Yesterday, for the second year in a row, I went onto campus on a sunny springlike Saturday to read questions for a high school academic tournament sponsored by the university college bowl team. I did it because I used to be on the other end, a high school student who must have gone to five or six of these things every year (and to think he grew up to become a nerd), and I came back to verify that fourteen years and seven hundred miles have changed absolutely nothing. Everything about the tournament is deeply familiar, right down to its setting in a seventies eyesore in windowless brown brick that’s disconcertingly evocative of my high school. I give up my Saturdays because the tournament offers the promise of time travel, the prospect of stepping bodily into my own memories.
Anyone convinced their teenage experience was special or unique ought to spend a couple of days in the company of the young. These kids are instantly familiar, a bunch of Platonic archetypes so perfectly embodied in one of last year’s teams they could have been my old classmates. There’s the High School Rebel, his rebellion limited mostly to wiseass comments and a bad haircut (if I seem obsessed with coiffures in this post, and I will, it’s only because adolescents regard these external signifiers as more expressive of their character than anything they could ever translate into words, let alone action, right?). There’s the Smart Guy, Quiet Guy, Point Gatherer, racking up the questions and shouldering his team without complaint. There’s the Fey Guy. I wonder if he’s allowed to come all the way out by now, but then this is Tennessee. And there’s the Girl – no, let’s not reduce her to her gender, uncommon as it is in these circles. There’s the Brilliant, Attractive Girl who seems… there is no nice way to say this… a Bit of a Head Case. They’re all head cases of course, but the gender always makes the B,A,BofaHC Girl more visible. No, it isn’t fair, and if my taxonomy seems cruel remember that every time I type “they” I really mean “we.”
I’m writing this not out of cruelty but delight. Walking through the crowd yesterday I realized I was just as keyed up as they were, not because I had anything riding on the tournament but because I was surrounded by some quality or qualities I didn’t even know I was missing. Maybe it’s their astonishing, liberating lack of judgment. These kids have no internal editor telling them not to fill their notebooks with cyberpunk novellas or their sketchpads with manga elves. They don’t know these things reveal an impoverished imaginative lexicon and that fidelity makes them seem a little less impoverished. They can honestly believe that no one has ever written their poems or suffered their agonies or heard the first half of the White Album in quite the same way. They haven’t yet figured out that their story, everybody’s story, has already been written. They honestly believe they are unique.
With that comes a certain arrogance, of course, especially in the kind of kid who’s likely to end up spending the first springlike Saturday afternoon of the year holed up in a windowless brick building answering trivia questions. The best kids, justifiably confident in the depth of their intellect and the breadth of their knowledge, are often convinced that they already know all there is to be known, at least in the safe and masterable fields of literature and chemistry – but even that is a complement to their winning naïveté. After fifteen years I’m ready to pardon even their worst traits (remember, every time I type “they”…), and seeing them always brings on an intense desire to forgive or atone for all the stupid little mistakes from my own past, even those not worth remembering.
You would think this experience wouldn’t be quite so foreign to somebody who interacts with eighteen-year-old college freshmen almost every day, but there you have it. Perhaps it’s because these tournaments are filled with the kids I spent most of my time with back in high school, undiluted by the general population, and as such they constitute a kind of reunion; or perhaps it’s because I wisely separate myself from the lives of the kids I teach, filing that under “work,” while I know from experience how deeply, strangely personal these tournaments really are. These events were never just public interactions but some sort of personal testing in the only arena we had: geek duels fought according to nerd bushido. Then again, maybe this is true of everything in adolescence, even the public parts, especially the public parts: it all has something intimate riding on it. Every moment is legible as some narrative of ability, virtue, achievement, romance, every day a potential roller coaster of triumph and failure, love and rejection. Small wonder that it looks more attractive now than the daily grind of shower work eat sleep – in small doses, anyway, and at a great remove.
I would be lying – or tactically omitting an unpleasant truth – if I didn’t mention one other reason for the stark affective disconnect between my everyday interactions with my students and these annual glimpses at their immediate successors. The kids who come to these tournaments are not the kids who come to my university. Many of them have already made their college plans, and they don’t include us.
If it sounds like I’m accusing one party of either superiority or inadequacy, all I can say is that it’s a little more complicated than that. A few of the teams do bring a certain air of affronted snobbery; hearing a couple of kids snicker their way through our admissions officer’s presentation at lunch (the university has tried to use this tournament as a recruiting event, with how much success I can’t imagine) did not endear them to me. But most of the kids take the event extremely seriously, some of them driving three hours to come here just so they can say they tried and won. (Three hours. That would have been unthinkable in Maryland, where there were at least three college-run tournaments and a couple of high school ones all within an hour’s drive, and it testifies to the scarcity of opportunities in a less doctorate-rich environment. Maybe you have to drive three hours to find an academic competition when you live in an income tax-averse state that’s ranked forty-ninth in the nation in education funding.) I’m still not going to see them this fall. Perhaps they’re on their way out of the forty-ninth ranked state.
But if they aren’t lining up to enroll, neither did our university put its best foot forward, whether it was the generally disorganized proceedings (not exactly doing anything to contradict our local reputation) or the glimpses we tendered of our own impoverished lexicon. A student from our college bowl team presented the tournament awards with a speech that blithely recycled the language of bland affirmation so common to our own administrators, a language so bankrupt I can’t even call it inflated. He didn’t seem to notice that the kids could already see through his rhetoric, that his repeated invocations of “intelligence” and “achievement,” so flattering to the schoolmarms and hucksters from whom he stole them, mean nothing to students who know intelligence by more and subtler names. They only marked competitors and host apart, linguistic reminders that this day was just a momentary meeting of people on their way to and from different positions in a hierarchy too universally understood to be named. At that moment the day became a parody, a painful joke the star performer wasn’t in on. But this isn’t what I wanted to write about. This isn’t nostalgic at all.
I can accept, then, that I was also affected by a sense of restored inheritance, recovered belonging. The kids’ fashions and haircuts – when not indicative of that tragic nerdish inattention to fashions and haircuts – suggested a comfortable sort of rebellion I’m used to seeing at universities, that I don’t see enough of here. Every caste has its own privileges, none moreso than these kids who have the luxury of being different in all the approved ways, but before you judge them too harshly consider that schools are much worse off without their sense of intellectual entitlement. It's the only thing holding anyone accountable.
One of my favorite movies, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, tells me that high school in Texas in 1976 was not so different from high school in Maryland in 1988. Now I see that you can add Tennessee in 2005, and probably anywhere else as long as it offers the same middle class privileges. I love Dazed and Confused because I see myself in it, but now, having played the Wiley Wiggins and Adam Goldberg and maybe just a hint of the Jason London parts in their turn the only one left is Matthew McConaughey’s brilliantly sleazy slummer, Wooderson. As I saw the kids in their moptopped hair and retro shirts – not even remotely in style when I was coming up in the long leaden shadow of the 80s – I had a moment where I could imagine stepping into the role, walking up to some teenaged rebel and asking Y’all know where the party’s at tonight? Because there’s always something going on afterwards. It’s a Saturday night for God’s sake, the night of the first sunny Saturday day, and you’ve just been through your intellectual trial and now the social ones are coming up, and if you don’t get out there and make something happen no one else will. Actually, come to think of it, that was most of my twenties too. And as I thought about this last night, I wondered, what triumphs and tragedies are happening right now?
Me, I didn’t have any dinners or movies or parties or awkward, fumbling attempts at romance awaiting me afterwards. I just went home to my wife, a prospect that seemed distant and unlikely back in the days of Mac McGarry. It’s the brass ring, kid – you made it – so how come you’re still on the outside looking in?
At least now I have a good excuse.