Great pranks can become legend. Tales of MIT students’ dismantling a car and reassembling it on the roof of a building have been passed down through the years. Conan O’Brien’s tenure with the Harvard Lampoon birthed several titanic capers as well. But the greatest prank I have ever seen has never (to my knowledge) been chronicled until now, but its execution was so simple and elegant, and its impact was so surgical and explosive, that the story must be told ten years later. I have changed the names in this story to protect the identities of the guilty and innocent alike. Here goes!
In eleventh grade, I had a math teacher named Ryan Parkinson (first fake name). Mr. Parkinson was clearly good with numbers. He calculated with an ease and fluidity that instilled confidence in the class. Mr. Parkinson himself was exceptionally confident from years as a star high school and college athlete. He was one of the younger teachers at our school, and he was really helpful and enthusiastic.
Mr. Parkinson was a pretty great dude. He was always available for extra help after class. He was helpful and understanding if you got an answer wrong. And, even though he coached soccer and basketball, he cut drama kids just as much slack on homework as he did athletes.
In his classroom, however, there were several obstacles to learning. The first being that Mr. Parkinson was not a great communicator. Though he excelled at mathematics, he sometimes had trouble expressing the concepts to students who weren’t picking them up right away. Also his handwriting was abysmal, borderline illegible, really. And there was his speech impediment. It was pretty intense. But, being an exceptionally confident guy, Mr. Parkinson would intentionally choose words that would show how little he cared about his troubles with pronunciation. He said “cahcuwator” when he could have gone with “TI-82.” He said “seewiouswy” in place of a simple, “Come on, guys.” Most notably, when things got out of hand, they were always “widickiwous” rather than…well…pretty much any other word. I have never seen anyone else so brazenly flout his or her own vocal limitations in quite the same way.
The thing that really held us back as a class, though, was that Mr. Parkinson was outrageously easy to goad into any sort of debate. If you expressed an opinion that contradicted his, he could not help trying to convince you of his point of view. Mention that Happy Gilmore was Adam Sandler’s funniest movie, and he would invariably defend the merits of Billy Madison. Mention that one of the other basketball coaches was a better free throw shooter, and he would, without fail, cite decade old shooting statistics from his college career.
My high school was pretty small and very suburban. Most of the time, people got along. One thing my whole class agreed on was that we didn’t want to learn any more math than we had to. So before class, we would literally script scenarios designed to bait Mr. Parkinson into arguments in order to postpone actual academic work. It almost always worked, which meant that as much as we all liked Mr. Parkinson, we had kind of a Lord of the Flies approach to his class.
One day, we were doing some actual learning. I was taking notes because I am a compulsive note-taker and class-non-skipper. A general nerd. In front of me sat Kevin (fake name), Carl (fake name), and Francine (fake name). (Kevin, Carl, and Francine are real names of some people. Just not the people I’m talking about. An authentic fake name would be like…Vortwix. I just think “pseudonym” is too pretentious for the tone here.)
The seating arrangement looked like this:
We had been doing several minutes of uninterrupted learning, which was unusual for us. The natives, as they say, were getting restless. So it was no surprise that several students had begun passing notes around the classroom.
The next thing that happened was a perfectly executed, outrageously simple prank. It was clear in its intention and impossible to deny. It was the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” of practical jokes. I was in a somewhat unique position to enjoy the entire sequence of events as they came to pass.
“Hey Carl,” Kevin whispered. “Pass this to Francine.”
Without giving it a second thought, Carl took the folded-up piece of paper and handed it to Francine. Francine opened the note. She began to blush. She looked at Carl. Back at the note. Back at Carl. Her blush intensified.
“CARL!” she squealed. The note fell to the floor. At this point, the Carl-Francine dynamic had captured the attention of the entire class.
“What?” Carl grunted, incredulous. Incredulous was Carl’s go-to emotion throughout much of high school. And deservedly so. He got a lot of crap from the athlete kids, but that was the social click he had fallen in with, and he was kind of stuck there. Even though we were on the math team together, it was a very slight time commitment, and there weren’t any other nerdly pursuits to take the place of sports practices. So Carl was socially up a creek.
We’re still in touch, and he’s got a good job and owns a home and stuff. But for our four years of high school, the pattern was: 1. Someone teases Carl. 2. Carl reacts in proportion to the entire cumulative body of lifetime teasing rather than the individual event. 3. The cycle continues.
So then, with all eyes on him, Carl picked up the fallen note.
“OH COME ON!” he shouted. He looked over at Kevin. Kevin shrugged. “SERIOUSLY???” he continued. “FORGET THIS. I’M OUT OF HERE.” And he stormed out of the classroom.
At this point, everyone was pretty curious about what had happened. People looked to Kevin for some sort of explanation. He shrugged again and picked up the note from where Carl had left it. He read it out loud:
I love you.
The crowd, finally understanding what had happened, went wild. Kevin had passed that note to Carl and then on to Francine, who had no reason to assume that Carl himself had not written it. A+. So simple. So perfect.
Logically, the joke hinged on Francine’s application of Occam’s razor, which basically implies that the simplest explanation for an event is probably the truest. Francine received the note from Carl signed with Carl’s name. The simplest assumption was that Carl had both written and delivered the note.
Kevin’s intuitive understanding of this principle (and subsequent exploitation of it) has helped me in life from that moment on. I realized that if you want something from someone, you need to tell that person. If you have an idea, get it across as succinctly as possible. Effective communication goes straight for the jugular and doesn’t mince words. That’s something I always struggle with remembering in my own writing. The lesson of “less is more.”
That math class was one of the best writing tutorials I’d ever received, though. If Kevin had written an elaborate and detailed love letter to Francine, she may have doubted it was from Carl. The simplicity of the lie made it resemble the truth.
I learned a lot about communication and comedy that day, but I didn’t realize it until later. That day I was too busy laughing. Even Mr. Parkinson got into it.
“I wuv you,” he chuckled, before throwing the note into the trash barrel. And everyone laughed again.
Sorry, Carl. I hope you’re not too mad I dredged up your case of Occam’s razor burn.