When we played duck, duck, goose in Mrs. Bridges’ first grade class, the other kids pumped their arms as they ran around the circle. I spun my arms in front of me like propellers, certain that they would make me fly faster than an airplane. Being the slowest kid in my class never shook my faith in my propeller arms.
During Homecoming Week in high school, when the other kids wore sunglasses on Hats and Shades Day, I wore a window shade. They wore camo shirts and pants on Camouflage Day, and I painted my face and wore branches on my head.
When my composition teacher assigned us to write a “how-to” paper on pet care, for which other kids wrote about how to walk their dogs, I wrote, “How To Bathe Your Pet Mosquito.”
If you were one of the rich kids, or the preppies, or the jocks, I know what you are thinking: Why were you born popular; and I, born weird? Why was I the lucky one?
Being weird wasn’t always glamorous as it sounds. Seventh grade was the worst, because that was the year that all the kids teased me, made me sit at the lunch table with the other outcasts, and made me walk at the front of the line next to the teacher, because she was the only one who would talk to me.
That year I wanted desperately to be normal, but I didn’t know how. Like everyone else, I blamed my parents (perhaps the only thing I did like everyone else). They must have kept me out of school the day the teacher taught normalcy lessons.
Kids change rapidly, and those who bullied me in seventh grade were just fine in eighth grade. I remain unique, but I am no longer an outcast, and I still watch out for anyone who is overlooked, ignored, or outcast.
During the summer of 1984, I learned to enjoy being unique. I was selected to participate in the Governor’s Scholar Program, which brought 600 of the top Kentucky seniors together for a five-week program in geeky subjects not otherwise available in high school. For the first time that summer, I fit in. I met 599 other people who were just as weird as me—each in our own unique ways, of course, because if we had been weird in all the same ways, then we would have been normal.
I majored in linguistics, in which we explored topics like gender and number and double negatives in language. I wrote a song in the genderless language that I created, filled with soft sounds like “sh” and “lo” and “ah.” Hardly anyone speaks my language any more, but still I think mine was the most beautiful song never recorded in the summer of 1984.
I was also introduced to Plato, because of which I changed my future college major from creative writing to philosophy; and I changed my college choice from an Ivy League school (at which I would have struggled to fit in) to St. John’s College, a tiny and eccentric liberal arts school in Annapolis at which I could study the great books of western civilization.
My most impactful discovery that summer happened at a theater workshop when our instructor asked us to say our names, preceded by an adjective that described us. By the time it got to me, “Friendly Kris” and “Smart Chris” were already taken, so I said, “Then I must be Weird Chris.” And do you know what they did? They laughed! With me, even! That was the day I learned that I could be eccentric, have fun with it, and use it to meet new people.
Several of us took our Governor’s Scholars Program t-shirts into town and had our new nicknames printed on the back. My shirt proclaimed with pride that I was “Weird Chris.” A few days later, wearing my new “Weird Chris” shirt, I carried a lamp around campus for an entire day. Maybe I wouldn’t do that today—okay, it was weird—but it turned out to be an outstanding conversation piece when strangers asked me, “Why are you carrying a lamp?” and I said, “Because no one else is.” By carrying that lamp that day, I met more interesting people than I met in all the rest of the summer combined.
Plato used to say that when someone thinks differently from everyone else, he is either mad or divinely inspired. Noodle on this for a while: If everyone were normal, then we would have no artists, no poets, no scientists, no political theorists, no musicians, and no writers. That sounds boring, doesn’t it?
What if Warren Buffet hadn’t dared to buy cheap stocks that no one else wanted? He wouldn’t have become history’s greatest investor, and the world’s second richest man behind only his friend Bill Gates–another man who dared to be different.
What if I hadn’t hung out with Beverly in high school, when most other people didn’t? (We have been close friends for 28 years now.) What if I hadn’t sat next to Melissa on the bus in seventh grade, when one of the older girls was teasing her about her hair? (We have been friends for 32 years.) What if Amy had said she wanted to find more normal friends than me? (We have been friends for 31 years.) Helping me with memories for this essay, Amy said, “But you know what? I loved your weirdness! You are one of the most unique people I have ever known … and you were just ‘good people,’ even then.”
There are interesting people all around us, if only we take the time to listen to their stories. That is why I am introducing the “100 Interesting People” challenge. (I won’t say “weird people,” because not everyone understands that that is a compliment.) I have decided to meet 100 interesting people in the next six months, 100 people whom otherwise I would not have met, or would not have learned what makes them unique and interesting, and I will blog about the interesting people that I meet.
I am talking not about famous people. I am thinking of the person who sits quietly in the meeting, and goes home in the evening and trades classic guitars on eBay; the person who sits next to you on the airplane who has been challenged by her daughter to do something fun in each of the 50 states; or the spreadsheet wizard in the office who tutors illiterate adults on the weekend.
Will you take the challenge with me? Will you take a moment to learn more about the interesting people all around you—and make their day at the same time? Will you listen to 100 interesting stories, and by doing so, make the world 100 times better than it was yesterday? Will you do it while wearing a “Weird Chris” shirt?
The following numbers are not intended to be a rank or relative measure. The people are numbered in the order that I met them.