Making the team was easy. There were only 600 kids in my school (kindergarten through twelfth grade) and not many of them were interested in being a scholar for dollars. What about the dollars–the promised scholarship money if one actually won the competition? Was that what drove me? Nope. What I wanted most was to be on television–even if it was a teeny-tiny PBS station. I felt, with all of the arrogance and self-absorption that only a 17-year-old can muster, that it was finally my time to shine and that I would finally be…
Sadly, no tapes remain of my debut so I will cobble together what I can. Our coaches (these were the folks who stayed after school and played Trivial Pursuit with us by way of practice) told us to wear bright colors as they would look better for the camera. So I think I wore a very bright blue, matronly angora turtleneck. My permed hair would have had the helmeted, curling-iron singed bangs in front and sort of slicked back along the sides with gel in some sort of modified mullet. I would have had extra make up on to cover any anxiety induced pimples. You get the picture.
It was winter but sunny that day as we drove 40 miles to the television studio. We must have been excited but playing it cool. We probably practiced on the bus by using the Trivial Pursuit cards as flash cards, but my heart wouldn’t have been in it. I would have been imagining what was going to happen next. The lights, the camera, the people saying they knew back when no one knew me. Back before I became a star. It was going to be great and I could finally show everyone in my town just how amazing I was. They would be sorry if they ever thought differently. Boy, would they ever.
The studio was not much–flat roofed building, somewhere on the outskirts of town but once we got on our stage, it felt like this was real, this was IT. The lights (which got awfully hot in that angora sweater, I must tell you) were certainly bright and we shook hands with the emcee and the other students. The contest area was layered–and we had the upper seats. An advantage? It certainly felt so at the time.
We did a few practice rounds, getting used to the buzzers and such. I thought I remembered one of our coaches telling us to hit the buzzer no matter what and then just guess. Okay. And then the count down started. The show started.
I got that feeling I get when I’m nervous. When the world comes down to a pin prick and all I can see is one point in the distance. My throat closes, my face gets hot, my neck gets blotchy and my voice shakes–all perfect for a television debut. The emcee nattered on for a while and then there was a brief pause before the questions began.
And everything went blurry.
I rang my button for almost every question. I think I might have gotten two answers correct. We lost miserably.
But the loss didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was going to be on television.
The show aired probably a month or two later. I sat on the floor in front of the television and checked the VCR a dozen times to make sure it was taping correctly. This was it. My big debut.
And then it began. The nattering emcee. The break. The questions. And there I was in all of my splendor. Buzzing, blushing, stammering, making a goofy face. Looking fat and tarty with too much make up on–just a weird, geeky kid. The show was only half an hour but it seemed nothing short of the length of The Thorn Birds.
Shocking as it may seem, I would not be discovered from my appearance on Scholars for Dollars. And now I am trying to remember who was on the team with me Was it Kevin? Was it Craig? Was it Kerriann? Was it that kid with the black hair and the glasses? Who was it? And what happened to them? That I don’t remember is something of a comfort to me.
So I wonder what it is about me that causes me to lay my shame out bare. To expose it. Is it some vestige of my long-dead Catholicism? Some reverse confession–instead of holing it up in a dark vestibule, shout it to the world? I’ve always found comfort in laughing at myself, letting the shame stand for humor instead of allowing it to burn brightly within like the Holy Ghost.
And what is it about The Granite State Challenge that moves me so now–so many years since my Scholars for Dollars debut? It is that sense of hopefulness I had those nearly 20 years ago. That belief that great things were possible and within my control. I saw it in those kids’ faces last night–they were goofy and sometimes overly serious but they had hope and they seemed to believe in themselves and their potential.
And while I suffered a dark day yesterday–one in which I lost faith in myself and questioned my intentions–today the sun is shining like that day when I sat on the bus on the way to Scholars for Dollars. I feel just as hopeful that something good is going to happen. Something big. And while that part of me that holds tight to this sense of possibility often sickens and embarrasses me in its naivete, it also makes me feel like there is a reason to keep going. Who knows? Today might be the day.