Humiliation. That seems to be a constant theme of my life. Things like going to school with a horrendous haircut and tripping over a jump rope in front of my entire gym class make me believe that humiliation will hound me like a scorned ex-lover, except that I never loved it to begin with. Nothing echoes this idea more than my school’s geography bee.
I was in fifth grade, and the school was taking part in a nationwide geography bee (kind of like a spelling bee, except with, you know, geography). I was one of six finalists at my school; two of us would advance to the citywide bee, then the statewide, and then the national. The only reason I had made it this far was because I knew that Montreal was in Canada. My school didn’t have a geography class, so the standards for a geography whiz were pretty low.
I remember refusing to participate in the days leading
up to the event. I have a stutter, and I was mortified at the idea of being laughed at by the entire school. But, despite my stubbornness, my teachers pressured me into doing it. Ironic, since they’re the ones always telling us not to give into peer pressure.
When I entered the gymnasium that Friday afternoon, the smell of prepubescent sweat and whatever chemicals used to clean the hardwood floors attacked my nose. The other students in the geography bee all vaulted themselves up onto the stage like pros. But I have short, stubby legs, so I was the one kid who walked all the way to the other side of the stage and climbed the stairs, while everyone watched me basically admit my defeat. Off to a great start.
We sat in folding chairs, looking out at the sea of bored students and parents. The moderator, with a slender build, short gray hair and a disapproving pout, walked
to her podium. I could barely hear a word she said; I was drowning in fear as I looked out upon the sea of judging faces.
I was relieved that my teachers had promised we could write out our answers and have the moderator read them. I did not yet know that that wouldn’t spare me yet another run-in with my old friend, humiliation. Before I knew it, the first round began.
“What is the capital of Idaho?” the moderator asked.
How am I supposed to know the capital of Idaho? No offense to people from there, but I don’t think they even care. I think they grow potatoes, and that is the extent of my knowledge of the state. That would merely be the first wrong answer of the travesty that was the geography bee.
When the hour-and-a-half-long nightmare finally ended, I walked defeatedly to the car with my dad. “I’m so proud of how smart you are,” he assured me.
“Oh … uh … thanks,” I replied, appreciating the gesture but not agreeing with the sentiment. I had looked like an idiot. Sure, a few other participants got all of the questions wrong too, but I still felt like the dumbest kid in school. It’s not that I cared about winning, or even thought that I had the slightest chance of winning, for that matter. The problem was that I didn’t even get one moment, not even one second, to take pride in myself. In front of the entire school, I made a mockery of myself. And after the weekend was over, I would have to go back to school and surely be ridiculed for my failure.
The weekend passed in the blink of an eye. I entered school Monday morning, preparing for the worst day of my life. I was sure of it. But something strange happened: nothing. Not a single thing. I was greeted with the same smiles, same “hellos.” Barely anyone mentioned the geography bee, and when they did, it was congratulatory. People were impressed that I was even in it.
That’s when it hit me. The “humiliating” moments that make you feel like crawling into your own grave, don’t really matter. I was humiliated, and no one even noticed. I realized that mistakes are not a big deal, and other’s opinions of you are even less worth fretting about. Life is too short to focus on every minor mishap.
So, do I still regret taking part in the geography bee? Absolutely not. But would I ever do it again? Absolutely not. F
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.