Pinning Hopes

Everyone wins the main event at the Destination ImagiNation Global Finals—trading lapel pins with friends they haven't met yet

A woman in sensible slacks and T-shirt crows triumphantly to her little daughter at the marbled washstand in the cavernous restroom at the Knoxville Convention Center.

"We got New York! And we got New Hampshire... we're done with them," she says happily.

The two are here as part of the record 1,032-team, 7,000-kid, 15-country, 25th anniversary Destination ImagiNation global finals held in Knoxville. Their team earned the right to compete by besting others in local, state, and regional tournaments; around 193,000 students from elementary school to college age did not make it this far.

These qualifiers will spend the next three days in events with names like "Obstacles, of Course," and "SWITCH!" solving challenges and demonstrating their results through drama, construction, presentation, art, and costumes—and trying to do it better than the others.

But the woman is not talking about beating New York or New Hampshire in any sort of contest. She's psyched because her team scored... their pins.

Trading little lapel pins is the time-consuming obsession at this get-together, from the limited-edition Smokey University of Tennessee pin produced just for the DI finals to a single full-size Coke bottle pin to lots of little dogwood flower, star-shaped, and leaf pins. If there's a spare second, a pin trade breaks out, from the two Midwestern boys trading as they walk down the stairs from the shuttle bus out front to the the "We Are the World" throng that looks like a picnic flea market outside the fitness booth.

There is an established ritual everyone—four Chinese boys on the floor not five feet from the entrance, six unflappable teenage girls with categorized fabric flip folders stationed near the restroom, a sponsor-mom scurrying around with her team's plastic sandwich bag of pins from home—seems to understand, maybe were born knowing.

One person or group sits on the floor and unfurls their cloth pin display, which is usually a towel but could be a piece of velvet, a T-shirt, or even an oversize padded fabric map of the U.S. The others saunter by, carrying their own towel, binder, upended Frisbee. When they see what they want, they kneel politely and start talking turkey.

"Do you like unicorns?" a hotshot teen in a top hat asks a farm girl type with braces. Nope, she's after a dragon, and she can't have his.

A little girl in a plaid dress from the Republic of South Korea doesn't understand when a girl from Maryland wants to know what country she's from—but she holds up her midnight-blue felt trading display and the friendship's a go.

One of the teams from the People's Republic of China almost missed their recognition at the opening ceremony—someone had to hunt them down in the lobby, where they were trading pins.

Even the parents and event judges, who swarm to the stage after each presentation to offer pointers and examine costume and prop construction, sport pins on jackets and vests and in one notable case, all over a felt hat with two-foot plumes a la the Three Musketeers.

It's amazing that anyone has time left after pin trading to compete in events like "Chorific," where each team is given a chore, an obstacle, and 30 minutes to come up with a solution and act it out for an audience. But five elementary students from New Hampshire have used their time so efficiently a car manufacturer could take notes, managing to write and memorize a script, build a podium and mic from two boxes and duct tape, and figure out that a speech about Montezuma would go over much, much better if you focus on his chocolate accomplishments. Afterwards, they high-five the adults carrying digital cameras (the "Roadies," according to the shirts), then rush out of the auditorium to see if they missed any trading action.

The other puzzler is how the students have any imagination remaining to try to one-up each other in events, given all the zany, clever outfits and slogans they create just to wear in the lobby.

Just a sample from a 50-yard radius includes the obligatory foam cheese wedge headgear for a team from Wisconsin; boys from Charlottesville, Va., wearing military-style sashes with their lapel pin collections; a sombrero decorated to become a nacho dip and chip bowl (on someone's head); a wig made entirely of different colors of Christmas tinsel; a kimono top in the props closet constructed of Lay's potato chip bags with Funyon bag cuffs; and a sun dress sewn from properly unfolded maps.

Then there are the nifty T-shirt slogans from this seething mass of creativity. Like, "Brain Riders," "What Happens in the Garage, Stays in the Garage," and "Think outside the box... what box? There was a box?" "DI another day," and the bizarre, "Hey, your tower is leaning. Ha ha ha ha ha."

The students don't seem to notice the witticisms much—they're too preoccupied with the latest batch of pins coming off the bus with the competitors for the afternoon events.

That morning, though, a passel of adolescent girls, DI competitors from who knows where, were eating at Cracker Barrel off Cedar Bluff. Three of them, straight out of Teen magazine, long-legged and fresh-faced, pile into the restroom, waiting on stalls. Out of sight, they start bubbling—murmur, murmur, giggle—something has caught their attention, revved their enthusiasm. Can't be pins, no one to trade with but their own team here.

Boys? Make-up? Complaining about the soccer-mom type who waits for them next to the Yankee Candle display?

One voice is suddenly louder, audible, all can hear this confident declaration. "Yes," says one of the young ladies, and the chatter ceases. "This lever definitely flushes the best."