The year was 1997. Jewel was topping the charts, overalls were back with a vengeance, and my 5th grade gifted class was assigned the project of creating Rube Goldberg machines.
Mrs. Bush divided the class into two teams. It was a competition. We had three weeks to work until judgment day.
The guidelines were this: Our machine had to transfer a Jolly Rancher across a span of four feet. Over the course of that transfer, the Jolly Rancher had to go up and down a height of twelve inches three separate times. We could set the machine into motion, but after that we’d be deducted points every time we had to help it along. We had to supply our own materials.
Over the coming weeks, my team amassed a pile of random garbage: Barbie furniture, buckets, felt. We had no idea what we were doing. 90% of our supplies were old McDonald’s toys.
Turning all this stuff into an effective machine was maddeningly difficult. We were a group of straight-A perfectionists, facing a task that felt unsurmountable. We fought, we cried, people stormed out.
To make matters worse, the other team (composed of much cooler kids—which seemed relevant at the time) was not struggling at all. One of the boys on their team brought in his motorized K’NEX roller coaster set. They used it to quickly construct a “roller coaster” that fit the length and height requirements and then spent the rest of our designated work days goofing off, flirting, and generally acting cool and beautiful and popular.
My team tired away. We lost sleep. We lost spirit. We lost ourselves. But, against all odds, we actually came up with a contraption—made almost entirely out of pure garbage—that worked a solid 28% of the time.
And then came competition day.
First, we all gathered around to watch the other team’s machine. The boy who owned the K’NEX confidently placed one cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher into the motorized roller coaster car and hit the “on” switch. We all watched in loaded silence as the car delivered the candy safely and smoothly from Point A to Point B while Rube Goldberg slowly rolled over in his grave.
Mrs. Bush gave them full credit.
Then it was our turn.
I no longer remember what our machine looked like or how it was supposed to work. All I remember is the image of our Jolly Rancher tumbling down a paper towel roll and landing in a bucket of water, right next to the little McDonald’s boat that was supposed to carry it along to the other side.
And everything went downhill from there.
I have never watched anything fall apart as quickly or thoroughly as our machine did that day. Even the few parts that had always worked in our trials chose that moment to completely self-destruct.
Time seemed to move slower than I could even comprehend. We had to intervene to get our Jolly Rancher back on track so many times that our score ended up in the negative three hundreds.
It was a devastating and humiliating loss, and one that stuck with me.
Although it seemed unjust that the other team had been allowed to build their project entirely out of K’NEX, I also never really questioned the fact that they’d won. Points were points. Results were results. Winners were winners and losers were losers.
It wasn’t until last night, when I sat on my couch watching a reality show that featured a Rube Goldberg competition, that it finally hit me: Those 5th grade asshats had not won our competition. They did not invent the motor. We were the rightful winners! It didn’t matter how many hundreds of negative points my team got; they had gotten far less.
Mrs. Bush had surely known this, so why had she allowed it? She was otherwise such a wise and rational teacher.
Maybe by the time she realized what was going on she felt it was too late to make them start over.
Or maybe she just knew that we’d all eventually realize who the true winners had been on our own. As in, she specifically wanted me to be sitting on a couch one week shy of turning twenty-nine, bored and broke and jaded and to suddenly get choked up at the revelation that my 5th grade team’s very willingness to lose was what had made us, undeniably, the winners.
After I had this moment of clarity, I immediately Googled the K’NEX boy, found his mugshot, and felt retroactively validated.
It didn’t say what the charges were, but I like to believe it was in some way related to his K’NEX roller coaster set. Maybe he used that motorized car to steal money from a bank. Or kidnap a child. Or, at the very least: steal Jolly Ranchers out of a candy store, one at a time.
Anyway. We’re almost thirty now, but I’d just like to say congrats to my team: Lauren Appelbaum, Diana Zhou, Hilary Hamlin, and one to two other people I don’t remember. Angie Huang, maybe?
If you haven’t figured it out already: we won!