Life lessons remembered

Too much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of pie.
Too much of my life has been spent in the pursuit of pie.

When did you figure out this whole  “life” thing was going to be complicated? For me it came in the fifth grade.  I have no idea whether that’s early or late in one’s life for it to happen. Heck, maybe it doesn’t happen in a single event for most people. I honestly don’t know. I know how it happened for me. Maybe this has potential to be the worst party game ever.

This would have happened sometime in the 1974-75 school year. It was our second year living in Colonial Heights just outside Kingsport, TN. We moved there after we’d lived in Asheville, NC for three years and we spent two years there before we moved, for the last time as an intact family, to Houston, TX after school got out that year. My oldest brother was a freshman in high school and moving around as my dad’s contract engineering positions expired wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I’m guessing this incident happened early in the year before we knew we’d be moving.

We typically didn’t get a bunch of warning when we were going to move. We’d know something was up when Dad brought his briefcase home. Dad wasn’t a briefcase guy. He had one, but he kept work at work. If the briefcase came home, it meant his current contract was running out. The process of choosing the next one was on. I don’t think any of the “OK kids, we’re moving” announcements ever came a surprise. We always knew we weren’t staying where we lived when we moved in. The only question was where we were going next. It wasn’t until I hit the fifth grade that people outside my family weren’t just kind of moving wallpaper. That probably set me up for what happened that year.

I love trivia. I always have. I remember when Trivial Pursuit came out in 1979 that it was kind of a life affirmation for me. But the game didn’t exist in 1974, so I had to be satisfied with those times that my teachers decided to do the quiz bowl thing in class. My fifth grade teacher really liked the quiz bowl competition technique, and I adored her for it. In order of preference, I loved social studies, reading, science and (slightly below the flu and mandatory vaccinations) math. Social studies was well-suited to dividing the class in half and throwing out questions to earn each team points. Nobody ever wanted me on their kickball team, but I never heard anyone complain about me being on their team for class quiz games.

This was all a long time ago and I’m pretty sure I’m fuzzy on some of the details. I remember the names of some of my friends from those days, but I’m happy to say I don’t remember the name of the antagonist in this story. It’s irrelevant, really. As I recall it,  our teacher divided the class for a quiz bowl. There was a prize involved, as I recall, Extra recess time or something like that. I may not be remembering it right, but there was something about this particular match that was pretty important to all of us.

Something happened and time ran long. It was time to go to lunch and the score was tied. Our teacher apparently missed how close to the bell we were, so she actually asked the tie-breaking question just before the bell rang. We weren’t allowed to take books or anything down to lunch, so we knew what the last question was going to be. And I knew the answer.

I wish I could say I remember what the question was. I don’t. I think it was a geography question.  We moved around a lot and traveled around from wherever we lived.  Most of the kids I went to school didn’t. To them most places were just names in a book. Some were for me, too, but a lot weren’t. What ever this question was, I knew it immediately and it seemed like everyone understood that I probably knew it. The thing was, I assumed everyone else knew it too.

I was — and still am — confused by what’s considered “general knowledge.”  It’s taken a long time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing.  If I assume everyone knows something and act accordingly I’ll find out it’s not and I’ll become this weirdo who knows that thing no one else knows. Or I assume someone doesn’t know something and they actually do so I’m a jerk.

I’ve learned to love silence. Except on trivia night at bars, but I digress.1

So anyway, I go to lunch knowing what the answer is and figuring the only issue is going to be making sure we got our hands up first because, of course, everyone knew the answer, right? That’s what I talked to my classmates who were on my team about. Some said they knew, some said they didn’t but trusted that those of us who said we knew really did. The Answer was not spoken aloud. For them it was operational security. For me it was “why say something we all know about?”

As cons go, this one wasn’t very sophisticated. This guy on the other team didn’t know the answer, but he knew I did. He came up to me as I was throwing my lunch bag away and said something that reinforced my belief that we all knew the answer and the only suspense was who’d be able to answer first. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but whatever it was, the next thing I said contained the answer. Then he laughed at me and thanked me for giving them the game. As I recall, he was really quite an asshole about it. My team was not happy with me.

I went to the teacher. It’s kind of embarrassing to tell a long story like this and not actually remember what wound up happening. I think she threw out the question once it was established that the other team had suckered the answer out of me. Or maybe she didn’t. There were probably 10 or 12 kids on each team, and the jerk who suckered me was part of a subgroup who didn’t know the answer. There’s every reason to think someone on the other team did know. This was fifth-grade geography,not tensor calculus.

I definitely don’t remember who won the game (if indeed she didn’t call a halt to the whole thing right then and there). I was in shock. I didn’t know people could act that way. I didn’t know until that moment that people were perfectly willing to use what you know for their own advantage at your expense.

It’s never left me. I still don’t like it.

Worst party game ever? Yep.


1Like that ever happens.