In my life I have only been unerringly good at one thing, and that was English MACC. “MACC” stood for “Mountain Academic Competition Conference,” and “English” designated the subject matter of which I – a four-time MACC champion – was master.
“It was like Quiz Bowl,” is what I’ve mumbled, wanting to change the subject, on the few occasions I’ve tried to explain MACC in my adult life. But that’s not true. It wasn’t like Quiz Bowl. There were teams and buzzers, sure, but MACC was all about possessing narrow expertise. You had to be a hedgehog, not a fox.
English MACC worked like this: at the start of the academic year, team members received the List, a document containing the titles and authors of fifty-two (or maybe fifty-four?) works of literature. The bulk of these were poems, short stories, and essays, but there were also eight or ten novels and a similar number of plays. Every year, a few titles were added and a few cycled out. Matches between area high schools were held in the winter and spring, on Mondays, and culminated in a bracket-style championship tournament and Superbowl in which champion MACCers from different regions faced off.
The first half of an English MACC match consisted of a number of questions directed at two competing teams. If Team A missed their question, Team B got a shot. The second half was a buzzer round. And the best questions, the ones I lived for, always began: “Name the source and the author of the following quotation…”
“He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain –”
BZZZZ. A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Bring it.
“Reader, I forgave him at the moment and on the spot. There was such a deep remorse in his–”
BZZZZ. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Bring it harder.
“Oh, the carnage of August–!”
BZZZZ. “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote. I MYSELF AM BRINGING IT.
“Cannon to r–”
BZZZZ. “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Come on come on come on COME ON.
“So we b–”
BZZZZ. The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald. Yes.
I’d get pretty worked up, and the more questions I got right, the louder and more incoherent my inner monologue would become. I tended to channel my aggression at the luckless individual – usually a school administrator – stuck at the podium reading the questions I was determined to interrupt. I couldn’t channel it at the other team. I couldn’t think about the other team.
In spite of the feelings of exuberance and aggression and sheer happy winningness that would well up after a few successful buzz-ins, I was usually scared to death up there with my buzzer. The fear never really went away, even after it became clear that our team, FCHS, was almost unbeatable. (We did lose, once, in a Superbowl meet my junior year. Mercifully, I remember very little about the actual match, but I remember we went to Fazoli’s afterwards, where one of my teammates gave me a rose her boyfriend had given her, because, in that moment, I “needed it more.”)
There were other kinds of questions – about plot, motivation, character (“What reason does Leper Lepellier give for joining the ski corps?”). There were a few questions about grammar. Once we nearly lost a championship match because the answer written on the judge’s sheet was wrong. The question was whether “dancing to communicate their food sources” was being used as gerund or a participle in a long sentence about bees. Our coach (the inimitable Ms. Martin, a true-blue English teacher who always wanted me to read something off the MACC list, to my very great irritation) knew that the answer we had given was correct, and insisted that we challenge the judge’s ruling. We won.
I liked my teammates. My best friend Nicole was on the team; she was two years older and her friendship meant that the other older girls accepted me. (My rural Virginia high school went from eighth to twelfth grade, and being an eighth-grader was pretty awful.) By the time I had become one of the older girls – and we were all girls – the team had grown big and jolly; we weren’t all close, but we had fun at practice, and on long bumpy bus rides to away matches at other high schools. Much as I liked my teammates, at heart I didn’t care about teamwork. I cared about naming the source and the author of the following quotation. Ms. Martin, who must have found me frustrating, would sometimes make me sit out the first round of a match, so that other girls could play free of my intensity and scowling and bossiness. But the buzzer round was all mine. Until I was a senior, at least, when my little sister – who is about a million times smarter than me – joined the team, and I reached a degree of crazed competitiveness that only graduation could finally halt.
Years later, when I had graduated not only from high school but college, I went to a party in Brooklyn, and a boy yelled out my name, the whole thing, first and last. I didn’t know who he was, but he knew who I was. He came from my part of Virginia, which is rare enough, and he’d been on a Social Studies MACC team in a different high school. He’d seen me play. He was impressed, but above all, he was tickled to be talking to me. Reader, maybe I should have married him. I don’t remember his name now, but that encounter gave me the greatest feeling. How often do you meet someone who has been dazzled by you at your shining best?
Being a champion took its toll. In the early years, I would get so nervous before a match that my stomach would ache horribly and my hands would shake. I’d read in The Roanoke Times that smiling decreases pain, so I’d potter around school all day trying to smile – gray-faced, fingers trembling, bent over nearly double, teeth bared in a hideous approximation of a grin. I was also usually “dressed up” for a match, which meant, in those days, a flower-print J.C. Penney dress worn (sensibly) with hiking boots and thick white socks. Since I was only thirteen when all this started, there was some talk of cheating. But I wasn’t cheating. I had simply found that I could read the same fifty-two, or maybe fifty-four, works of literature, over and over and over, without getting bored. And that was really all it took.
The fact is I didn’t have anything else going on. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t get cast in school plays. I didn’t do particularly well at other extracurriculars. (I treated high school debate as it should be treated: an excuse to stay up late in the Charlottesville Howard Johnson’s with Nicole – who was my debate partner, too – and take long road-trips to regional meets with Miss T, the team coach, who let us wave at the truckers as we sped down the highway and introduced us to the inimitable joys of listening to CCR late at night on the road.) My hometown was a lonely place for a literary kid – and I didn’t even live in town. MACC was the center of my world, which sounds sad, but really wasn’t.
There have been lasting benefits. I have read Jane Eyre so many times that – though I don’t by any stretch have it “memorized” – when I pick it up, it feels worn and familiar, and I often know what the next word is going to be. (Unfortunately this is also true of the unforgivably mopey but pretty well-written A Separate Peace, scenes from which sometimes scroll through my mind’s eye without permission.) When I lived in California, I’d sometimes turn on the radio to find “Selected Shorts” playing, and I’d yell out the source and the author to impress (or annoy) my husband: “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs! “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence! “Through the Tunnel” by Doris Lessing! Turning on the radio and hearing those stories was like seeing an old friend I hadn’t thought about in years but still really knew, from way back when.
Some texts elude me, though. For whatever reason, I could never remember much of JFK’s famous Inauguration speech, and I never buzzed in when it was quoted. Julius Caesar has been reduced, in my memory, to one quiet moment, the farewell between Brutus and Cassius: If we do meet again, why we shall smile / If not, why then, this parting was well made. Others come back in even smaller fragments. There’s a Carson McCullers essay on loneliness and being American that begins something like, “Consider this city, New York – consider the people in it, the eight million of us.” I don’t remember the name of the essay, or what comes next. But since moving back to the city this summer, alone and without my radio or my books or, for that matter, my husband, I’ve been rolling that line around my head. The way you roll a pebble around in your hand. Absentmindedly, for comfort.