“Where did you come from?”
Those were the words of Laurel Stankus, a fellow top competitor in Illinois high school impromptu speaking, during our senior year. She was right to be confused: a few weeks ago, I had Jeremy Lin-ed my way into the highest echelon of local speech and debate. I went from zero tournament wins in three seasons to not just the most statewide, but in the most competitive region.
This was all the more surprising because, like the NBA, speech leaves no superstar behind—usually, you’ll know who’s in the state final two years ahead of time. For the preppies I eviscerated, I was an unexpected nightmare on the Rejection Letter From Northwestern scale.
I’ll jump off my own cock now. Just know I was good.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m as competitive as the Bizarro Golden Globes. The root of this is, of course, insecurity—growing up fat and weird, you miss out on a lot of the guidelines for how people usually interact, like “not telling your friends they’re going to hell,” “how to react when a girl smiles,” and “eye contact.” But you know whose screwups never get noticed? Winners!
Winners never repeat that hilarious pun but louder. Winners never feel like everybody’s staring at them when they walk out of a clothing store still wearing their horrible old gross clothes that definitely have lint they’re not seeing. Winners never fail to recognize a vegetable on a menu.* Winners get away with breaking the rule of threes. (BOOYA!)
In fifth grade, I lost a writing contest that I had won the previous year and therefore had to pretend not to care about. I had written a story I considered my magnum opus: The Cyclist, about a young man who struggles to escape life in a motorcycle gang after getting involved in a series of grisly murders. It fucking lost to The Little Fucking Ladybug.
They told me my story was DQ’d for being too violent, but that’s a crock of shit. If Li’l Cormac McCarthy had turned in The Woad, it would’ve won.
The girl who won was one of the mostly-Hispanic school’s precious little white princesses and her story was just adorable! She giggled all the time and sometimes brought in cupcakes for the class “just because” and remembered everybody’s last names, so fuck her times infinity. My stories were gritty and non-linear and killed off main characters. The Little Ladybug gets scared of a rainstorm and becomes friends with a caterpillar.
Scorned writers are horribly jealous people. Fat, young writers who are bad at everything else and just had their crush on Jenny Wilhelm outed (I TRUSTED YOU JUSTIN!!!) are even worse. The previous year, that contest put me on public access TV, in the local paper, and at a big Young Authors’ conference. Everywhere I turned, people were willing to overlook all of my social maladjustments just because I was The Winner; for two weeks, I lived in a zero-to-hero montage.
But White Princess had no flaws! She was pretty, popular, and didn’t smell like taco meat and glue. What would she gain from winning?
That day, I felt the first sting of envy of everyone more likable than me who succeeds in my field.
Though I’ve tried to suppress this, it has led to most of my accomplishments. (You’re reading one!) The more golden-boyish my opponent, the less I secretly feel he deserves success, and the harder I work to try to destroy him.
Nobody I have ever faced has been as golden or as boyish as Mark Schmidt.
He was like a little German Kennedy but with good posture. He went to a slightly nicer high school than I, is now at Georgetown, and will one day be appointed Secretary of Being a Nice Young Man. Oh, and he was the only person standing between me and dominance of Illinois high school impromptu. Okay, not “standing”– more “as untouchable as a greased-up George Zimmerman.”
See, in our first three years of high school, Mark had appeared in the state finals for impromptu and a related event five times, winning twice. If I’m J-Lin in this, he’s Michael Jordan in 1998; at the beginning of our senior season, the rest of us were planning on fighting for second while he ran a victory lap.
This was my goal, too. I made my first varsity team and got a fantastic new coach (the one and only Hemant Mehta). Then, to my surprise as much as anybody’s, I placed within striking distance of Mark at a couple tournaments. That was all I needed to put him in my sights.
All the ingredients were there. Mark was a sharply-dressed future island-owner with the politeness of an English greeting card, who made judges swoon with his professorial grasp of rhetoric and current events. I was an insecure slapdick who once won a round by joking about Saddam Hussein gassing Bambi’s mom. I had to crush him.
I did what I always did: got really competitive, let success get to my head, and made groundless assumptions about someone I barely knew (see everything above). For a while it worked—when Laurel asked me where I’d come from, I had just scored my first victory over Mark in one of the nation’s toughest tournaments, officially surpassing him in tournament wins.
I could taste his Teutonic blood. And it tasted good.
I slumped a little towards the end of the season, losing that lead. But so what? All that mattered was the state final, which, after weeks of grueling preliminaries, we both made it into. I was so ready. This was our Thrilla in Manila, our heavyweight 15-round rubber match; the two undisputed superpowers battling for ultimate bragging rights, just me and him.
And I slaughtered it. I went up last, meaning I didn’t see the other speakers, but I didn’t need to—the polite laughter, the thoughtful nods, the enthusiastic golf claps all told my ego that there was no way in hell Mark beat me. So I bit my tongue all the way to the awards ceremony, where I looked forward to out-Marking Mark and
I CAME IN THIRD.
THIRD! What is this fucking garbage?! Who the fuck is this girl in second? Oh, just the one who went to the school that WINS EVERY YEAR who SUCKED ALL SEASON. Her speech was probably about a LITTLE GODDAMNED LADYBUG (NO I’M NOT OVER IT) and the judges were IGNORANT COCKSUCKERS who couldn’t handle my GREGARIOUS CHARM so my ONLY OPTION is to TRACK THEM DOWN AND SLIT THEIR THROATS.
All I wanted in the whole world was to drag these perfect specimens down to my Penguin-like level, and I was thwarted. Not by disqualification or Batman, but fair and square. That’s what hurt the most, and it’s what brought my ego back to earth. All I could do was deal with it. Suppressing my envy has been one of my biggest goals as a wannabe ex-weird kid, and getting dealt such a painful defeat helped me face that insecurity in myself.
P.S.: If you’re reading this, state final judges, I own a Bowie knife. Sleep lightly.
*What, we’re just calling eggplants aubergines now? Well excuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me.