When I was a junior in high school, CEMC sponsored an essay contest. One winner from each county in Tennessee received an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. As an aspiring writer, I of course planned to enter, but only on my own terms. This caused a tiny amount of friction.
The first problem I ran in to was that my English teacher chose to make it part of an assignment. She wanted to ensure that we would give it our best effort, so she se milestones we were supposed to keep. Supposed to. The first one involved writing the introductory paragraph to our eventual essay submission. I didn’t write it. I rarely write one section at a time. My normal method was to sit down and write a piece start to finish without breaks (I still write this way). This included papers, essays, and any other form of written word. I then (sometimes) revised it later, but the bulk of the writing was always done in one sitting. I had to do it that way because if I took a break for any reason, I lost the moment and had great difficulty picking up my train of thought.
So I planned to write the essay, but I definitely wasn’t going to write an introductory paragraph and turn it in by itself. If I did, I’d probably never write the actual essay. I explained this to my teacher, but she must have forgotten on the assigned day for the introductions.
“Leighton, I don’t have your introductory paragraph,” she said as she counted through the papers at the front of my row.
“I know. I didn’t turn one in.”
“Because I didn’t write one.”
“Haven’t we been over this?”
She stared at me a moment and said, “Leighton, you have a chance to actually win this. I want to see you try.”
“I’m going to write an essay. I just didn’t write the introductory paragraph by itself. I’ll do my best to win.”
I heard a little derisive laugh from my right. The Object of My Affection (who once laughed too much at a self-deprecating joke I made), flipped her blond curls and exclaimed, “I didn’t have any trouble doing my best on the assignment or turning it in on time.”
I seethed. I may have been infatuated with OoMA, but she seriously annoyed me (no, I still don’t know why I was nuts about her). I wanted desperately to say something bitingly, wittily scathing. Sadly, I could only glare at her.
I eventually wrote the essay because I also thought I had a shot at winning. I took all the information CEMC gave and basically regurgitated it wholesale in sections. I constructed a narrative framework that tied the informative sections together. It was an interesting piece of work. I wrote it in second person and it involved a darkened room slowly gaining light which revealed a large electrical cord with a larger plug. The room lightened more after each section of information (you know, subtly). The light eventually revealed that the cord was attached to the reader (nice bit of body horror there). The essay ended with a repetition of my essay’s title and the theme of the contest: “plug in to your future.”
The day came to hand in our submissions. My teacher made sure I passed one forward. As I did, OoMA asked me, “So, how do you think you did?”
Here’s the thing about her. In high school she had the annoying habit of asking how you did on something so she could tell you how she did and how it was usually better than your effort. I thought about her comment when the introductory paragraphs were due and the time she laughed too much, and something tiny just snapped in me. I did my best to plug in to her worst fear.
“I won,” I said, almost nonchalantly.
“You asked me how I did. I told you. I won.”
She started to get a little irritated herself and said, “You can’t know that. Anyone could win.”
“Anyone could win,” I retorted, “but I will win.”
“You are so egotistical.”
“No, in this case, I’m simply right. I just handed in the winning essay for Montgomery County and I’m going to D.C. Deal with it.”
She huffed and crossed her arms. We tended to have the same effect on each other. I relished my petty victory for just a moment. Then the sinking feeling set in. I probably wouldn’t win. I have no idea how many junior high school students were in the county at the time, but I doubted I could best them all in an essay contest. Even my sophomore English teacher told me my writing would never amount to anything, so what chance did I have in so large a population. My petty victory now hollowed, I sat and faced forward, not daring to catch OoMA’s eye.
Later, I allowed myself to plug in to my fantasies of winning. I would downplay it as much as possible around OoMA because I was still nuts about her. I imagined the trip over the summer as an opportunity to get away from everything that plagued me at school. And there was even another petty victory to be had. I would make sure my sophomore English teacher knew I won which proved my writing did amount to something.
The contest outcome? The unthinkable happened. I won. I learned that one afternoon I went to get the mail and found an envelope from CEMC addressed to me. I opened it, read it quickly, and dashed back down our long driveway.
At school I really did try to downplay it all around OoMA, but people asked questions, which I answered. She often walked quickly away. I felt bad (and just a little vindicated). I also played out my fantasy and took a copy of the letter to my sophomore English teacher. I walked into her classroom during her planning period. I ignored her as she sat at her desk and carefully placed a copy of the letter on her podium. I made a big deal about smoothing it out, smiled at her, and walked away. Petty victories shouldn’t taste so sweet.
Of course, anytime you start to think a little too much of yourself, you will inevitably fall. I didn’t flaunt the win as much as OoMA claimed I did, but I was very pleased with myself. My fall came in Virginia where the Tennessee delegation stopped for the night. I didn’t know a single soul on the trip. This was wonderful as it meant no one knew me either. I was free to be myself without any of the baggage and rumors that accumulated over the years.
Several of us lunged beside the pool when a girl from East Tennessee (way east Tennessee) approached me.
“Is your name Leighton?”
“Yeah,” I figured the three other guys in my room put her up to “noticing” me, “why?”
“I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Funny. I’ve never heard of you.”
“Can I ask you a question?” She moved close to me. Very close. I became acutely aware that an attractive girl, wearing a bathing suit, was leaning in toward me.
“Sure, I guess,” I stammered.
“It’s kind of personal,” she said as she leaned even closer. She put her hand on my shoulder and continued, “I don;t want to say it out loud.”
“Okay.” I managed.
“Is it true you only have one?”
“Wait, what?” I jumped back.
“You know, just one. The reason they call you Uno.”
I reeled. It seemed however far away I was, I was still plugged in to all the insecurities of home.