`WHY, my dear, you'd be perfect,'' Mrs. Perkins cajoled the night she telephoned with her invitation. It was Mrs. Perkins who concocted the contest, but I am entirely to blame for letting myself be talked into judging it. ``You write, don't you? Who better than a writer could be depended upon to select the winning candidate for the world's greatest sentence?'' I had doubts from the moment Mrs. Perkins began explaining her concept, but we who write so seldom receive this kind of attention -- Mrs. Perkins's approached the adulation accorded rock stars -- we're likely to say ``all right, I'll do it'' before we fully consider the consequences.
The school where Mrs. Perkins teaches was sponsoring a Scholastic Olympics for a ``summer enrichment'' program, and it fell, naturally, to an English teacher to devise a literary event for the 10-year-old division. Each child was to choose a single sentence, name the author, tell where the sentence appeared and, standing in front of the classroom, show originality in explaining why his or her choice should be considered the greatest sentence ever written.
Most of the prospective great sentences were admirable candidates, indeed, although too many, in my opinion, had one fatal flaw -- excessive coaching from moms and dads.
``Four score and seven years ago . . .'' led off in the prelims, and after 10 political entries it was refreshing to see the last ``we hold these truths'' and ``all men are created equal.''
``Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!'' was eliminated on account of it is two sentences; Mrs. Perkins refused to let John David connect them with a comma. No, not even with a semicolon.
Literary Larry nominated the memorable sentence by ``Chuck Dickens'' that opens -- ``or closes, I forget'' -- the unforgettable ``A Tale of Two Towns.'' Actually, what Larry wrote on his entry form was: `` `It was the best of times' . . . and all the rest that is too long to copy but Dad says you probably know it by heart.''
Elisa set an Elizabethan tone with ``To be or not is the question.''
``Do you know what that means?'' Mrs. Perkins asked. No, ma'am, Elisa couldn't say that she did. Did she know who penned the phrase? ``Bard Somebody,'' said Elisa, proudly. She scored points for knowing the line appeared in a play but immediately lost them when she admitted she thought ol' Bard probably wrote for The Bill Cosby Show.
It was widely known what Mrs. Perkins's favorite sentence was. We all readily agreed it possessed the strength of simplicity and a profundity of implications. However, her favorite was so widely known the judge found it impossible to choose from among 14 variations of ``In the beginning God created the . . .'' whole world in his hands, planet, earth and heavens, earth and birds, oceans and water . . . . Marvin quoted it correctly, at least, but could not resist the teacher-pleasing annotation: ``why He didn't stop before He got to snakes no one knows.''
Confidentially, Mrs. Perkins hoped Marvin would be declared the winner, although whether this was due to his talents as a budding scholar or his prowess at melting the hearts of teachers with a gap-tooth smile, she couldn't honestly determine.
Toward the end, a shy little girl offered what appeared to me to meet all criteria. Mrs. Perkins, however, questioned the legitimacy of the entry, citing a variety of heretofore unmentioned technicalities (and rather moody behavior of late from this particular contestant).
The author, for example, was not a famous writer. He was, in fact, the girl's new stepfather. Moreover, the sentence had appeared in no published source but rather on a post card the girl received that week while this man and her mother were on their honeymoon in Hawaii.
Mrs. Perkins whispered didn't I think we should discreetly move on. I whispered back that, on the contrary, I wanted to hear the girl's justification for this being the greatest sentence ever written.
Her reason, like the sentence itself, was simple and to the point. Until she received the post card, she had never known for sure what her stepfather really thought about her.
``Charlotte,'' he scribbled on the flip side of Waikiki Beach, ``I love you.''
When the winner was announced, Marvin stalked from the room vowing from here on he was sticking with soccer. Mrs. Perkins gazed at the ceiling, possibly contemplating how writers were less dependable than one would have hoped. The judge rambled -- rather eloquently! -- about the way to assess the greatness of any sentence is to determine if it truly establishes a pathway of communication between author and reader . . . until he realized Charlotte illustrated his thesis better than he could explain it.
Charlotte radiated astonished joy.