Pranks and unexpected consequences

Picking up a cup of coffee at the counter in the coffee shop, the old man went out on the deck under the large oak tree, briefly enjoying the view – the park, the walkway along the shore of the little lake. Habit, for many years now. Looking for an empty seat at a small table, — not the large round one where there used to be conversation between the regular customers. There was no such conversation anymore. The old friends and acquaintances  had disappeared. Some had died, others had given up on conversation for the same reasons he did not even expect it now:  his failing hearing that even hearing aids could not assist: they only delivered more noise but no understanding. Most of the tables were occupied by studious-looking people — all younger — laptops or cellphones  diverting their attention even from the arrival of new customers.  But his habit kept him coming back He picked a seat  with some sun, — it was still early spring, with a chill breeze — and a view of the lake. His little notebook and the four-color pen at the ready for any insights that might occur to him, about various ideas and projects he was still ‘working’ on, that might perhaps, one day, turn into a book. 

No new ideas came to him today. Instead, curious memories of events he had thought were long forgotten. One, in particular, kept him reflecting about how the most innocent little incidents, — pranks, jokes,– sometimes had unexpected larger consequences. Interfering  in others’ plans and strategies in ways that even the most thorough efforts at anticipating forces that might help or interfere would not have been able to conceive or foresee. 

One such incident involved a prank from his school days — a secondary education institution in a mid-size town. Its principal had the curious habit of sending out brief memoranda with announcements or new rules he kept inventing or reminding his students and faculty about. Such as invoking, at the first snowfall, the stern prohibition of snowball fights in the courtyard.  

These memoranda were always typed (this was long before computers or even electric typewriters) on a single sheet of cheap newsprint paper. On the bottom,  there was a stamp — like the old office rubber stamps that showed the sender’s address or  read ‘copy’  or ‘file’ — that listed all the classes by level and number, and a space for the instructor’s initials to sign off after they had been read out in the respective class. This stamp was unusual in that it had a wonderful violet hue ranging unevenly from blue to red — evidently, because the secretaries having typed the messages randomly used a blue or red stamp pad, whichever happened to be closer at hand. The ritual was for the first teacher to come by the secretary’s desk  on his way to his next class, to pick up the memo, read it to the students, and then send a student to take it to the next class, and so forth, until every class had been duly notified.

It so happened that one such memo had been left in the class of the old reveler in ancient memories, The last one that day, of no further use. One student was intrigued by the graphical uniqueness of the stamp, and had an idea of an unusual prank:  what if such memo could be constructed on a similar-looking paper, with some ridiculous but sufficiently plausible new rules to fool at least some instructors into reading it in their classes, and perhaps cause some confusion? The very uniqueness of the memo, the stamp, the paper, the old typewriter font, made it a challenge. But it also ensured, if successfully forged, would make any strange message seem quite in line with the principal’s unusual communication habit, that seemed to serve some need to remind everybody of his position of power. 

The challenge led to a conspiracy by a small group of students, that turned out surprisingly successful. A matching sheet of typewriter paper, slightly yellowed like the original, was found; as well as a parent who owned an old typewriter with the same font. The two or three conspirators had a lot of fun concocting plausible-sounding messages, and settled on three or four.  He only remembered two: One referred to the usual chaos of the area where students using bicycles were allowed to store them.  The message declared that only students who could prove that they lived a certain distance from the school would receive a permit card to store their conveyance in that place in an orderly fashion on penalty of losing the permit. They would be able to pick up such cards in the chart storage room where the rolled up maps of the Roam Empire, the pictures of mammals, fishes, birds and of course the map of the country as well as that of city were stored.  A geography teacher or a janitor would be there, to check the distance on the city map before issuing the permit.  

Another new rule involved the grand central staircase of the school’s four-story building. It was an elaborate affair, with a first broad run going from the main corridor up to a  landing, from which there were two further runs,  one to the right, one to the left — returning to the central hallway at the next level. At the bell ringing for breaks, this stair was often the venue of confusion and even collisions between students running up or down in different directions. So the memo declared succinctly that from now on, there would be a strict right-hand traffic:  going up on the right side of the main central run, and using the right-hand upper run; and going down on the opposite run and then the ‘left’ side (seen from below).  The old man could not remember the third and fourth message, to his consternation —though he had actually been one of their collaborative authors,  but he satisfied himself thateven remembering the two was a good sign, considering his advanced age. 

The forgery of the stamp, he did remember well, however, was the masterpiece of the plot. Evidently, no stamp with the classroom pattern was available, nor could two adequately faded red and blue  stamp pads be found. It was achieved with a fine-point calligraphy pen dipped in watercolor of the varying blue-to-red colors, letter by letter,  and took some time and patience on the part of a student who had good grades in art class.  He wistfully regretted that no grade would be given for this homework. The result was indistinguishable from the original, at the expected cursory sight by the teachers. A sloppy pair of initials  resembling a hastily written ’47’ more than a faculty signature (to protect any of the faculty from suspicion of being the author) was scrawled on one of the class check-off spaces, indicating that it had already been read there.

It remained to get the memorandum into proper circulation. None of the conspirators were seated close to the door, but fortunately, a new student who had rcently been transferred from another school had been assigned to that (otherwise undesirable) seat. Being new and needing to gain respect and acceptance in this new tribe, he could be persuaded into taking the memo, and at the call from one or two of the conspirators that ‘someone knocked on the door’ would jump up to open the door, and then hand the memo to the teacher. Accompanied by some other random noise, the call came as soon at the teacher had ventured far enough from the door, the hand-over was performed without raising suspicion. The message was read — any chuckles from students were common enough at such readings and did not alert that teacher to anything unusual, and the memo was sent to another class without incident. 

The next break revealed the unexpected great success. There was a line in front of the chart storage room — but no teacher was there to issue bike permit cards. At the staircase, however, one faculty member had taken it upon himself to direct the traffic, loudly hollering “Righthand traffic!” — to the consternation of other students and faculty who had not gotten the news:  it turned out that after a few successful proclamations, the memo had arrived in a class taught by the principal himself, who confiscated it, visibly shaken by some emotion that students could not identlify.  The new, peaceful traffic pattern had just taken hold when the principal interferred to cancel the new rule. 

No further mention nor efforts at implementation of the new policies came to the attention of the conspirators;  after a few days, it seemed that the incident had just been forgotten.

However, several weeks later, a few students had gone to a new public  sauna outfit in town, that had announced a special promotion student discount on Thursday afternoons. It so happened that there also was a group of distinguished (by corpulence) men sweating away in the same hot venue, who turned out to be members of the liberal party in the city council  of that town. And they were discussing a crisis that had arisen in the very school — which was under the jurisdiction of the city.  It seemed that a vicious struggle had arisen between the principal’s effort to get one particular faculty member fired, whom he suspected of having launched a forged memo to the school (for unclear purposes other than self-promotion); and that faculty member who accused the principal of having lost control and confidence of the faculty. It was known that this very faculty member himself had previously insinuated ineffectiveness on the part of the principal, and made no effort to hide his own aspiration to that post. As luck — bad or otherwise — would have it, it was also the same teacher who had so impressively directed the new traffic pattern in the staircase. But he vehemently insisted that accusing him of the authorship of that memo was  just a lurid part of the principal’s own efforts to denigrate and discredit him so as to get him fired and removed as a competitor for the position. 

The poor city council members seemed at a loss about what to do about this affair. The discussion in the hot room got hot — it seemed that there also were issues about party affiliations involved — but had to be discontinued for the group to get into the ice cold pool to cool off.  So there was no opportunity, if there had even been an effort on the part of the students, to enlighten the council members to the naked  truth of the matter — that they were looking at the very authors of the infamous memo. 

There was no indication as to whether and how that crisis had been resolved — neither one of the suspected/accused parties were fired from their respective positions, at least for some time after that incident. And the old man had lost track of any further developments, since his family moved to another city soon afterwards and he had enrolled in a different school.  

But he could not resist a secret chuckle at the memory of the incident. And he resolved to use it in his social network activity to remind his social network systems thinking friends of the unpredictability of spurious context interference into social systems behavior patterns and change strategies.

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