If I had to pick a theme for this whole Jeopardy! saga, it would be redemption.
I first tried out for the show when I was in 8th grade. Back then, though, I was still homeschooled. Suffice it to say I was the most socially awkward little thirteen-year-old this side of the Mississippi (and certainly the youngest person to don a sweater from Coldwater Creek). No wonder I didn’t make it on the show.
That same year, the spelling bee happened. I’d competed in the local homeschool spelling bee a few times before. In fourth grade, I got first place in the grade level and subsequently lost to the fifth grade winner, who went on to the county level. Seventh grade, I got second in my level. But eighth grade was where ish got real. I ended up winning the middle school title, winning the county bee, and going to the regional level (which, back then, was one level below the National Spelling Bee).
I muffed “stalag” and “plumicorn.” It haunted me for months.
It sounds pathetic, I know, but the thing was that I didn’t know how to lose. Never mind the fact that I was coming off two victories – I’d basically spent my entire life being sheltered from competition (note: in no way am I blaming this on my mother, because homeschooling was genuinely the right thing for me for a good long while). I never had the experience of going to elementary school and not being the teacher’s pet, or not getting the most gold stars, or being picked last for teams in gym class (which I would’ve been, let’s be real). It literally didn’t compute with me that I could genuinely lose at something.
Public school was the start of a sea change for me in both those respects. Ninth grade was one big social-skills immersion class. I got a lot better at not being awkward really quickly, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been a continuous process. It really has. I still cringe at some of the ridiculous stuff I said and did as a senior in high school. (To be honest, the whole thing’s a bit dreamlike now. Remembering high school is almost an out-of-body experience, like I was sleepwalking the whole time and didn’t notice until later.) It was a big lesson in learning how to not be the best, too. I spent high school not being ranked #1 in the class, getting salutatorian rather than valedictorian, and losing to Broken Arrow in marching band competitions more times than I could count. I thought all that had taught me my lesson, and it certainly helped. I got one more kick in the pants, though, in the form of organic chemistry. Gen chem came super-naturally to me, so I thought ochem would be the same way. LOL NOPE. My GPA didn’t end up dipping as a result of that rude awakening, but I definitely had a lot of near-meltdowns and brutally honest self-reflection moments.
When I got The Call, it was closure for me in one sense. I felt like I’d finally shed my awkward-homeschooler skin – enough, at least, for the almighty Maggie Speak to deem me fit for national TV.
And then I lost my semifinal game.
That morning in the green room, when Tucker, Laurie, and I found out we were playing each other, we all just went oh. We had all bonded really quickly, thanks to Tucker’s bow ties, and at that point I definitely felt closest to the two of them. So to find out that only one of us could advance was a little crushing. We all wanted everyone to win.
Thirty seconds later, pretty much simultaneously, we were okay with it. We decided we were going to be happy no matter what the results were, just because we liked each other that much.
Thing was, it was a darn good game. Tucker, Laurie, and I all had really close scores at the end of DJ. I didn’t make rash guesses. I got the Phillis Wheatley question. Sure, I botched the Leviticus clue, but I didn’t bet enough on it for it to ultimately matter. And it didn’t really matter that I put Roget instead of Webster for Final Jeopardy!, because Tucker got the question right. Math-wise, I was screwed either way. Besides, I have to admire the poetic justice of second-guessing myself in FJ after Sarah did exactly the same thing in quarterfinals.
But honestly, the game itself wasn’t the important part to me. I got to play with two people I genuinely liked, and I definitely felt more relaxed because of it (which is why I talked slower in my interview!). It was an honor to lose to Tucker. It would have been an honor to lose to Laurie. I love them both to bits, and I’m so glad I can count them among my friends. And I’m glad I can say the same for the other contestants as well. During the other semifinal games and both finals games, I got to be part of the most supportive audience ever. We cheered loudly for everyone. We supported everyone. Our Facebook group has been incredibly lively ever since its creation. We constantly do Google hangouts. Two days after we all got back to our respective homes, we started talking about reunions.
The ten grand I won will help pay for grad school, and that’s great. But what’s even greater, to me, is that I came away from this experience with some of the best friends I’ll ever have.
That’s the other thing, the other bit of closure for me. Thirteen-year-old me wouldn’t have bonded so much with the others. Thirteen-year-old me would have seen them as rivals. But now, in my current regeneration (if you will), they’re my dear, dear friends. This character arc of mine, this long and painfully awkward journey to some form of maturity, ended in about the best way possible.
I can’t wait to see where my story takes me next.