“I’m sorry, say that again, please?”
“I no longer identify as human.”
His name notwithstanding, Mr. Phillip Collins, MEd, indulged to think of himself, with all due self-deprecation, as the “cool” guidance counselor. And, indeed, the wide swath of young and old connected to East Pine Bend High who had spent any time exposed to his even temper and quick wit would not likely demur. That said, as he sat at his desk facing Ronald Crendel—whom the notes in his file categorized as: Junior, GPA 3.5, parents married, no extracurricular activities, affable, introverted, possible spectrum?—trying to process the revelation at hand, he felt something of a strain on his usual composure.
“You’re telling me you’re not human?”
“OK. What are you?”
“Alien? As in extraterrestrial?”
“Yes. I am shifting my being identity to alien.”
Collins laughed. Ronald did not.
“Have you got a hidden camera on me, Ron?” asked Collins. “You’re going to post my reaction online?”
“I’m very serious,” said Ronald, “And I’d appreciate if you take me seriously. At least as seriously as you take the gay and lesbian kids.”
Collins felt a bit of his good humor erode.
“Oh come on, Ron. Is that what this is about? Some kind of protest?”
“I’m not protesting anything. I just want the same right to define myself not by my biology but by my conscience. For as long as I can remember, I never felt like I fit in here.”
“At Pine Bend?”
“On Earth. I never saw things the way other people did, or felt things like I was supposed to. The more I heard about the possibility of life on other planets, the more it made sense. Last year, I accepted the truth: I may be human by birth but, in my heart, I know I’m not of this world. I want to declare myself and take on a new name.”
“What new name?”
“My true alien name is a two-percent drop in barometric pressure with the scent of lavender and the sound of sand pouring over a crystal goblet. I know no one will understand that, so I’m going to take the name ‘Klaatu Starchild.’”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I told you I am serious, and the school needs to take me seriously. That’s the name I want from now on.”
“People will laugh at you.”
“People laugh at boys in makeup and girls with crewcuts. I’m not doing this because it’s easy. I’m doing this because it’s what I am, and I won’t hide it anymore just to make other people comfortable.” Ronald stood up, pinched his ears, and loudly proclaimed, “Nanu nanu!”
* * *
“He did not!”
There was a smattering of laughter in the teacher’s lounge.
“He’s messing with you,” said one of them.
“I don’t know,” replied Collins as he refilled his ‘May the Froth Be With You’ coffee mug. “I’ve only seen the kid once or twice before, but he doesn’t seem like a practical joker. You’re his teachers, you tell me. Is there something going on with him?”
Marie Wykowski, Literature and Language Arts, said, “Not that I’ve seen. He barely talks in class. We did Lord of the Flies and 1984 last semester. They usually get the class going, but I don’t remember him speaking up.”
“But when he does,” inserted Bill Mekler, U.S. and World Cultures, “It’s pretty astute. Some knucklehead brought up the ‘At least Hitler made the trains run on time’ line, and Ron said ‘Yeah, but they were boxcars to Poland.’ Kid has a bit of a bite.”
Allison Brenner, Art, “When we were doing self-portraits, he made his eyes too big, his head too round. When we did portraits of other students, he got them just right.”
“So you’re saying he’s bright, quiet, and a bit of an oddball. Most teens fit that at some point. Where’s this alien thing coming from?”
“It’s a way to be unique,” said Tom Hardwicke, Gym. “Kid’s got nothing to distinguish himself, so he invents something. If you can’t win the game, change the rules. Watch out, or he’ll make us get a new bathroom when he needs to go Number 3.”
“What about the parents?” Assistant Principal Louise Kryszak. “Have you contacted them?”
“Not yet,” said Collins. “You think I should?”
“I think, if nothing else, you’ll get a sense of how far he’s gone with this.”
* * *
“Mrs. Crendel, has your son ever mentioned an interest in… um… aliens? You know, outer spacemen, that kind of thing?”
What followed was about thirty seconds of Jane Crendel sobbing over the phone.
“Oh, God… has he started this at school now!”
“Um, well, he came into my office yesterday and, uh, said he wanted to change his name.”
“To Keanu, right? From that stupid movie.”
“Not Keanu. Klaatu. That’s the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Keanu Reeves played him in a remake that wasn’t very good. But the original 1951 version starring Michael Rennie is a classic. It’s this take on Cold War paranoia ramped up—”
“Can’t you get him to stop?”
“That’s not really something I would do,” said Collins. “I just want to understand a little more about what’s driving this, and maybe I can call in the district psychologist.”
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Are you telling me this is…” Whispered, “…psychological?”
Collins thought of about four ways to answer before deciding to skip it.
“Mrs. Crendel, almost all teenagers go through a time where they’re unsure of their identity, or who they want to become. It’s very normal. You son is just taking a… creative… approach.”
Again with the sobbing. This time, he heard a distant male voice in the background (who’s that what’s going on).
“It’s Ron’s teacher! He’s says he’s creatively normal!”
The phone rustled and the male voice came on. “What did he do?”
“Nothing, Mr. Crendel. He’s just—”
“That goddamn alien thing again? That, whatever it is… Happy… Clappy….”
“It’s Klaatu. A character from an old movie.”
“And the hippie part. Flower child?”
“Starchild. That’s a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s when an astronaut ascends to a higher form of existence.”
“Is it a cult or drugs or something like that?”
Collins thought of all the obsessive Kubrick fans he’d known. And that time in college he’d watched the Stargate sequence on shrooms. Again, he skipped ahead.
“It’s nothing like that, Mr. Crendel. I really just think your son is dealing with some natural teenage anxiety by retreating into a fantasy.”
“It’s the comic books that did it. Ever since he was little. Stacks all around him. They turned him. Kid doesn’t know who played in last year’s Super Bowl, but he can name all the X-Men.”
Wow, thought Collins. All the X-Men? There must be over a hundred. Skip ahead.
“I think I’m starting to get an idea of what’s going on,” said Collins. “Please don’t worry. I’ll talk to him, consult with some colleagues, and see if we can’t help him understand why he’s fixated on fictional characters. Tell your wife everything will be fine.”
“Jane, he says they’re going to help him stop fixating on fictional characters.”
“Oh thank Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
* * *
Collins was at his desk, still on his first cup of coffee the next morning, when some students rapped on his open door.
“Mr. Collins, can we talk to you?”
“Sure, come on in.”
A harlequin assembly entered. Eyeliner and nose rings. Asymmetrical shaved cuts with neon-dyed shocks of hair. Cargo pants and skinny jeans.
“What’s up, guys?”
“I’m sorry. What’s up, people.”
“Thanks for not using that condescending patriarchal label.”
“I said I was sorry. Now what I can I do for you?”
One of the students handed him a brightly colored sheet of paper. “This just came in to the Equality Office.”
“The Equality Office?”
“It’s what we call the control room in the TV studio. It’s become our de facto office.”
“All right,” said Collins. “And this is?”
“An application for this Friday’s Pride Rally.”
“So? Aren’t you guy—eh, you folks handling that?”
“Look at the name.”
Collins looked and saw ‘Ronald Crendel.’ Under the section for ‘Gender Identity,’ Ronald had crossed out ‘Gender’ and written in ‘Being.’ On the adjacent line he’d written: ‘Alien (extraterrestrial). Collins tried nonchalance.
“So? So we think he’s making a mockery of the proceeding.”
“I’m we. I identify as gender binary, so I prefer to be addressed as a duality.”
“OK. Does anyone else besides… we… have a problem with this?”
“You all object to this application?”
Nose rings and neon tufts all nodded. A student in the back with a black turtleneck made no motion but just stared sullenly.
“What about h—sh… that person?”
“He’s cisgender male fluid and currently accepts the traditional masculine pronoun.”
“Can he speak for himself?” asked Collins.
“He’s denying the existence of the application as a form of protest.”
“Right, specifically, what do you want me to do?”
“You’re the faculty sponsor,” said we. “You have to approve every application.”
“I haven’t even seen any other applications.”
“Those were all fine. This is the only one that’s a problem.”
“So you want me to decline this application?” asked Collins.
“You we or them we?”
“All of us we.”
“OK, you know what?” Collins said, pushing back from his desk. “I’m not going to do that. You know how when you see a form that has checkboxes for gender? With options for ‘Male,’ ‘Female,’ and ‘Other’? You’re the reason there’s an ‘Other.’ Enough people like you decided that a blunt, either-or characterization didn’t fit how they saw themselves. They took on entrenched thinking, faced ridicule—or worse—and persisted until they brought about change. You know what the word ‘alien’ means? Other. That’s how Ronald feels looking at the rest of the world. Like an Other. I’m sure every one of you can understand that. As faculty advisor, if he wants to be in the Pride Rally, I’m approving his application.”
Collins skimmed the instructions on the form.
“So how’s this work?” he asked.
“Everyone gathers with the group they identify with. We’ll bring the groups up alphabetically—asexual, bisexual, fluid, gay, lesbian, trans, undeclared, or whatever—and each member is announced. Individuals get two minutes each to declare themselves, if he, she, or, they want.”
“And this is happening, when? This Friday, after sixth period, in the gym, it says here?” Collins looked up. “Just out of curiosity, when was the last time any of you were in the gym?”
“Not since the mouth-breathers kicked me off the wrestling team.”
Collins pointed to a line on Ronald’s application.
“People can choose their own entrance music.”
“Ron picked David Bowie’s ‘Starman’? Oh, I am so approving this now!” Collins grabbed a yellow highlighter and scrawled a five-pointed star on the form before handing it back. “Sorry, kids, but you’re stuck with this one.”
We rolled we’s eyes.
“Fine, but we’re putting him last.”
“If you’re going alphabetically by group, shouldn’t alien go first? Unless you’ve got someone who identifies as aardvark.”
“Don’t push it.”
“Last will be fine,” said Collins.
“Just so you know, we’re going to kick him off stage if he says anything anti-diversity. The school has a zero-tolerance policy.”
“I would expect nothing less. So I’ll see you all there this Friday.”
“Oh golly, that will be just so super awesome sauce, Mr. C.”
“Catch you later, dudes.”
* * *
Collins’ week filled up with college rep visits and IEP reviews, and he forgot about the alien pride invasion until Thursday when, outside his office, he heard a wave of barely stifled laughter. He leaned out his door and, a ways down the hall, saw what looked like a life-size metallic statue. A student standing next to it faced a giggling crowd and said, “I’d like to thank the Academy…”
The statue moved and Collins realized it was Ron Crendel in a silver lamé jumpsuit.
He got to him as quickly as he could without looking panicked, arriving just as several other students were striking up pose-and-point Saturday Night Fever moves.
“All right, guys, move along. Ron, can I see you in my office.”
Together, they took the long walk down the corridor, students parting before them, poorly hiding their gigglesnorts. Once, Collins heard the whistled refrain from “If I Only Had a Heart” but never spied the culprit. Collins closed the door when they reached the sanctuary of his office.
“So, um, you’re wearing this now, Ron?”
“I wanted to get comfortable in it before the rally tomorrow.”
“You’re really going through with this?”
“I am, yes.”
Collins shook his head and took a step back. He looked Ron up and down, really noticing the attire for the first time.
“Where did you even get this?” he asked.
“I made it.”
“What? No way!”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Wow,” said Collins. “What it’s made of?”
“Well, I started with silverized fabric, but it was too expensive, so I just used it for the arms and collar. The rest is a plastic tablecloth.”
“Get out! How did you stitch it?”
“I used hot glue and a soldering iron to create the seams, then a heat gun to melt the plastic to a seal.”
“Damn. It looks just like the costume from the original movie! Are these LED lights?”
“Yeah, I added a few touches of my own.”
“Impressive. Most impressive,” said Collins—then he caught himself. “Ron, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be walking around school like this. I mean, it’s a lot, you know? Very quickly. People don’t deal well with sudden changes.”
“Mr. Collins, I appreciate you’re looking out for me, but I’ve thought this through. This is what I am. The sooner I become comfortable with it, the sooner other people will have to, well, at least deal with it.”
“And you’re really going to the rally tomorrow? Like this?”
“Ron,” Collins began tentatively, struggling with something his training should have made easy. “Is everything… OK?”
Ronald shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know what OK is. But I know this…” he gestured to himself with his spray-painted gloves, “Feels better. Better than I have in a while.”
“I don’t know how to make this easier on you. I can’t stop the kids in the hall from having their jokes, or make your teachers or your parents be any more patient than they’re prepared to. I don’t know quite what to make of it myself, but… but I know I want you to be OK.”
“Thanks, Mr. Collins. I appreciate it. I really do. If it’s all right with you, I need to get to class.”
“Sure. Uh, at least let me give you a pass so you don’t get a tardy.”
“That would be awesome. Thanks!”
* * *
“It must be a dress code violation somehow.”
“If someone came to school in a Halloween costume, we wouldn’t permit it. How is this different?”
Ronald’s teachers had called Collins to an impromptu meeting after the school day, and now they sat at the lounge roundtable peppering him with accusations, as if he had some influence or control over the boy.
“Look, I don’t think it’s the best idea either,” he replied to the group, “but I don’t know what we can do about it—other than a hard-line ban.”
“We’re not doing him any favors playing along,” said gym teacher Hardwicke. “Kid’s obviously going through something we can’t help—but we can make it easier by not letting him be a spectacle. It sounds mean, and certainly isn’t fashionable, but sometimes people need to be forced to do things in their best interest.”
Collins had an image of Hardwicke stomping behind Ron, blowing his whistle, and bellowing like a drill sergeant (Go! Go! Be normal! Left, right, left, right! Let’s see some hustle!), but he kept himself silent.
Assistant Principal Louise Kryszak spoke up. “Every kid in here is going through something. Everybody’s always going through something. We try to keep our somethings from intruding on others when possible. That’s a life skill a school should help teach, regardless of curriculum. Phil, I understand you want to be patient here and let Ron work this out in his own way, but I agree it’s a distraction. If it goes on, it’s unfair to other students. I don’t even want to imagine the calls I’ll get from parents.”
Collins sighed, looked slowly from face to expectant face. He had no response, no brilliant idea that would satisfy anyone. Then, a crack opened before his eyes. He sprinted for it, a chance at least to stall for time.
“The Pride Rally is tomorrow. Some kids get pretty freaky for that. We can indulge him for one more day and it won’t cause a kerfuffle.”
“Are you saying he’s going to appear at the rally and… come out?”
“More like beam up,” said Hardwicke. It got a few laughs, to Collins’ annoyance.
“He plans to attend, yes,” said Collins. “Maybe it’ll give him the chance to say his piece and move on. Maybe he’ll feel silly and decide it’s not worth it.”
“Or maybe,” said Kryszak, “it will cement this in him. I don’t know. Worries me.”
“It worries me too. But no matter what, I promise I’ll speak to him. I’ll lay out everyone’s concerns and see if we can’t agree to some ground rules—at least with the outfit.”
The group agreed, with some reluctance but also a measure of relief. Teachers and administrators all wanted order but disliked enforcing it. They preferred to call on counselors to “fix” troublesome kids. It had never occurred to Collins until this moment how much he resented that attitude.
For the rest of the afternoon, the drive home, and the lonely dinner he made for himself in the house he’d grown up in and inherited from his parents (one deceased, one in Florida), Collins turned the predicament over in his mind, looking at it from one angle, then another. A fleeting idea that had occurred to him in a moment of fitful inspiration kept returning to his consciousness, like a comet in an eccentric orbit: gone and almost forgotten, then blazing over the horizon, only to arc out of sight again. The orbit kept tightening, the idea flashing by more and more frequently, until he could eclipse it no longer. Before going to bed, he went up into the attic and spelunked among low beams and dusty boxes until he found the old duffel bag that held what he could no longer deny. He brushed it off and put it in the trunk of his car for the morning.
* * *
His morning’s work occupied his time, if not his mental energy, save for a session extolling the merits of community college to a girl convinced Harvard had a Retail Design program. He saw or heard nothing of Ron Crendel, though in the cafeteria, a knot of football players at their usual corner table kept cracking themselves up singing “Silver Balls” to the tune of “Silver Bells.” Collins could only guess at the inspiration.
After sixth period, as the school population began to flow toward the gym, Collins went to his car and got the duffel bag. He went straight to Ms. Elizabeth Shelby’s cosmetology elective lab.
“Phil! How are you doing!” came the friendly greeting. Liz Shelby was an attractive blonde woman in her early fifties—and a stone-cold knockout in her thirties, if the headshots around the room were to be believed. Her lipstick, eyeshadow, and hair accents were bold and flawless, if a little excessive, and the perfect, poreless foundation of her skin had a slightly waxy sheen. But she was an unfailingly kind-hearted soul and one whom Collins knew he could trust with any secret.
“What brings you here, honey?” she asked.
“Liz, I need you to do my hair and makeup for the Pride Rally.”
A perfect, penciled eyebrow shot up about two inches.
* * *
“Psst. Alice. Hey! Alice.”
Collins leaned into the door of the control room above the stands in the gymnasium. Alice O’Shea (Senior, GPA 3.86, early accepted into pre-med at Cooper State) sat at the sound and light panel she had ruled for the past three years. Collins wondered if any other student even knew how it worked.
She glanced back inattentively. “Oh, hey, Mr. C.”
“How’s it going?”
“Glorious. The ‘Trans’ kids just finished. I don’t think we have any ‘Undeclareds,’ though there are two ‘Whatevers.’ Go figure.”
“Is Ron Crendel on the list?”
Alice flipped through some papers. “Yep. He’s last.”
“Good. Put me in after him.”
“You?” Alice turned in her chair, now actually noticing Collins’ transformation. “Whoa! You’re going to go out like that?”
“That’s right. And I want you to play this as my intro music.” Collins held up his phone, screen facing Alice. “It’s all edited and queued up. Just plug and play.”
“You’re going to walk out like that, and you want me to play this?”
“That is fucking epic.”
“Language please. Think you’re going to get into Hopkins with a mouth like that? Do it up for me good, lights and all you got, OK, Alice?”
“You are my god.”
* * *
The mellow opening chords of David’s Bowie’s “Starman” came through the PA, then the low-key vocal. The song was simply played from the beginning and faded thirty seconds in, missing all the drama of the staccato, radar-tone guitar bridge and the blow-our-minds chorus. Collins was disappointed at the anti-climax of it. He peeked through the locker room door to get a glimpse of Ron Crendel as he took the stage. He wanted to be front-and-center in the audience for support but held off for the greater impact.
The crowd in the stands had thinned a bit, but there was still a respectable gathering of students. A fair number of teachers as well. Oddly, it was the teachers that made Collins most anxious, but he pushed speculations from his mind and listened to Ron. A smattering of laughter and tepid applause greeted his entry, but mostly, he faced indifference as attention drifted or focused on cellphones.
“Hi,” he began stiffly, reading from a sheet of paper, “Some of you know me as Ron, but from now on, I’m going to use a different name.”
Some chuckles. Some razzberries. One or two whoo!’s.”
“Klaatu was an interplanetary policeman who came to Earth to warn us about our warlike ways. Like us, his people had come to the brink of self-destruction. They survived only by choosing to embrace peace and order. When I think about all that’s happened in the last century, I fear we are on the same path. We have advanced technology but primitive instincts. We have knowledge but lack wisdom. If we are to survive, we have to become something better than what we are, something better than barely evolved animals. And so, today I stand before you and embrace a new identity. Today, I leave behind the petty greed and jealousy of being human and look to the future, to the stars, a child reborn as something greater. Today, and forevermore, I am no longer of this Earth. It is alien to me, so I am alien to it. I am Klaatu Starchild.”
Ron stepped back from the mic and bowed rigidly. A few clapped or laughed, but mostly there was just fidgeting in the audience of people ready to go.
“Come on, Alice. Now,” said Collins softly.
As if on cue, all the lights in the gym went out.
Bwwwaahhhmm… came the opening chord of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” He’d catch some teasing on that, but it was worth it.
A pair of spotlights crisscrossed the darkened space. The slow rhythm and growling guitars squeezed tension in the startled, spellbound audience. He had trimmed the song to just the good parts, the echoing vocals leading to a snippet of enigmatic chorus. Collins hadn’t quite been waiting for this moment all his life, but he was enjoying the savor of it.
And… now… the drums.
ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP! BUMP-BUMP!
The gymnasium lights flickered in a choreographed cascade. Considering they were just ordinary fluorescents with a couple of halogen floods, Alice did a virtuoso job timing switch flips.
Damn. How are we ever going to replace that girl? thought Collins, then shoved the boys’ locker room door open with a bang as Alice hit him with the wandering spots.
Collins stepped onto the boards wearing a studio-quality Star Trek uniform, complete with com-badge, tricorder, slicked-down jet-black expertly simulated bowl-cut, bold diagonal eyebrows, and pointy Vulcan ears.
The crowd went wild.
It took Collins a minute to reign in the ovation. When it had settled, he stepped to the mic.
“My father had muscular dystrophy,” he began. The room went absolutely silent.
“He was diagnosed when I was a baby, and I never knew him without it. As I grew up, he couldn’t do things with me like other kids’ fathers, but there was one thing we always had: we loved sci-fi. Star Trek. Star Wars. Battlestar Galactica. 2001. Tron. Close Encounters. Solaris. Blade Runner. War of the Words. The Time Machine. Forbidden Planet. Metropolis. TV, movies, old, new, campy, intellectual. We loved them all. It was our thing. Together.
“I was a teenager—your age—when the muscles in his heart and lungs just weren’t strong enough to keep him alive anymore, and he slipped away. I wanted him to vanish, his blanket just sink down, like Yoda. I wanted him to appear in our backyard, glowing like Obi-Wan Kenobi. I wanted him reborn on Planet Genesis like Spock. When that didn’t happen, I came to hate all the things we had loved. I put them away, cut them out of my heart, and walked through my days with everyone being polite to me. But no one knowing me. It’s not a stretch at all to say I felt like an alien.
“Little by little, over the years, I came back to those things. The shows we loved. The action figures he bought me. The model spaceships we built together. And I went out to movies and conventions and comic bookstores, and I felt him with me. We got all fanboy over every remake. Argued over the canon errors in every ret-con. The things we shared brought me back to who I was. But I never talked about it. Never opened up to anyone about what it really meant to me. So, today, I stand before you to say this is who I am. This got me through the hardest thing I ever had to face in my life. And that I’m proud to count myself as an ally to anyone who feels things they can’t express, things that seem to separate them from the rest of the world. We are not alone if we accept ourselves and one another in all our strange and wonderful variety. May you all live long and prosper. Thank you.”
Collins sat down on the sidelines—strangely calm and awash in relief—between Alien Klaatu Starchild Ron and two Fluid Whatevers as the Pride Rally organizing committee stepped up for closing remarks.
As the dismissed crowd began to mill about the exits, some students avoided Collins, others came up and praised him. Assistant Principal Kryszak wanted to know if his Next Generation com-badge was cast from the original prop mold, and Art Teacher Brenner noted he was wearing the two-piece uniform famous for the “Picard maneuver” where the actors had to tug the shirt tail down every time they stood up. Gym Teacher Hardwicke asked if he was from Planet Sussudio.
All right, that was pretty good. He’d give him that one.
* * *
Back in his office, Collins was zipping up his duffel bag with the carefully refolded outfit when Ron Crendel—still in his silvers—tapped on his door frame.
“Klaatu,” said Collins, with a smile.
“Thanks for that,” he replied.
“All of it.”
“It wasn’t for you,” Collins said. “It was for me. You just reminded me. So, thank you.”
“A lot of people have told me this is just a phase. What do you think?”
“If this is a phase, I’m curious to see what the next phase is. On to Phase IV, huh?”
“What’s Phase IV?”
“A sci-fi movie from the ’70s about intelligent ants. Low budget, but really interesting. Directed by Saul Bass, who was famous for the intro graphics in Hitchcock’s movies.”
“Sounds cool. I’d like to see it.
“I’ll bring you the DVD.”
Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Website: mattmchugh.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “LGBTQ-A”:
Admit it: That title grabbed your attention. It certainly piqued our curiosity.
Author Matt McHugh delivered a fun, sensitive, and thought-provoking piece that respects the rights of individuals to choose their own identity (or to create a new one), regardless of what the world thinks they should be. We applaud Matt McHugh for tackling this difficult subject and for crafting such an excellent piece around it.