I don’t know why I remember this incident so clearly. Maybe it’s because of the two very different boys involved. They both moved away just before junior high, achieving mythic status in my memory.
Arnie was probably the only classmate I’d have admitted to be smarter than myself. He had work ethic and brain power. He was witty and incisive, with a devastating sense of humor and a disconcerting way of looking you straight in the eye and saying just what he thought. In my memory he rarely smiled, though he was well-liked. In short, Arnie rocked.
Starting in fourth grade, Arnie and I shared Advanced Placement classes at our elementary school. For a few blessed hours a week, a dozen or so of us were liberated from our regular classrooms and taken to a kind of haven where we read and discussed modern classics of children’s literature, did logic puzzles, and studied and created analogies. Behavior problems in this group were almost nonexistent; everyone who was there wanted to be there. The teacher spoke calmly and quietly, addressing us as rational beings and not little monsters to be bullied or cajoled. We were in tune with her and with each other, and though we weren’t necessarily the best of friends, we all had a sort of resonant sympathy to each other’s moods.
Each year in AP, we had to do interdisciplinary research projects. I was a lazy bum when it came to the daily grind of busy work, but I gladly rose to the occasion for research projects. In sixth grade, I chose to research otters. I worked hard on my otter project. Besides the written report, I made a small otter model, designed an otter board game, and put on a finger-puppet dramatization of the rediscovery of otters off the coast of California after they’d been thought to have gone extinct. The presentation was well received by my teacher and peers. Best of all, it raised the ire of Arnie.
He didn’t say so to my face. My friend Alma, sounding amused, reported to me how Arnie had told her in a bitter, hostile tone, “On Thursday, I’m doing my report on black holes, and everyone’s going to forget all about these otters.” The moment shines in my memory: I’d actually excited something approaching envy in the heart of the great Arnie. It was the highest compliment he could have paid me. (And his black hole report was brilliant, of course.)
The other guy was Chris, equally remarkable for different reasons. Chris was admired more for the shape of his posterior than for the keenness of his intellect. At eleven years of age, Chris was hot. Besides that, he was a truly nice boy, and I don’t think I ever heard him say a harsh word to anybody.
Some individuals, each excellent in his own way, simply do not get along. Maybe that was the case here. Or maybe Arnie was having a bad day. He was inclined to be impatient with people less sharp than himself, which was just about everyone, teachers included.
So here’s what happened. While we sixth graders were doing our daily stint on the playground, somebody noticed some ashes on the ground, the sort that come from a grass fire and still retain the shape of blades of grass. There had been some fires in the Houston area recently which had gotten some press. And Chris widened his big, beautiful, long-lashed brown eyes and said, “I wonder if these ashes came from Houston.”
I don’t remember the exact wording of Arnie’s reply, but basically he indicated that the idea of ashes blowing from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley was patently absurd. He also added unkind remarks about Chris’s mental prowess.
Then I spoke up in Chris’s defense. I didn’t make a case for his hypothesis; I merely said that while it wasn’t likely the ashes came from Houston, it wasn’t absolutely out of the question. If I’d known then what I know now about formal logic, I’d have told Arnie that you can’t prove a negative.
Arnie turned on me with a savagery I’d never seen in him before. The substance of our conversation was something like this.
“You’re actually agreeing with him? You actually think these ashes blew here from Houston?”
“Well, no. I’m just saying it’s not impossible.”
“How? How can it not be impossible?”
“I don’t know. Somebody could have bagged them up and driven them in trucks.”
It was all pretty much downhill from there. The argument lost all semblance to rational debate and turned into an all-out fight, complete with personal attacks, name-calling, and even physical blows. The violence was all my doing; Arnie, unafraid of being hit or scratched by a girl, mocked my attack, making me angrier than ever. The battle ended only when the bell rang to summon us all back to class. I was an emotional wreck by now, crying with fury, and had to take refuge in the restroom to recover my composure enough to return to class. My friend Alma accompanied me there in a show of moral support, though she may have privately thought I was out of my gourd for engaging in such a stupid argument.
I wish I could wrap up this story with some pithy ending or metaphorical point-to-it-all. I can’t. The incident just sort of blew over, and eventually Arnie and I spoke to each other again. Which is good, because otherwise life would have lost a great deal of its savor.
I wonder how Chris felt about having his honor defended by a girl, if in fact he even noticed; I don’t remember whether he hung around long enough to witness the fight. I wonder what happened to him after he moved away. And I wonder about Arnie. I heard from a mutual friend that he ended up at Yale, but after seventh grade I never saw him again. I wouldn’t mind going a round or two with him in a rational debate, now that we’ve both grown up quite a bit and learned a few things about traditional logic. I promise not to hit or scratch this time.