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The summer heat pours through the windows of the lobby, filled with circular white tables and folding navy chairs. On one wall, a black “Child Genius” sign hangs with a light bulb on top. Twenty-one of us, along with our families, stand in the room before the first round of competition.
A young boy walks up to me, a wide smile plastered on his face, and extends his arm. “Hi! I’m Binyamin.” We shake hands.
“Nice to meet you! I’m Ryan.”
We talk about where we’re from, the competition, how we got here, and so on. The competitors and families fill the room with chatter and laughter, and eventually, we all have introduced ourselves to each other.
“Would everyone please come to the competition room for Round One?” the announcer, Leland, says from the door. We all shuffle to the room, us kids sitting on rows of seats on a stage, while the families sit on the side. A silence lingers in the air as we wait for the first person to be called to the podium.
“Welcome to Round One of the Child Genius competition. The winner will receive a 100,000-dollar scholarship. Good Luck,” Leland says. Izzy walks to the podium as the first competitor.
“Your time begins now. What is 32 times 11?” When she finishes, Leland announces her score. “Izzy, you have scored three correct.”
Question after question gets asked until we all have gone. “Unfortunately, four of you will not be able to make it to the next round.”
Leland takes a deep breath and pauses. “John.”
Applause follows as he walks forward to his certificate and leaves the room. The same happens for Izzy, Robbie, and Christopher. The remaining 17 of us file out after. We say our goodbyes to those who are leaving, and we all go back to our tables in silence to begin studying for the next round.
~ ~ ~
A week later, the remaining 12 of us enter the lobby for Round Three. Binyamin approaches a couple of others and me, asking if we want to study for the upcoming round. We agree and grab our notes.
Binyamin looks over his glasses at his notebook. “What’s the largest moon of Jupiter?”
“Europa!” I yell.
“Sorry man. Ganymede,” another voice says.
I chuckle. “Dang.”
Leland enters the room once again. As if by instinct, we all walk to the competition room. Instead of three rows of seven chairs, two rows of six fill the stage. The spectator stands barely have over half the amount as Round One.
As the kids go through their questions, I think of how many right answers are required to advance to the next round. 9.
When I walk back to my seat, I sigh with relief, knowing I had made it with 15 correct, but soon realizing that it meant someone else was eliminated.
“Kellan,” Leland calls to signify his departure. We all give applause. My mouth flattens, and I look at the disappearing smiles on the others. “Jaxon.”
~ ~ ~
The grins and smiles of the first day — three weeks ago — are no more. I wave at Binyamin before burying my head back in my logic and reasoning notes.
At the podium, I beam as I answer all but one question correctly and prove to be the top scorer of Round Five. But as I turn around, eight sorry faces, especially one, wait for the announcement.
Leland looks at us, and then at that boy’s face. Tears stream down as he holds his glasses and kippah in one hand and tries to wipe his eyes with his suit jacket with the other.
Leland breathes in, and then breathes out. “Binyamin.”
His father stands from the spectator section, applauding the loudest and watching his son with a sad yet proud smile on his face. He walks to his son, holding his arm around Binyamin’s shoulders.
The rest of us having nothing to do but clap and cheer as fellow competitors. And so, we do — from Binyamin’s walk from the seats to the certificate, all the way until he leaves the room.
I look down at the ground to hide my wet eyes, recalling the chat we had on the first day and all the times we hung out in the lobby. That was last time we saw him.
~ ~ ~
Five of us remain. We each have our own space now — Vanya in the top right corner of the lobby, Yeji in the top left, Graham in the center, Catherine in the bottom right, and I in the bottom left. Only the feeling of competition permeates, only the flipping of flashcards and scratching of pencils can be heard, and only the scents of victory and defeat fill the room.
I am called first for Round Seven. I clear my mind of everything except for the scientific inventions I need to know.
“Who created a screw to pump water?” Leland asks.
My heart thumps like a galloping horse. I try to recall the information from my notes, but to no avail. “Pass.”
“Which inventor made the bicycle?”
“Pass.” I try to swallow the lump in my throat.
“Who created the electromagnet?”
I scratch my head and look at my family. “Tesla.”
By the time I finished, I have scored five points. They all get more.
I cover my face with my hands at my seat. I sniffle, trying not to cry, but my eyes begin to water.
Leland looks at me. “Unfortunately, one you will not make it to the next round,” he says, but I’m not listening anymore. I close my eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
I walk as quickly as I can, grab my certificate, and leave. I was the one kid that almost made it to the finals but didn’t. I was the one kid who would be leaving tonight. I was eliminated.