The lights glared into my eyes as I gazed across the sea of glazed pupils, minds no doubt anywhere but here. Behind me wasn’t much better, the back of the massive stage threatening to swallow me up. I sat down on the edge, unsure of what to do with myself.
No, this is dumb.
I stood back up. Then the second and third-place winners finally walked up to join me. We just stood there, focused on our respective rewards. I cradled my first-place trophy in my hands, anxiety slowly giving way to rare satisfaction. This was the summer I would have something to take with me, something that would stand long after the papers had been discarded, the photos faded. Interrupting our slow dance, my English teacher called me over and asked for my trophy. Maybe she wanted to check something? I knew there was nothing to check but did as she said. She also called over the second-place winner.
She switched the trophies.
I took the second-place trophy—as if I were holding someone else’s baby for them—and waited, thinking at some point she’d switch them back. She would, right? I won. I knew I did. Certainly, my trophy would come back to me.
After the ceremony ended, I told my mom what happened. She went straight to the program directors, but it was too late by then. The real second-place winner had already gone home. The following summer, I heard the teacher had been fired. As if it mattered. Had mom been able to make it to the ceremony, her voice would no doubt have pierced through the lull of the crowd. But my mine was gone.
I had allowed myself to be robbed.
My summers in elementary and middle school were pretty much set: I would put on my gold T-shirt with black lettering and walk with my mom to the public school that hosted summer camp for the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture. I remember the snare drums being cool for a while because of Drum Line. I remember being a flag girl, then getting myself kicked off the squad for a really dumb reason. I remember a cool group leader named Chris, who didn’t know what my voice sounded like for weeks. I remember the lunches lovingly packed from home that spoiled because I seemed like the only one who brought lunch to school.
Like my elementary and middle schools, that school on St. John’s Place was predominantly black. “Being black”, at least physically, that should not have come as anything. In fact, I did enjoy the activities offered over the summer and during the school year by the JRC. It gave me somewhere to be, and a space to understand what I liked and what I didn’t. However, it had always been clear to me that I was different. Looking at pictures taken during morning walks with mom past the quiet homes dotting Eastern Parkway, I saw a girl who wanted permission from her peers to be herself.
I wore glasses. The geeky ones that insurance providers purposely picked to make a child’s life hell (I wish this girl could see the people happily paying hundreds for them now). I wasn’t concerned about the latest fashion. It wasn’t like I had beauty going on for me. Perhaps the biggest betrayal to the culture was that I spoke “like a white girl”. By the summer of 2001, I knew that academic success was my only option. My chance would come in the form of a spelling bee that was introduced in English class.
All I have to do is study a list of words and spell them correctly? I am all over it.
I poured over the list at home and crushed my opponents in class. Not that there was much competition anyway. As I rose up the ranks, I felt the warm, addictive glow of pride. Here was something that I was good at. I didn’t have to sing; I didn’t have to be pretty; I didn’t have to have a parent on the PTA board; I didn’t have to buy Chinese food for the whole neighborhood. All I had to do was work harder than anyone else. This was my thing. This was my moment.
I’m spelling “boisterous” and you’re spelling “crawl” with a “q”? Come on!
I do admit that I got cocky. Not in-your-face cocky, but oh-you-think-you’re-miss-thing-huh cocky. Clearly that bothered my English teacher, and she would think nothing of showing me that later. I knew I had won before the ceremony on the last day of summer camp, so naturally I walked into the auditorium expecting my first-place trophy. I don’t know why I let it happen: why I watched something wrong happen in front of my eyes—to me—and did nothing. The program directors said nothing. The other winners said nothing. Did they not see it? Maybe, with the ever-widening distance between the other kids and me, it just didn’t matter. Let the popular guy from my elementary school get an ego boost, I guess. I walked home the same way I always did, only with a trophy that didn’t belong to me weighing me down.
I would go on to not do a lot of things. I didn’t enter a spelling bee again until college. I didn’t buy that twin fox plush during a trip in 6th grade, the height of my fox craze. I didn’t point out to my dad that walking right beside us was the 4th grade classmate and crush who had punched me in the face the day before.
I did go on to win other trophies. A sea of trophies that were earned sit next to the TV in the living room with one blemish: that substitute that had no business being there. It was my only proof of participation, the spelling list long gone. Yet the gold and sparkles burned me every time I moved the trophy or wiped dust off the faint marker and whiteout over “2nd”.
While I watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the room I shared with my parents, on the phone with friends at the 5th grade prom, I wasn’t bitter. But searching online through the severely limited spelling bees for adults, I wondered what could have been. What would have happened if I had walked home with mom that day, safeguarding my first-place trophy? What if the Crown Heights landscape blurred past as I stayed on that high of confidence, rather than the low of despair? Would I have walked on a way bigger stage than the one at summer camp, with bright lights and lined seats, miles away from St. John’s Place, and had this exchange on TV?
“Hello, Dr. Bailey.”
“Your word is…”
Would winning a spelling bee be the way I paid off all my college expenses instead of only my graduate school enrollment fee? Would more trophies follow? I don’t even know if my trophy is in the vicinity of Brooklyn anymore. Maybe it’s a dusty, old antique in his mother’s house. Maybe it’s in a landfill somewhere. I’ve taken care of his trophy. Is mine even an afterthought to him? Who even remembers that day anymore? Why does it even matter?
The text has faded away.
Picking up the second-place trophy from the recently reorganized living room, I glided my fingers across the text. Holding this relic of the past with somewhat legible black print, did it even matter? Did I need a trophy to prove anything? I know what I did. I was there! I beat all those kids fairly. Anyway, besides me, and mom, who remembers everything I participated in, who even remembers the spelling bee? Would having the first-place trophy even make a difference in the long run? It’s not like it could be a bargaining chip for a higher salary. Since it doesn’t matter, I should throw it away.
No, leave it.
It represents a perfectly preventable moment that happened because I refused to say anything. This pattern has repeated itself, with the cashier that rang the wrong price, the people who undermined my major, the suggestions on how I should live my life. I’ve seen women and girls who look like me have no problem pointing out anything dissatisfactory. Every day I hear their voices demanding better-looking biscuits at Popeye’s, detailing the nail designs they want, calling out anyone on the train for pushing them. And you can be sure they would not have given up their first-place trophies. When will it be my turn to speak?
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