Monday, June 12, 2000

This Was Then, When is Now Again

The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was in his first year of an under appreciated presidency. Taxi Driver was showing in a theater near you. Barry Manilow's "Weekend in New England" worked its magic to the top of the charts. And at Central Park Elementary School in sleepy Roseville Minnesota, the kindly school librarian, Mrs. Ripke, had all of us kids in grades 4-6 in a game playing frenzy, competing with each other in a quest for knowledge.

The name of the game was "Calendar Clue." At the beginning of the week Mrs. Ripke would begin by posting the topic- "famous person," "historical event," "dairy food product" etc. Then each day a single clue would be unveiled. Each participant got two guesses per week (that were turned in on a form listing our name and homeroom number- we'd place our guesses in a little shoebox at the reference area's window). At the end of the week Mrs. Ripke would display the top ten winners- the kids who had gotten the correct answer quickest.

Inevitably my best friend, John Oleson, and I would finish number one and two. Sometimes John would beat me. Other times I would figure out the puzzle just before him. The competition was fierce- even to the point of trying to get to school earliest so as to see the clue before the other even arrived (for that John had an unfair advantage- he lived within walking distance of the school).

But I had an even more unfair advantage. My mom was my assistant. Mom loved puzzles and she loved trivia. Every day I would go home and tell mom the clue and she would point me toward our encyclopedias and with a gentle hint here and an educated guess there she would help me find the solution. Mom never just gave me the answer but instead directed me in the right route to do the research. Besides having a lot of fun working with mom on a weekly project, I think I ended up learning even more than Mrs. Ripke hoped any of us would.

Somewhere toward the end of the school year John and I had a painful falling out. He had been my first best friend (not counting my brother) and to this day it makes me sad that we didn't remain so. John was as mischievous as he was bright, and he loosened up my rather strict adherence for always doing as I was told. When our friendship began I was somewhat a social outcast, generally liked by my classmates but not really understood. Through John's friendship I became the most popular kid in my class. I won all the popularity contests. I ruled the four-square and hopscotch courts.

It was through this skyrocketing popularity that my friendship with John ended. Essentially whenever we would have an argument I didn't care whether I was wrong or not. I was Mr. Popular and if he didn't agree with me then I had many other friends who would.

As the final weeks of Calendar Clue were playing out, a fraction of percentage points separated John and I in the yearly standings. I led him by just a little bit having finished in first place less times but in the top ten every week whereas he had finished outside the top ten once or twice. (There had been a mid-year scandal when I was rightfully accused of tipping off some other classmates thus denying John the opportunity to finish in the top ten that week.)

The topic for the week was "animal kingdom." I don't remember all the clues but it was a tough puzzle. Even mom was stumped. It was apparent the animal in question had something to do with the desert. So my first guess (with little basis) was "camel." The next day's clue eliminated any possibility that the guess was correct. Late Thursday I thought I knew the answer. My guess this time was "llama." Unfortunately Friday's clue didn't fit. I was doomed. John still had a guess remaining. That morning we both had free time in the library and for some reason we began talking. He told me he didn't know the answer and he probably wasn't even going to try and guess. For an instant weeks of hard feelings dissipated and I offered him my assistance. Together we spent hours scouring through the library to find the answer. And our collaboration proved fruitful. We found the animal we were looking for- "a vicuna."

John didn't finish in first place that week but was in the top ten thus moving him ahead in the year's standings. (I honestly don't remember who ultimately won the top prize for the year.)

For the first time I felt a feeling I have since tried my best to duplicate. It felt better helping John out, honoring our friendship than it would have to get the glory myself. Ultimately I didn't get what I wanted but there was a palatable sense of purpose assisting someone else reach their goal. John and I were indeed finished as friends (we barely spoke ever again) but to this day I'm glad our friendship ended on such a triumphant note.

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