As I reflect on my high-school years as a very newly diagnosed Aspie, one particular activity brings about a mixed bag of emotions – a small bit of elation, but mostly dread, embarrassment, and until very recently, toxic shame.
Those of you out there reading my blog who just so happened to have lived in the Abilene, Texas area between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s no doubt remember the KTXS “Academic Challenge” – a high school academic competition featuring four-member teams from high schools in the surrounding area. For my other readers, the name of the game was very simple – outsmart your opponents in a trivial-pursuit kind of game, except instead of pop culture the topics are high-school level in a variety of subjects. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins and advances to the next round of a single-elimination bracket.
I represented my high school in the competition for two years – my Freshman and Junior years (I skipped my Sophomore year and graduated high school in just three years). My Freshman year we didn’t do so hot, getting knocked out in the first round (though to be fair, our team consisted of me, one Sophomore and two Juniors – the opposing team consisted of all seniors). Upon learning this, I fully expected us to get our asses handed to us, but we played a good game and wound up losing by a mere 20 points (10 points per correct answer).
Outcome aside, the host of the show (who was also the nightly news anchor for the station at that time) seemed to be entertained by my quirkiness, saying it added a bit of “freshness” to the game (which, to spectators, otherwise seems pretty boring). No doubt the nerves of being taped in front of a studio audience for subsequent broadcast got to me, making it almost impossible to mask my newly-diagnosed Asperger’s. In a way, the experience allowed me to be more “me” for a lack of a better term. Despite the crushing loss (had one of my teammates beat his direct opponent to the buzzer on a single question, we’d have won the match), it felt good to just let myself be who I was, regardless of what those who watched the program on the air the following weekend thought.
My Junior year, it was a little different. I was still the youngest person on my team, though our team consisted of three Juniors and one senior, so we were much more seasoned this time around. We drew the very first taping of the season, so we didn’t have much time to size up the field, but here we were. We went into the studio, took our place on the set (which is much smaller in real life than what it looks like on TV), and did all the pre-taping checks before the host arrived. Of course, the host immediately remembered me and bantered briefly with me before the taping began).
We absolutely crushed our first-round opponents in what ultimately wasn’t much of a game, though there were a few funny moments in there where the host poked fun at my weirdness, all in good fun. The first one was a vocabulary question, which was a double stumper for both my opponent and me – “What is the definition of the word ‘loquacious?'” As neither of us rang in and answered correctly within the 5-second time limit, the host revealed the answer (very talkative), turned and looked to me, and playfully said “which is EXACTLY what you are!” I retorted with a light-hearted “I’m offended!!!” (I wasn’t really, but I’d never been described that way because of my typical quietness, which I now know was a result of my attempt to mask my Asperger’s/Autistic oddities). The other was on a math question, which I slammed my pencil down in disgust at being “this” close to the correct answer when the allotted 15 seconds ran out. The host giggled and went “Frustration!!!”
The second-round game was unmemorable, other than to say we won a nail-biter against our second-round opponents, in a game we should have decimated them. We were all off our game that night, but I was especially so for some reason. I was also less animated that night (maybe from self-conscience, maybe from being more used to being video-taped, or maybe it was just an astrological transit for all I know).
Alas, that boring, unmemorable game was the last game of Academic Challenge I would ever play, despite our team having advanced to round three (the quarterfinal round) and having one more year of eligibility. As we were the first of two tapings that night, I stayed behind to watch the second taping as we would be playing against the winner of the second taping in the third round. Much to my chagrin, the winners of the second taping absolutely destroyed their opponents in a big way, winning by an almost 300 point margin. I wasn’t surprised – the losing team was a very small high school with only a small pool to select a team from, whereas the winning team was the 2nd largest school in the competition with a huge talent pool to choose from. My team? Also a small school. There was no way we were going to win our third round match against this juggernaut.
So the Friday before tape day (which was Monday, as every tape day before), we have a team meeting to see who all can be there. Knowing I wanted no part of the embarrassment of going down in flames against this big school team, I made up some lie to get out of it (I forget what it was, but it might have been confirmation classes as I was going through them at the time to be confirmed an Episcopalian). I turned my school uniform shirt over to our alternate (a sophomore) who would take my place during the third-round match.
Of course, to be consistent with my story, I could not attend the third round taping, so I have no idea what went on during the taping. I didn’t even watch the match when it aired a few weekends later. I just remember looking at the posted score in the bracket the Tuesday morning after the taping and having my fears confirmed – the score was 320-40.
That wasn’t where the fallout ended though; it had only started. Apparently one of my teammates fact-checked my story, which turned out to be an obvious fabrication (what church teaches confirmation classes on Monday evenings, after all?), and I got called to the carpet. I finally came clean about why I didn’t want to play that game – I didn’t want the embarrassment of losing in such dramatic fashion (by this time the development of my inner Narcissus was well underway, and I could not stand to be embarrassed or to lose in this way as I had a very competitive streak), so I’d rather have just not played the game.
Upon finding this nugget of information out, the returning team members for the next year, as well as the team coach, made it very clear that I was not welcome on the team for what would have been my Senior year season.
Looking back now, with fresher lenses, I realize that it was a mistake to abandon my team like that, and that there was less honor in bowing out versus going down fighting. I let my fear get the better of me, and I let my inflating ego (i.e. developing Narcissism) get in the way of doing the honorable thing. In my defense, I had been bullied in both the home and at school for being different for 17 years at this point, so I couldn’t handle another psychological injury. Despite this, on some level I carried around a deep level of shame over it until this past weekend. I was finally able to release that shame with the help of Lisa A. Romano’s guided meditation on healing toxic shame (highly recommended – check it out here).
This time last week, I would not have been able to write this post. That’s how ashamed I was and had been all this time, over this even 17 years later. The fact I can now talk about it freely and openly say what I would have chosen to do differently if I could have a do-over speaks volumes to the power of meditation in releasing toxic shame. Releasing it was a big step in what I hope to be an ultimate recovery from a narcissistic personality pattern (which is often rooted in excessive shame under the hood), and toward self-acceptance of my Asperger’s/Autistic operating system.
So there’s that. That actually felt good to talk about. I can now reflect fondly on the three games I played in the KTXS Academic Challenge, and remember that when I let my hair down and allowed myself to be me, that I was most content and some people like me just as I am with no mask. There was obviously a lesson in there, one I hadn’t seen until just now.
In conclusion, I’d like to say this to my former teammates, if they are reading this post: I am truly sorry for abandoning you that night. I really would do it differently if I had the chance. I ask your forgiveness, and maybe some day over gluten-free pizza and wine we can reflect and reminisce about the competition (which ceased production sometime around 2006 or 2007). The invitation is open for whoever wants in.