My senior year in high school was a time of great awakening for me. More than ever, I was certain that I was destined to become a Great American Author if not The Greatest and sincerely believed it was only a matter of time until my star would rise. Of course, all this certainty also meant that I could be a real arrogant prick when it came to my skill as a writer. I believed I was better than most everyone, certainly better than any of my lowly teenage peers.
However, this inflated ego of mine would soon begin to depressurize as the realities of life began to knock me down, one deflating peg at a time.
The Poetry Slam
In my Honors English 4 class, our instructor set up a weekly poetry slam in which every student would compete through multiple levels of popularity-based competition to crown a new winner. How it worked, and I’m paraphrasing my own poor memory here, is that each student would prepare three poems every week. We would each read our first poem in front of the class out loud. A good number of students wrote intentionally poor or joking (what we would now call memeing) poems in an attempt to intentionally disqualify themselves from further competition/public performance.
Each student would vote for their favorite three poems (I could be really wrong about the numbers, but you get the gist) and the top six(?) would move onto the next round. Another round would ensue and then a top 3 would advance to the final round. Of course, a lot of it was a popularity contest, a lot of it was who could out-shock the competition. However, us being in an Honors English class in a magnet high school meant that a good number of us were actually literary nerds to some degree so a certain amount of poetic chops could indeed sway the vote.
Now anyone that knows me knows that I absolutely despise any sort of public speaking or really doing anything that draws the attention of multiple people to my words or actions. However, this rule becomes exempt when it comes to challenges involving my self-worth as a writer/poet, when it comes to opportunities to display my prowess. At least, that was my mindset back then. So when it came to this weekly poetry slam, two things happened.
- I found out I was good enough to win.
- I found out I really enjoyed winning and thus continued to win.
I don’t know if I won EVERY time we had a slam but I was almost always in the top three and I won enough that I was seen by my fellow poets (those who actually attempted to compete) as the one to beat.
Ironically enough, this all came to a head on what I believe was the last poetry slam before the end of the school year (and graduation). I remember vividly standing up in front of the class with my composition notebook in hand. This being the final round of the final slam, I had saved (what I believed to be) the very best work I had done for this last contest.
A quick word about the quality of my poetry during high school: it was most likely shit. I can’t say for certain because it has all long since been destroyed but fret not, it was definitely not worth posterity. And while I definitely cannot remember any specific lines, I know a lot of it was either trashily-written love/romance/innuendo-filled tripe meant to elicit a response from my teenage audience OR extremely pretentious flowery word vomit that didn’t really mean anything but sounded good enough to pass for something meaningful. If my memory serves, my final entry was that of the latter variety, and I remember being quite proud of it at the time.
So there I was, I had just finished reading my masterpiece, taking the time to speak with a proper cadence for what may or may not have been some sort of riff on a sonnet complete with a rhyming couplet at the end. With only one competitor left, I was certain I had this final competition in the bag. The girl who followed me, we’ll call her Charlotte, was one of my main adversaries throughout these slams. Though my reading had garnered a fair amount of applause from the room, looking back, I realize that the hushed anticipation that preceded Charlotte’s recitation hung far heavier than the tepid clapping that mine had produced.
The room sought a new winner. My brand had become tired, predictable. Although, at the time I had full faith that I would secure this final (if meaningless) victory.
I can recall distinctly looking on smugly as Charlotte opened her mouth to speak, the single sheet of loose leaf paper held carelessly in one hand, her expression already that of defeat. To this day I can’t be sure if her next move was that of the utmost genius calculation or that of pure exasperation. Whatever the case may be, when the last word left her lips and she unceremoniously dropped the paper to her side, the room immediately erupted in jubilation. It was clear I had lost.
As I mentioned, my own high school works are more or less lost to the winds of time. No question about it. However, the poem that Charlotte produced, that which had so utterly defeated me, I can remember with perfect clarity.
This… will disappoint you.
Four words, six syllables, and I had been completely undone.
If you haven’t already noticed, this is a story of male fragility, mine to be exact. A story about how my fragile male ego was shattered by a girl in high school. Not very original, I know. And… as I type this next part out, though I know I’ve taken this experience and have learned from it, I really still hold on to that fragility.
I was sincerely impressed with Charlotte in the moment, any anger I felt was directed at myself for not seeing the forest through the trees. The simple, straightforward honesty of her work stood in such stark contrast to my overwrought words that I completely accepted my loss the moment it became apparent.
But that doesn’t mean I forgot it.
Anyone who knows me personally might also know that I have a problem with holding grudges. I hold onto them tight and hold them for a long, long time. Sometimes unendingly. In this instance though, I never held ill-will towards Charlotte or my fellow students – the prize that day was rightfully won. No, the only one I held a grudge against in that moment was myself.
And this is where it gets embarrassing.
So every week, after the winners of the slam were determined, our teacher (whose name like so many other details from that time elude me) presented us with a choice of small prizes to choose from. They were usually little knickknacky items, not worth more than a dollar or two, the type of stuff you’d pick up from a gift shop bin. In any case, the winner would get first choice of prize with the runner-up and the third place winner choosing afterwards in sequence.
And it’s not that any of the prizes were really that much better than the others, it was all mostly a matter of pride.
Where it really gets sad is that I can succinctly remember what prize I picked. And I can remember because I carried it around for years afterwards on my person as a reminder to stay humble, to stay honest, to stay as far as humanly possible from the interior of my own ass.
What’s really pathetic is that I can remember exactly what that second-place prize is because I still carry it, to this day, not on my everyday person, but in a safe place, like a little non-trophy trophy.
Honestly, I only stopped carrying it around because the little plastic bit at the top for the key ring broke off.