Frank Booker inhales and arches his eyebrows. He widens his eyes and flicks glances around the room, like a fly fisherman seeking the perfect cast.
Suddenly, he smiles, a sheepish kind of smile, as if he hesitates to share the thought in his head for fear it won't be as special to anyone else.
But he lets it fly.
"1987 - I got drafted by the New Jersey Nets," Mr. Booker says.
When asked, what has been the best year of your life, Mr. Booker answers with a show of facial expressions similar to others hit with the same query. Some answer immediately, but the eyebrows always rise. Many mull the question so long the ticking of a nearby clock becomes thunderous.
Try it. Turn to the person next to you now and ask the best year of his life. Sit back and watch the answer form on the person's face.
The stories and answers that pour forth from such a simple question are our way of accounting for the quality of our lives, sociologists say. Chances are, those stories include mentions of the year a child was born, the year a person graduated high school or college or the year a couple married.
"In modern society, we're so damned anonymous," says Charles Case, a sociology professor at Augusta State University. "You're nobody to anybody most of the time. But on just a few days of your life, you are the center of attention and your self-worth is being proclaimed, and even hyperbolized."
Amy Herrington fits into that pattern. So does Marie Cooper-Draves. And Mr. Booker.
Ms. Herrington, who works at the JAM Christian Center, brightens like a sunbeam hitting a dark room when someone asks the best year of her life.
"This year," she says. "I've been married a year now. New life, new husband."
Married since Aug. 25, 1996, to husband Jack, Ms. Herrington says 1997 is going to be a tough year to top.
"It's just been exciting every day because you're not used to the working one-on-one with that other person," she says. Adjusting to living with someone, the constant teamwork, intimacy and companionship has been exciting, challenging and memorable, she says.
Dr. Cooper-Draves, principal at Gracewood Elementary School, finds the question of the best year of her life so intriguing she took time to write a small essay for her answer.
It's too tough to whittle down one year as her best, she writes, because she seeks special moments in each day. But 1978 ranks up there, the year she gave birth to son Alex, as does 1990, when her sister Mary Ellen got married. And, like Ms. Herrington, 1997 seems hard to beat. This is the year she was promoted to a principal's job.
"I guess I live in the moment while I'm standing on the past," Dr. Cooper-Draves says.
Mr. Booker stands in the gym at the Warren Road Community Center, where he works as a program coordinator, but his mind is on the National Basketball Association's 1987 draft. The former Westside High School player was taken in the seventh round by the Nets after playing college ball at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
"One of the happiest days of my life," Mr. Booker says of the day he became a professional basketball player.
After a few years in the NBA, he switched to the European basketball circuit, playing there for seven years.
"I went to France, Europe, Iceland - I played all over Europe," Mr. Booker says. "Being in Europe was very, very exciting. People in Europe look at you for what you are, not what color you are."
Mr. Booker talks several minutes about his experiences with basketball and shares the brightest moments of his life with a complete stranger. It is this trait in people to open up about their best moments that resonates with Dr. Case, who, by the way, counts his 1964-67, his undergraduate years at the University of Connecticut, as his best.
"When we get together to talk to somebody ... the stories that we tell each other are going to be of those very few moments in life when our worth is publicly acknowledged. And again, those are pretty darned rare," Dr. Case says.
"So we want to dwell on them."
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