I am somewhere in this picture. No, not him. Come on, do you really think I look like that? You guys are mean.
Because of my complete lack of athleticism in high school, I played quizbowl. Quizbowl was a competitive activity for people who loved to compete but hated being in shape. And the closest we had to a big game was “It’s Academic.” It’s Academic was the televised high school quiz show in the DC area, airing Saturday mornings on the NBC affiliate. It was hosted by Mac McGarry, a geriatric former weatherman who had been host for almost 50 years. His age was starting to show—his voice was no longer melodious, tapings would often fly off the rails because McGarry would become confused as to what questions he was supposed to read and who to read them to—but he was still a genial presence, a stable constant in the world of It’s Academic. The contestants, after all, disappeared in, at most, 4 years. [The set was similarly ancient. The captain’s chair at the middle podium had one of its legs duct-taped on.]
I became captain of my high school’s team during my sophomore year, a task I was completely unprepared for. It’s Academic is set up as a long, single-elimination tournament of 81 teams. 3 teams compete in a match, the winner moves on, and so the overall winner only has to win 4 games. That year, we made the semi-finals before being blown out by an all-girls private school that was a traditional “It’s Academic” power. [Senior year, we returned the favor by blowing them out in the semi-finals, which made one of their players cry. REVENGE.] The next year, we made it to the finals, losing by 20 points [one question] because our math guy missed the math question. YOU HAD ONE JOB, MATH GUY.
So this led to senior year, where the team was me, a guy who did math because I can’t, and a random guy. Most of the weight was on my shoulders. In our first game, we won 760-230-230, which is like winning a basketball game 160-12. We were confident. The studio guy said he was the best player he had ever seen. Mac McGarry did not recognize me, despite having been on the show a lot.
We similarly bull-dozed through the second and third rounds, which included our revenge-stomping of the girls school. Things were going well. Hell, we even got mentioned on the morning announcements. [School-wide recognition of the quizbowl team was mostly limited to being the punchline of “well, at least one of our sports teams is successful!”] The main problem on the horizon was that the taping date of the finals was set for the day after prom. No big deal. I’d probably just cut out of prom early and be awake and ready to go the next day. Unfortunately, several things prevented this from happening. One, I had gotten A GIRL to go to prom with me, which was very exciting. Two, I ended up being prom king, which sort of meant I had to stay there. [They did not dump pig’s blood on me.] These things ended up meaning I stayed out very, very late. I was incredibly tired when I showed up to the taping the next day. They also didn’t start taping for some reason until we had been there for 3 hours.
And, shockingly, it didn’t seem to affect me all that much. It’s Academic has 5 rounds—3 rounds where teams buzz in to answer questions, and 2 rounds where teams are just each asked easier questions, so they can get points and feel good. The final round is a buzzing round, and the questions are worth double or even triple, so basically it means “the other 4 rounds didn’t matter too much.” We were actually slightly leading going into the final round.
Then it happened. A meltdown. A legendary meltdown. My tired brain decided to buzz in and answer 8 questions incorrectly in a row, losing us 160 points. The wrong answers I gave were not plausible, either. One question began “This number—“ and I buzzed in and, after some consideration, answered “E.” [Technically, e’s a number, but I was definitely answering with the letter.] Panic began to take over my sleep-deprived brain after each wrong answer, so that I only vaguely understood what was happening but to fix it I should buzz more. After this happened 8 times, I gracefully bowed and sat quietly until the round ended. We DVRed it, but I never watched it, because fuck that.
In retrospect, it might be good that I never ended up winning, because then I would’ve been one of those guys whose life peaked in high school and won’t stop talking about it, and as this incredibly long article about my time in high school can attest, that totally didn’t happen.