It was a rite of spring and not the Igor Stravinsky kind.
At my high school, seniors were given free rein to extol the virtues of their opposite-sex classmates in special end-of-the-year issues: the boys would select the prettiest, cutest (there was some overlap in categories), smartest, etc., girls, and the girls would pick the most athletic, coolest, funniest, etc. boys. The respective choices would be broadcast to the rest of the school, and enduring fame would be yours.
Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams once said, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.'” For us, the goal was more modest: “All I want,” we’d say to ourselves, “is that when I walk down the street, folks will say, ‘There goes the (pick your superlative) boy/girl in the class of ’69 that ever lived.’”
And so I waited, with bated breath, for the year-end edition of “Tiger Tales” to appear in the cafeteria. Would I be handsomest? Fat chance. Best-dressed? Are you kidding? Coolest? I don’t think so. Funniest? I might have a shot if the police had enough evidence on a kid named Wade.
I took the top paper from the stack with anticipation, flipped through the pages—and there it was. “Senior Boy Stars!” or something similarly effusive, and ran my finger down the column.
Most Athletic? Nope. Best Personality—ha! Coolest Car? Are you old enough to remember Oldsmobiles? ‘Nuf said.
And there it was—when I was just about out of options. My name, next to the encomium, “Most Original Ideas.”
Really. That’s it?
I was seized by simultaneous feelings that I’d been robbed—my complexion wasn’t that bad—and that I didn’t deserve the honor that had been bestowed on me.
Me? Original ideas? I couldn’t recall any.
What I mostly had was a bag of cheap rhetorical tricks of the sort that high school debaters acquire as they make their way through the halls of America’s institutions of secondary education—ripostes such as “You’re begging the question!” and “Correlation doesn’t imply causation!”
Slightly more sophisticated than “Oh yeah?” and “Says who?” Not as refined as the sort of highbrow comebacks I would learn in college over the next four years, like “You’re elevating form over substance!”
Suffice it to say, no head cheerleader ever wowed her subalterns by dialogue along the following lines:
FIRST ASSISTANT HEAD CHEERLEADER: Who are you going to the prom with?
HEAD CHEERLEADER: A really dreamy guy. He has the most original ideas!
So there I was, burdened with the weight of being Mr. Original Ideas Guy. You can imagine how that would play out in the cafeteria: students quarreling over whether cutting in line should be allowed and, if so, whether “frontsies,” or just “backsies.”
“Let’s ask Mr. Original Ideas,” the kid named Wade would say. “Maybe he has a useful rule based on neutral principles that can be applied fairly in a variety of situations.”
“Yeah,” the kid named Butch would say. “Any bright ideas?”
I’d gulp and say “Well, backsies, but no frontsies.” Seemed fair—sort of.
Then the kid with a slide rule would point out that both forms of cuts resulted in longer wait times for students behind the cutter, many of whom might have math homework to finish before Algebra II class.
I’m telling you—you can’t win.
I heard plenty of what seemed at first to be original ideas in college, but once I tracked them down most originated with German philosophers whose names sounded like somebody trying to stifle a sneeze—Fichte, Husserl. It wasn’t until I’d graduated, and gone on to law school, and was working pro bono at a legal clinic in an inner-city neighborhood, that I encountered what I consider to be the most original idea I’ve ever heard.
A fellow showed up one day asking for help not to fight an eviction, or to stay out of jail, but to launch a business: trout farming!
It happened that I knew a bit about the industry, having explored it, for a period of five minutes or so, when a friend of mine suggested that I lend him some money to start a trout farm.
“You know,” I said with the air of a high-priced management consultant, “the problem in that industry is how to get the fish to market before they die. The losses eat into your profits.”
“I’ve got that all figured out,” the man said.
“Oh really?’ I asked, eager to hear his solution.
“Yes. We’d get a blimp, put a net on the bottom of it, swoop down on the ponds, scoop up the fish, and fly them to market.”
I looked at the man with a wild surmise. I could barely contain my admiration.
“Now that,” I said, “is an original idea!”
Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.