Education writer Malcolm Gladwell defines “outliers” as those who operate at the extreme outer edge of what is statistically possible. Anything that is measurable and is randomly distributed graphs into the well-known “bell curve” whereon “average” is most of the population in the large middle of the graph. Therefore, by Gladwell’s definition, measurements from outliers are on the “wings” of the bell curve, on the extreme right or extreme left, graphically speaking (not politically speaking).
Grasping for words that accurately describe those with whom I shared the experiences that compeled me to write my memoirs (And God Said, ‘Let There Be Friends’….And It Was Wierd! [April, 2012]), I realized “outliers” might fit the bill, or “student outliers”. As a physicist, I do not believe analyzing complicated human phenomena, such as love and humor, robs them of their value, beauty, and essence; for me, analyzing has only deepened and magnified the joys of these phenomena. Exploring the insight of what characteristics made my friendships in junior high and high school, specifically those friendships that made up the M-4 (The M-4….And the ‘M’ Stands for…. [May, 2012]) (Adling, Berry, Cole, and I), has magnified my appreciation of who we were, what we did, and what we meant to each other — magnified exponentially.
I have been fortunate to have “outlying” experiences in areas other than the M-4, such as students of mine at Waxahachie High School who became de facto researchers in the university sense of “researchers” (Hard-to-Believe! High School Student Researchers? Say What? [August, 2012]) in the late 1970’s through the early 1980’s. The extreme “outlying” world of being a doctoral candidate and writing a Ph.D. dissertation, is another such experience.
But to be an outlier among other fellow outliers in the schools of a small west-central Texas town called Cisco? Now, THAT is way out on the wings of the bell curve! That is far, far from average! As Adling would say, “Far out, man!” As Berry would say, “Well, I’ll be dogged!” As Cole would say, “I don’t know……..are you sure?”
What follows, then, is a deep, philosophical analysis of our M-4 experience that exploded in the years 1963-1966, our last year in Cisco High School and our first two years of college or university. That to which I refer will include the “odes” to the other 3 (Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling [May, 2012], Ode to Bob B. Berry [May, 2012], and Ode to Robert W. Cole [May, 2012]), the entire chair/desk escapade series (The Chair/Desk Escapade — Introduction [Oct, 2013] and Chapters 1-10 — all [Oct, 2013] and each referenced herein as “Chapter X”), and other episodes like The Flag Escapade — Phase I [August, 2013], The Flag Escapade — Phase II [August, 2013], That Damn Dam Painting! [April, 2013], and Crashing the Cisco Beauty Pageant – Night of the Long Knife [June, 2013]. It serves as a final commentary of all the detailed school experiences I have recorded with the help of my memoirs.
It has come to my attention that even those three whom I honor might not care about the significance of what we forged together; as my friend and former student Jeff Browning has recently said, “The world doesn’t give a shit about your wheelhouse!” On the other hand, they really might care, but are fearful of talking to me about it, else I reveal to the public unpleasantries they prefer to be kept private. There even is the slight possibility, slight in my estimation, that jealously, pride, envy, resentment, regret, feelings of superiority, feelings of inferiority, shame, remorse, self-pity, distaste, feelings of entitlement, or something similar has reared its ugly head within our friendships during our latter years spanning at least 50 years from the time of the M-4.
If there is any reason I should not document and comment upon our past, that reason needs to be communicated to me, by the M-4 or by the non-M-4, for I cannot see any such reason. My evidence justifying no such reason is straightforward: 1) I tend to remember more of the “good” than the “bad.” I do not write exposes of my friends; I write tributes to them, tributes through “rose-colored” glasses. 2) However, I do not “put them on a pedestal,” nor make them out as something they were not; I write about them, as I try to write about myself — “warts and all.” Part of the “outlying” nature of our friendships was to “cut each other down” when the situation called for it. 3) Enough time has past, enough people have died, and enough life has been lived that anything short of edifying, full disclosure seems unworthy of what it means to be an outlier as we. 4) Our experience as outliers could very well be useful and encouraging to anyone of any generation who has developed low-probability friendships such as ours; to “come clean” about our experiences might embolden and encourage others who dare to take their acquaintances with their school chums to the far wings of the bell curve. It is important to let others know, it seems to me, that friendships of outliers in school can alter so much of your life — by expanding and changing your views on education, society, loyalty, philos — love of your fellow humans, knowledge, challenges, authority, strife, career, family, and attitude.
Award-winning public school teacher in Norman, OK, Judy Burns, immediately thought of what to call us when I was talking to Judy and her husband Jim about the M-4. “You guys were outliers,” she said, matter-of-factly, based upon her reading Malcolm Gladwell. The more she talked about outliers, the more I began to see she was correct about us. What a contrast to the crass analyses and comments about the M-4 I had been told in the past, such as “You guys were just bored!”, “Y’all should have been more involved in community service!”, or “The four of you were a mild form of sociopaths!” It was clear those who brushed off what we did with such statements were not outliers — they were in the crowd in the middle of the bell curve. Judy did not think of herself as an outlier in school, but, as a teacher, she saw student outliers over the years in her classes and recognized us through them — placing her way outside the middle of the bell curve of teachers; I now wonder how many teachers such as Judy could recognize outliers in their classes; too few, I suspect.
My fellow teaching colleagues at Canterbury Episcopal School in DeSoto, TX, with whom I have “deep” discussions over lunch, specifically Madeleine Hoffman and Katherine Reves, agreed with Judy, as they too learned about the M-4. What these two emphasized was the improbability that there would emerge four outliers in the same small graduating class (4 out of 54 1964 graduates of Cisco High School); they guessed the “normal” ratio would be something like 1 in 50 or more. Call it luck, chance, fate, God, destiny, or whatever, our existing together in the same classrooms was way off on the wings of the bell curve! It was part of the unusual circumstances (Chapter 1, Chapter 2) in which our friendships were forged.
Three of the four, Adling, Berry and I, came from the study group that became a hallmark of our friendships (Chapter 2); Lee and Odom, both of whom became MD’s, completed the study group, but, as will be seen, could not be considered outliers; and, the fourth of the M-4, Cole, was not a member of the study group. Moreover, the age of the outlier friendship pairings among the four varied from long-term (Berry and I) to short-term (Cole and I, Cole and Berry, Cole and Adling) (Chapter 2). So there is no correlation with our being outliers and our study group or how long we knew each other prior.
And, there was no correlation with success in academics. Lee, Odom, and I were the most studious (We became the 3 “doctors” of the graduating class.), and, because I was an outlier, I was not allowed to be the valedictorian of the graduating class, to which I was entitled (Chapter 8). However, all of us were involved in extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, class officers, Student Council, Drama Club, and honors academic groups. But a great majority of our classmates were also, so, again, no correlation.
Cutting straight to the first correlations, I think we were all motivated, like Lee and Odom, to do well in academics and extra-curricular activities, or, better, we all behaved as if we were so motivated. Whether pushed by parents, spurred by academic competition with our classmates, pushed by the necessity to go to college, urged by each other, or finding pure joy in learning specific things, the four of us wanted to do well academically — to the point we would spend time on our studies together or separately when many of our schoolmates saught excuses not to do the work. I think I scored highest in the “pure joy” academic scale, followed by Cole, then Berry, and, finally, Adling.
Cole and I “took everything” in Cisco High, almost; the same could not be said of Adling, Berry, Lee, or Odom. All four of us counted academics as such a “necessary evil,” we, to some extent, embraced the required curriculum as if it was something we “snatched” from the grasp of the school, the teachers, and the administration and made it “ours.” It was in the midst of our study group I recall having the epiphany-like realization that, with our textbooks, and each other, we could “learn this stuff” on our own, without teachers. And we, to some extent, believed just that. This independence from the structure of school of our learning was tantamount to our becoming outliers. It meant, by extrapolation, we could learn from experiences beyond the school as well as experiences within the school. A “curriculum” was everywhere, if we just looked.
In other words, we were not beatniks, juvenile delinquents, hippies, grease monkeys, goat ropers, ladies’ men, drop outs, druggies, hoods, Teddy boys, Mods, or Goths; we were not outside the school — we WERE the school. And the school was ours (even when we were underclassmen). School was something we could manipulate to our own advantage.
This independent attitude toward the structure of school put us at odds with literally all authority — teachers, administrators, parents, coaches, upperclassmen, ministers, and community leaders, not to mention police and highway patrol. We could pretend to listen to the advice of all of these forms of authority, but when the talking was over, we were in control of the decision, and never made one just because somebody else wanted us to. After disappointing a few authority figures by making our own decisions, often after consulting each other, instead of following what they preferred we choose, we found fewer and fewer trying to “pull” us one way or another; wise teachers would suggest to us, not conjole. The only people we saw as our peers were our fellow students, both upperclassmen and underclassmen, especially those in our own graduating class. Even when we were “big, bad Seniors” we were inclined to not treat freshmen as badly as we were treated as freshmen, with or without new rules against hazing. As I said in Chapter 10, we were nobody’s “patsies,” “yes-men,” “bitches,” or pawns, nor did we want anyone else to be any of those things to us.
This fierce independence probably cost us a lot of “sanctioned” opportunties from the good graces of the authorities, though Adling did get to go to Boys’ State in Austin and Berry got to go to university summer enrichment programs, as did Lee. But we never resented that cost, laughing it off with jokes.
What took priority in our minds was anything that enhanced our fun-based experiences, especially our imaginative, fun-filled conversations. This meant the “normal” activites such as attending movies and camping out, but it especially meant taking up classroom time making our classmates and ourselves laugh at each other. We separated ourselves from the rest of the class by being overt “class clowns,” each in our own way (Adling’s Ode, Berry’s Ode, Cole’s Ode) Our reputations were based more upon our silliness than upon our academic performances, not so much on how we thought of others. We did make fun of just about everyone, but the reason we did not suffer from this “sin” socially was that we ourselves were among the main “brunts” of our jokes, ridicule, and “cut downs.” The more we were accused of being irresponsible, the more irresponsible we wanted to be! Things progressed to the point that if we could not get adults and our peers to laugh, we would settle for shock, indignation, horror, amazement, or simple speechlessness.
The measure of our “outlying” experience each school year was that it took, especially among Adling, Berry, and me (Cole was the silent one of the M-4 in both tongue and pen.), at least a full page in our annuals (yearbooks) to remind each other of the “antics” we had “pulled off” inside and outside school the previous school year. After the revelation from Judy Burns, I realized that in my four high school annuals resided, in the form of Adling’s and Berry’s handwriting, evidence we were indeed outliers. It was evidence whose meaning only we four could grasp and appreciate.
So our version of being outliers was based upon fun-driven independence of mind bent upon determining our own way; we pleased others as we pleased. What made us glaringly student outliers, so very unusual from most other groups of teenagers, was that we did not incorporate the dating of girls or our girlfriends into our friendships. We all dated, but we just didn’t talk about it much to each other (Chapter 2). There were at least two factors accounting for this — a) the gender segregation among friendships, which assured that our friendships were exclusively male, and b) our deliberately immature behavior (our silliness as class clowns) was not attractive to potential girl friends; we appeared childish to the female population, who, of course, were biologically more mature than we boys. We were having so much fun, how we appeared to the opposite sex was of little or no concern to us.
That’s the negative part of what propelled us to be outliers; the positive part was what bonded our friendships like super glue; and I use the adjective “super” to emphasize our bond was as strong as, say, that between the soldiers in the movie “Lone Survivor.” We were bonded by pranks, because pranks created risk, which, though not dangerous as in the case of soldiers, nonetheless bonded us as we successfully completed our “missions.” When we were pranking, as four, as three, or as just two, we could feel directly why we liked to be around each other, why we felt supported and respected by each other, why, as I said in And God Said, ‘Let There Be Friends’….And It Was Weird! [April, 2012], the reason we got up on school mornings to go to school at Cisco High School was to be with each other in class. (Risk-taking has long been identified as a characteristic of the developing teen-aged brain, a process that doesn’t end until about age 25; if young people did not take risks and “venture into the unknown,” they would not easily “leave the nest,” a necessary component for the advancement of human society. The problem with risk-taking is that when mixed with modern technology, like the automobile, it can become lethally dangerous to teens.)
Pranks……like the classic chair/desk escapade executed on February 11, 1964, the prank that gave us our name and began the M-4 experience. From the reasons why we did it (Chapter 1, Chapter 3), through planning (Chapter 4), through execution (Chapter 5, Chapter 6), through being found out and “punished” (Chapter 7, Chapter 8), and through the aftermath and our metamorphosis (Chapter 9, Chapter 10), our unusual friendships (Chapter 2) mixed with the unusual circumstances of our Senior year (Chapter 1) to produce a life-changing event of our own making. Part of both our friendships and our circumstances was the further social anomaly we were four outliers-in-making together in the same setting unwittingly egging each other on to be outliers of increasing degree — all without really knowing was “outliers” were and “outlying” was. We emerged not only from this first episode, but from all our pranks transcendent of regret or remorse — because our pranks were not crimes, we remained untouched by any “punishment” they could throw at us (Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10). In the world we had created for ourselves, our pranks were more than worth it. Through pranks we had turned ourselves from best friends to something even stronger — we had turned ourselves into an improbable collection of outliers that found themselves in the same time and place — outliers of Cisco way out in west-central Texas and way out on the wings of the bell curve.
The world of maturity and seriousness could not end the world created by our pranks. Only we could, and it ended as we chose to bring falling in love with special members the opposite sex into our lives, as we got married over the years 1966-1968. Only falling in love could bring us more adrenalin than successfully pulling off one of our pranks; only falling in love could transform us from student outliers to the next chapters in our lives, to new forms of outlying.
Those of us making up the M-4 were unusual teen-agers amidst unusual circumstances within which we formed unusual friendships. Using these ingredients, we executed unusual deeds. It was “unusual” to the fourth power! We were transformed by this exponential combination into student outliers. It was a transformation that has affected us for a lifetime. And I, for one, think and believe life is far, far better and far, far more interesting out on the far, far edges of the bell curve than it would have been had we been more “average.” Far out, man!
“We are the champions! We are the champions!” go the lyrics of a hit for the mega-group Queen. Long after the facts that formed us, the M-4 has discovered the lyrics for our hit: “We are the outliers! We are the outliers!” Perhaps we have helped to define the term “outlier,” at least for secondary school students, infusing into it the fun and laughter of self-liberating youth. If outliers have a motto, it probably is from the Roman poet and satirist Horace (65 BC – 8 BC): “Carpe diem!” — “Seize the day!”
“…Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them…”
– from Maggie’s Farm, by Bob Dylan