The Gorgeous Wisdom Of Small Encounters: Middle-School Boy And Me

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of strangers. Technology problems that require phone discussions with “geniuses” and experts, long subway rides next to friendly souls, hanging out at cafés, sitting by the outdoor chess players in Harvard Square… all are invitations to intriguing conversation and, with the right mindset and a little bit of luck, fabulous slices of insight.

I planned to share a bunch of these gems in this post, but then I realized my recent encounter with a middle-school dude and his mother was rich enough to inspire its own post. Who knew that a small (but weird and hilarious) conversation with a little (OK, not so little: I bet he’s taller than I am, but young, anyhow) boy could generate such insight, really going to the heart of questions of fairness and pureness in our decisions and interactions?

Middle-School Dude, I didn’t get your full name or contact information, and I probably should have. I’m often disconcerted when I meet some wildly interesting stranger and talk for a few minutes, knowing I’ll never see the person again. Our paths crossed only for that brief moment. What a moment it was, though. I’m still cracking up.

Your mother is probably still mortified, and I get that, but you were just being you. In the end, I think that was your message: that you want to be you and not hide anything, but you don’t want to suffer for it. Your mother made some great points. To be honest, I follow her advice sometimes, because she’s so right it’s chilling: outcomes often are greatly influenced by factors that wouldn’t matter in a truly fair world, and, for better or worse, we can do things — or refrain from doing things — in order to boost our odds of success.

But if you were following her advice at this point in your life, you wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining… and you probably wouldn’t be as wise. You would have lost something huge. One day, you’ll probably do things differently, but for now, you are hilariously awesome. I hope your word choice doesn’t offend anyone. I, for one, still laugh when I think about it.


Middle-school boy in a Cambridge, MA café, after discovering that I teach at a university: Wait, you teach? Just don’t be a penis-head about it.

Boy’s mother: Oh, Daniel! [To me]: I’m really sorry.

Me: No problem. What is a penis-head? If I know, I can try to avoid being one.

Boy’s mother: [Gives me a look that I can’t discern: somewhere between appreciation and horror]

Boy: A penis-head teacher is, like, really unfair. Like, she’d judge me just because I said “penis-head.” I could do this really great presentation or something, and I wouldn’t get an “A” just because I had said “penis-head” a few hours before.

Me: Oh, I would totally give you an “A” if you deserved it, even if you had said “penis-head.”

Boy’s mother: [Looks like she wants to disappear into the table]

Boy: OK, so what if you had to give a prize to only one kid, and there were two excellent presentations? One kid had said “penis-head” and the other one hadn’t, but the one who had said “penis-head” did a little better job on the presentation. What would you do?

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Me: I would give it to the kid who had said “penis-head” because that kid’s presentation was actually better. This prize is about the presentation, not about not saying “penis-head,” right?

Boy’s mother: [Looks like she’s turning greenish]

Boy: Well, that’s the right answer! That’s how it should be, anyhow. But a lot of times, that’s not how it is at all.

Me: Did you say “penis-head” in school and then not get an “A” or a prize that you should have gotten?

Boy: Yes! I didn’t get an “A” or a prize! One time, it was because I said “penis-head.” Another time, it was for another reason. But both times, I didn’t get what I deserved.

Boy’s mother: Maybe there’s a lesson here. [Looks at me with disgust but, at the same time, a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe I will come through]

Me: It’s very true that life is not fair. The person who should get the prize often isn’t the one who actually gets it. When you’re an adult, the problem is almost never that someone said “penis-head,” but it’s kind of a similar situation very often. Maybe the person who should have gotten the prize is kind of awkward, or not as good-looking as the person who won, or just doesn’t know how to say the right thing, even if the problem isn’t exactly saying “penis-head.”

Boy’s mother: And that’s why we should do the most for ourselves, to make ourselves come across well. Dress well, say the right thing, all that stuff we’re always talking about, Daniel. Life is very complicated.

Boy: Well, it shouldn’t be complicated. Everything should just be what it’s supposed to be. Like you said [looks at me], the presentations weren’t about not saying “penis-head,” so why should that have any effect at all?

Me: It shouldn’t have any effect, but life often sucks, so if we want to squeeze the most out of it, sometimes we have to go along with that suckiness and try to work it to our benefit. Like by not saying “penis-head” if we think that will stop us from getting something we want.

Boy: [Sits in silence, thinking and nibbling at his turkey sandwich, for at least 3 minutes, and then he speaks]: I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say at all. This is a flying nightmare.

[I laugh. The boy’s mother laughs. The boy says “What?” and then laughs too. And I guess that’s all I can really hope for out of an afternoon in Harvard Square.]

Image Credit: Hunter Johnson at