. I loved anything that made sense out of the world’s chaos. And as a budding theater nerd, to me, a politician was just someone who was very good at monologues. I loved reading laws and learning how they were historically interpreted. I voraciously read about the Holocaust, studying it so that I could be confident I would know exactly what to do if it ever happened again. My teachers and aunt told my mother that they were concerned I was reading books that were too graphically violent. I read about slavery, the Nazis, and ancient Egypt because I couldn’t understand why Moses didn’t like Pharaoh’s gods. The greatest thing my mother ever did was not censor the books that she allowed me to read.
Mom enrolled me in the local middle school and I was excited to learn that my class would be going to Washington, D.C. When I told my teacher that I couldn’t afford the cost of the trip, she smiled and suggested that I sell See’s chocolate bars to raise the money myself. I was elated! I had not known that this was even an option.
For months, I carried little white boxes of chocolate bars in my backpack, Carefully, I packed them with icepacks on hot Central California Valley days so they wouldn’t melt all over my homework. I would have to pay for the candy myself if that happened. I kept an organized log of bars sold and meticulously recorded the amount of change I had given. Each night, I tallied the amount and subtracted it from the total cost of the trip to the nation’s capitol. It soon became obvious that I would never sell enough chocolate to go to D.C. Still, I was determined to figure out a solution. I also mowed neighbors’ lawns and cleaned hoarders’ houses on the weekend. Mom always insisted that I give her money for rent and tithing to Church. She told me that she was saving 30% to give me later and that the remainder was for “bills” to teach me life skills. I knew that mom spent all my money on White Zinfandel and expensive cigarettes. I tried arguing with her about it, but she told me that it was “not up for debate”. So I began lying to her. I justified this, certain that a D.C. trip would look good on my college applications when I applied to Harvard or Oxford in a few years.
When Mom picked me up from a job in Roseville that she had gotten for me through a friend at church, I told her that I made only $15 from a day of excavating stratified decades of garbage from Mr. Powers’s backyard in 90 degree heat. In reality, Mr. Powers had paid me $40. He was a hoarder who threw most of his grimy trash out the window. From the street, his home looked normal. Mom told me that I should have negotiated a better rate, then took the three sweaty bills from my hand. On the way back to my aunt and uncle’s house, Mom stopped at a convenience store to buy liters of rosé and long wholesale packages of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
As I waited for her to pay, I thought about how much I wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial and stand where thousands had gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. tell us about his dream. So I hid the remaining $25 from Mr. Powers in my back pocket. I burned with guilt as Mom swerved us home, vapors of alcohol wafting on her breath. She lit another cigarette as we barreled down the freeway. When we got home, I added the wrinkled bills to my cardboard See’s candy box. My makeshift till was overflowing with cash, but the amount was still nowhere near the thousands I would need if I wanted to go with my class to Ford’s Theater.
A month before the trip, my social studies teacher asked me to stay after class. “You’re not going to be able to go on the trip to D.C.,” she told me. I explained that I was working as hard as possible everyday after school to make more money. I suggested that I could work harder to sell twice as many chocolate bars and See’s lollipops. She shook her head and told me that she was sorry, but I hadn’t made enough money to go with the class. I asked what I should do with the money that I had earned. I had saved roughly half of the cost of the trip. All the flimsy cardboard banks of bills I had hidden from my mom suddenly felt worthless. If my thousands couldn’t buy the one thing I wanted — a trip to D.C. where I could touch history, what could the money possibly be good for? My teacher told me that there were other kids who were also struggling to pay for the trip to D.C., but that their parents had been able to chip in more. She asked me if I wanted to donate the funds that I had raised to help my other classmates go instead. I immediately agreed, happy to help my classmates who I imagined also worked multiple jobs after school. I hadn’t seen them selling chocolate bars for months, but maybe they had a different group of friends to sell to. Nodding my head in agreement, I told my teacher that I would bring her the money for my classmates tomorrow. I walked out to the playground for recess and slumped under the oak tree.
I rode the bus home to tell my mom that I couldn’t go to D.C. Mom hugged me with one arm. Her wine glass and smoldering cigarette elegantly extended away from her body like we were ballet dancers performing in the kitchen. “What if,” Mom suggested, “What if you did something even better than D.C.?” I didn’t know what that meant. Mom got excited and pointed out that we lived near a capitol already. Sacramento was the capitol city of California! I still didn’t understand what she was talking about. Mom told me that she would make a few calls to see if there was a California state legislator that I could intern with. Mom said that even though I couldn’t fly across the country, perhaps I could go to the state’s capitol!
The week that my class left for D.C., I still felt disappointed, but I tried to focus on how great an internship with a state senator and state representative would look on my college applications. I was also excited to learn about things like state government and campaign strategy. Sure, I was still in middle school, but I had been looking forward to college since kindergarten.
Getting dressed for the first day of my internship, I wore the penny loafers that my grandmother had given me with tissues stuffed into the toes so they would fit. The senator’s office manager was a chic woman with long blonde hair and high heels. She introduced me to everyone in the office and I blinked against the bright fluorescent light. I tried to hide my disappointment that the state senator’s office lacked the glamour I imagined Congress had in D.C. I shook the hand of the senator and thanked him for inviting me, smiling as I worried that he could intuit I was not a Republican. I had been disappointed that none of the Democratic senators my mom called had agreed to let me intern. In retrospect, this might have had something to do with the political optics of the Clinton impeachment that was going on. Regardless, I decided that the political leanings of a 12-year-old didn’t really matter because I couldn’t legally vote anyway. I reminded myself that I was ultimately there to learn about government, legislation, and the inner workings of Democracy.
The office manager told me that I seemed smart enough to help with constituent letters. She set me up in an empty office with a computer and a stack of letters written to the senator. The letters ranged from thank you cards for a vote he had cast, to handwritten notes from imploring parents who could not afford their children’s medical bills, and a man who demanded that the senator come to his house personally to fix his A/C unit if he wanted his vote next election. I did my best to write in the voice of the senator. The office manager had given me sample letters to mimic. After typing up the senator’s response, I handed the printed stack to her for approval, then on it went for the senator’s signature. Then back to me to address, stamp, and set in a box to be mailed back to constituents.
I heard a knock on the wall of the office an hour later. I looked up from typing a letter to an elderly woman who needed help paying for her prescription medication. The office manager waved the letter I had written to the man who needed the senator to fix his air conditioner. “This is very good,” she said, pausing, “But it needs some changes.” She sat down next to me and circled the word “feasible”. “You are very smart. But most of our constituents won’t know what feasible word means. Can you use a smaller word instead?” I stared in disbelief. She told me that yes, the man who wanted a politician to fix his air conditioner was an adult, but that the letter to him needed to be dumbed down. To put it in terms that a 12-year-old intern might understand, she suggested pretending that I was writing to a 3rd grader. I reopened the Word doc on the computer and replaced the word “feasibile” with “possible”. I asked if she thought that constituents would understand the word “possible”. She nodded, pleased, and joked that they would need to start paying me and hire me next week.
My internship ended when my classmates returned from D.C. They squealed with excitement, telling me that they had spotted Meg Ryan and a guy who they thought was her boyfriend, but might have been her bodyguard. “Or both!” the popular girls jumped, shrieking in unison at the prospect of dating a man who could be both a boyfriend and a bodyguard. I asked what Ford’s Theater had been like. They told me that it smelled weird. I asked what the Lincoln Memorial had been like, and they told me that’s where they saw Meg Ryan. I asked what Congress was like, and they said boring. They asked me what I had done. I told them I had visited the California state senate where all the senators had to have Solitaire and Minesweeper games removed from the computers where they vote because so many of them had gotten in trouble for not paying attention. When I asked my classmates if they used laptops to cast votes in the U.S. Congress, they said they didn’t know. “What did you do?” Julianna, a girl who wore Abercrombie from head to toe asked me. I told her that I was an intern for a week, so I did all the things that interns do. Julianna and the class roared, screaming “INTERN!” The social studies teacher yelled at us to stop. “Monica! Monica!” they chanted. I tried to explain that interning just means shadowing and learning a new job without being paid. “You’re an intern! Gross!” Julianna retorted and the room burst into hysterical laughter again. I put my head down on my cool desk to block out their voices and wished that I could drop out of middle school to accept the job that the senator’s office manager had offered me. Sure, I’d be working for a Republican, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with preteen bullies.
I was relieved when we moved again a few months later and I transferred to a new school for the ninth time where my nickname was no longer Intern, Monica or Senator Slut. I thought a lot about Monica Lewinsky and how she continued to be bullied internationally for years after Clinton’s impeachment. For her, it wasn’t as easy as transferring to a new school.