“Poor composition, unsatisfactory projection, and average claims?” I grumbled my results from the debate tournament to myself at the crowded hall of the annual Crawford debate tournament. I had such inflated expectations! I had toiled for infinitesimal hours rehearsing, planning, reciting, formulating, reciting, reciting, and researching (oh and did I mention reciting??) for the big speech I had given today. My eloquent yet pretentious speech had become a ubiquitous mantra in my mind along with all the unfortunate souls that were forced to hear me practice it over and over again. I was sure this tournament would finally be my day of success, I was convinced I would not go home to sympathetic eyes and reassuring “next time”s but would enter my residence greeted by a barrage of vibrant celebration. I was not satisfied when I heard of my usual placement around the 50th place mark. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by disappointment as I walked out of the frigid, resonant awards hall and into the reunion room, which was balmy and cozy in contrast. The rest of the day was dejectedly uniform; the sad yet attemptedly reassuring looks, staring solemnly at our family’s massive oakwood dinner table during dinner, and you know, all that typical ‘recovery’ stuff.
I suppose I should introduce myself, which is apparently the only thing in which I come even close to proficiency in my debates. I take many forms, depending on the perspective you look at me. To my parents I am their gifted and talented intellectual who excels at everything he tries, in their eyes my failure at debate is merely a slight imperfection. Besides, I came from getting 65th place (last by the way) to 50th, that’s an improvement that should be commended right? To my friends I am the slightly dorky dude who is ‘boss’ at first person shooter RPGs and has a nice taste in music. To my teachers I am that child with such ‘potential’ but will never make anything of it since he never pays attention in class and has an apathetic attitude towards school. To that one kid around the block, whom to this day I have not discovered why he loathes the world around him so much, I am “that stupid loser kid who has no friends and farts in elevators on purpose” Yes, that is quoted by him, and no, I don’t know where he got that elevator part from. But among all those forms with all my different attributes, I can be consolidated into one form, the one that is viewed from my perspective, a simple boy with a dream to be a lawyer some day named Gerald. Now do you see why they call my introductions pretentious?
The day after the tournament was a regular day. I ate my soggy cereal, trudged the three blocks to the bus stop through the smoggy New York air under the imposing NYC skyline. We lived in the suburbs of New York, just far enough from all the crime and traffic associated with most metropolises but just close enough to be enveloped by the clouds of waste that billow from the cars, factories, and airplanes. I boarded the bus with my usual nonchalant swagger and sat in the seat adjacent to my best friend Mark. He swiveled his head to greet me and in doing so his modest yet stylish brownish-blonde hair flipped on his scalp. I knew he didn’t mean it, but everytime he did that it felt like Mark was insinuating that his mane of radiant frizzy yet tame honey-colored hair was superior to all , especially the greasy black mop that grows from my scalp like weeds in an untamed garden. The bus belched a black mist from its’ tailpipe and I was jolted out of my thoughts. “so how’d the debate tournament go for you Gerald?” asked Mark. He knew very well how it went, he just wanted to be able to offer his condolences when he received my depressing reply. In fact, he was the person who got first. “56th… an improvement from last time…” I muttered glumly. “Aw c’mon dude cheer up! There’s always next time!” He replied enthusiastically. Next time, next time, next time… I was sick of hearing that, how come every ‘next time’ was always the time that I utterly failed again only to be told to keep my head up for the ‘next time’ I would fail again? It was a vicious cycle. Besides, how would Mark know anything about failure? He came home with a 1st place ribbon every time he tried anything. I had observed Mark closely before and had found no evident characteristics setting us apart when it came to effort, so why was he so successful? I supposed some people were just naturally that way. “Y’know Mark… sometimes I think I’m tired of waiting for ‘next time’” I replied soberly. This time he couldn’t find any reply and simply stared at the floor.
My school day was just as nondescript as all the other days I had been in the gloomy brick box that is my school; math, P.E., Language Arts, all a bunch of teachers standing on their soapboxes yakking stuff I already knew. But, on that day something occurred that, as I realized later on, would change my career and the path I took in life. I met Ted. Now I know that might not sound like such a groundbreaking event; I mean, millions of people meet millions of other people everyday, right? But, that’s not the point. What changed my life was not so much the fact that I met Ted as what information making his acquaintance brought me. I saw him at the student-orientation night for new students, which is basically some gimmick put on by the school to make new students feel ‘welcome’ or whatever. The irony of it is that the new students feel even less welcome since the whole orientation consists of present students strutting their knowledge about the school and making the kids feel like an even bigger stranger. Sadly, I was posted as one of those students who were to ‘assist’ the supervisors run the event, which basically meant that you had to be in some adult’s thrall all evening, fetching glasses of water, showing students the way to the bathroom, and helping teachers set up the long creamy white card tables that were used to hold refreshments. Ted, unlike the other students I observed, was curious and loquacious. He approached me with a casual “sup dude” and I was taken aback. I had talked to other students many times before that night, explaining to them the workings of the overwhelmingly-complex school of ours, but not once had anyone actually said anything back to me! But, I was glad for the company, so I greeted him back.
Though we made some small-talk about our favorite subjects and the relative location of everything in our school, the part of our conversation that really stood out was when he mentioned partaking in something called the ‘Geography Bee’ in his old school. I had never particularly fancied geography before as I had just seen it as one of the countless other subjects that we are expected to know about by the end of the 9th grade. I would try just enough to pull the As and Bs that satisfied my parents and that’s all. The second the teacher announced that we would be moving on to whatever god-forsaken subject they planned to bore us with next, I would drop everything I knew about Geography and turn my focus to whatever lay ahead. So, when Ted told me how fervently he had worked for the Bee, I internally rolled my eyes and told him we did indeed have a Geography Bee team of our own and its’ first meeting was this Tuesday. He proceeded to tell me, with some craving in his eyes and drool leaking from his mouth, of the splendiferous conditions of victory in the Bee. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized at his mention of the one hundred thousand dollars awarded to the national victor. “Teee-eeed! C’mon we’re leaving!” a young voice called, “Oh, gotta go see ya around man” said Ted, interrupted from his vivid description of the competition. “oh… yeah, see ya” I replied absentmindedly, daydreaming of my fictitious triumphs in the Geography Bee. I shook myself out of my woolgathering and vowed to keep my focus on my dream of becoming a lawyer, besides, that was my true call in life wasn’t it?
But yet I still somehow found myself at the first practice on Tuesday evening.
My first impression of the Geography Bee was, as I recall, not a positive one. The large room we were allocated was sparsely populated, as if no one felt that it was necessary to waste their Tuesday evening at some ramshackle ‘Geography Bee’. It was as if I had entered a whole new world, I barely knew any of the kids at the practice! My only friends were Ted and Mark. I was dismayed to discover Mark’s appearance since, as you already know, Mark is superior at everything. I sat down at one of the elongated rectangular tables clearly intended for a party of ten people or more but instead housed a couple kids or so. While waiting for practice to begin I observed the pattern of the tiles on the floor, I had never been in that room before. When practice finally started a middle-aged plump woman entered the room in somewhat of a bustle and plopped her materials on the table in front of the enormous white board that covered the length of an entire wall. “Welcome to the Geography Bee, I will be your teacher this season. My name is…” the woman began but was immediately interrupted by a stocky 6th grader with crescent-shaped glasses sitting directly across from her “...Mrs. Paxton! We all know!” chirps of “Yup” and “You know we do!” circulated around the room. Mrs. Paxton simply rolled her eyes humoredly and began passing out the books we would be studying from. Wow, I really am a stranger here! Does everyone really know her this well? I thought. When my book arrived I lifted its frayed cover and read the title. ‘The geography and culture of the world” Wow! That sounds really broadfor a book that is only about one hundred pages thick! Mrs. Paxton, in finishing handing out the books, began lecturing us about the ‘wonders of geography’. I nodded, dismally acting as if I gave a rat’s tail while reading ahead through the book.
Although I didn’t learn anything or let myself believe that I cared for Geography that day, I was, even if I didn’t know it at the time, inspired by people in history and their ventures. I found myself reading the book in my spare time. While others saw the book as something to fear due to its’ complexity and unpredictability in what parts of it would be on the actual Bee, I began to think of it as somewhat of like a storybook. Each section of the book was like a different chapter of the big book of world history, coming together within time with such impeccable timeliness that it led to other events, which lead to others, shaping the world as we know it. Thinking this way I worked extra hard over the next few weeks, propelled by not the impending regional competition, but by some unknown force that just made it infeasible for me not to study the book like I was drilling it for gold (which, by the way, is exactly what Americans were doing during the California gold rush in 1849… oops, that was off-topic, I just can’t help myself. I quickly rose to being one of the best in my group, surpassed only by, you guessed it, Mr. perfect himself: Mark. He usually scored higher than me on our practice tests and I accepted that, readily accepting that he was better than me. However whenever I beat him on a practice test (usually by like 1 or 2 points) he would congratulate me with a smile convincing to anyone, but he would look into my eyes and snort the first time he got the chance. We talked less and less, partly due to his jealousy and also to my anger at him for being such a bad sport. I wasn’t too disappointed, I just reassured myself that he was never a good friend if he acts like this just because I did better than him on one measly test.
Meanwhile the Geography Bee was looming, with its’ Regional championship in a mere one week. Now I know I said I wasn’t intimidated by the study-book, but that didn’t stop me from being absolutely terrified by the fierce competition that engulfed you in an envelope of steely glances and angry glares experienced even at the regional level of the Bee. I was studying harder than ever and it was nearly impossible for anyone to believe that I had actually started out as the worst and least interested member of my study group but there I was, acing every single practice test. Ted was especially surprised at my new performance, since every time I knew an answer in practice he would look at me with astonishment in his eyes and would give me an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The week leading up to the Regional competition dragged slower than any week I had ever experienced, It was as if every minute was doubled, and the torture of enduring that minute was doubled yet again since the week dragged on because of both anticipation and fear! But finally the awaited day arrived; I was jolted awake at 6AM in the morning to trudge six long miles to the bus station where the Geography bee participants would convene, proceeding to board the bus taking us to the competition at a nearby university. When we arrived, we were shunted to a devious space termed the ‘testing room’. We waited there for about thirty minutes while the hosts of the tournament retrieved the tests we were to take. I observed that for many people in the tournament this excess time was used by everyone in the room to intimidate their opponents as much as possible by pulling out the hardest practice sheets and subtly flashing them in the direction of the others in the room, all while making a big show of doing the worksheets with incredible ease. Finally the tests were handed out and my next three hours were consumed by being bent over a sheet of paper writing down the obscure yet interesting Geography facts I had compiled in my head over the last few months.
When the tests were finished we were relegated to the university’s cafeteria for the next three hours. While there we were free to purchase whatever snacks and sugary-foods we wished. Some kids heavily abused this privilege, and as a result I was left sitting alone in the corner weighing my chances of getting placed in the top ten… all while kids were running around shirtless from their exceptionally-high sugar-hype. Despite their medical inability to concentrate, the kids all sobered up pretty quickly when a supervisor entered the room to inform us that our rankings had been determined and that they would be announced in the awards’ hall (which was actually the university’s Varsity gym) in the next five minutes. At this news we all sprinted through the university’s long hallways to the gym. We filed into the bleachers facing a large stage set with a podium and… I gasped, taken aback by the sight I had just laid eyes upon. On a table on the stage were the most beautiful medals I had ever seen. The medals were covered with a vibrant, scintillating shade of gold and were rimmed by blue paint. The face of the medal was etched “2009 Geography Bee”. I could not take my eyes off of them all through the introductory speech that I can’t really tell you much about since I was so distracted by the medals’ beauty. But then I heard something that took my eyes off of the medals; I heard the hosts of the bee begin listing the names of the winners starting from the tenth-place winner.
My heart pounded as if a lion had entered my ribcage and was now heaving itself at the walls of my chest, begging to be released. I clenched my hands as the supervisor began counting down. I felt light-headed and dizzy, all I wanted at that moment was that first place medal in my grasp to prove to myself that I was not a failure, that I was capable of winning something. It was as if all of those pathetic debate tournaments where I came home thinking that I was no good at anything could be avenged with this one victory. But as the supervisor reached the fifth place winner, something funny happened; I realized that I had it all wrong before, I really didn't want to be a lawyer. That revelation struck me like a lightning bolt, I had forced myself to toil harder and harder for the past five years because I was absolutely sure my calling in life was to be a lawyer and to argue for the rights of people and for the world! But what I truly loved was the study of Geography, and no amount of forcing myself to ‘love’ something else could change that. And then when the announcer reached third place I realized something else; It really didn’t matter if I got first or not, and it didn’t matter even if I went on to be the state champion, because in the end I had won. I had achieved more than that first place medal could ever have given me. I had realized that my calling in life wasn’t to be a lawyer, and it wasn’t necessarily to be a geographer either. My calling in life was to develop on its’ own and there was nothing I could do about that but to wait and enjoy life. And when the supervisor announced my name for the first place champion I just stood up, smiled and accepted my reward.