This Is How It Started

I was teaching school (the day job) and coaching the quiz bowl team (the fun, non-paying job). It was my second year coaching the BKHS team, and we were coming off a banner year. My team had flipped from three male starters with one lone female to its mirror image, thanks to pesky things like graduation.

That second year, we won more than one game because we had three devastatingly attractive young women as starters who looked like they had just stepped out of a Seventeen spread. (Do they even print Seventeen anymore? Hmm. I had subscriptions to YM and Sassy, myself.) It was enough to stop most (predominantly male, as is the norm) quiz bowl teams in their tracks. And that, of course, allowed our team to lay the smack down and take an early lead while dazzling the opposition with our deadly beauty and brains combo. (I’m trying so hard right now not to use the phrase “girl power,” because I suspect the young women to whom I’m referring would probably find it unseemly and inappropriate.)

We faced the Benton High School team several times at invitational tournaments early on in that competitive cycle, and they whipped us every time. Now, this was a team that was physically our opposite: three boys and one girl. I once saw this team throw a bonus round in which it was called upon to identify four members of the Backstreet Boys on “the principle of the thing” (Read: quiz bowl cred. And yes, there is such a thing. Shut up.) despite the fact that the team actually had all the information needed to take a significant lead going into the third quarter of a close game.

The Benton team was something of a thorn in our side. They were good. They were solid. They had been playing since elementary. And they were from a much larger school with a much larger intellectual pool from which to draw. My team captain and her second-in-command, meanwhile, had been recruited at the beginning of their senior year. And to complicate matters, my literature guru and the Benton captain had started making eyes at each other.

Things got tense. I don’t care how many episodes of Friday Night Lights you see, you will never witness competition among high school students so highly charged as among quiz bowlers. We’re talking challenge upon challenge upon challenge, and all of it is copyrighted, documented, and known beyond a shadow of a doubt by someone who’s still a minor. But academic competition is both cut-throat and commiserative. Teams fight to the death in a match, and then they meet up in the echoing hallways of schools that should be barren on Saturday afternoons so they can clue one another in on helpful hints for the next match, like the Heloise’s of academia.

At any rate, my lit gal started long-distance dating the star player of the Benton team. One day her frustration at our lack of measurable improvement and her desire to be 80 miles away with her boyfriend was palpable. I don’t remember exactly what happened. We probably forgot who invented Coke (Pemberton) or what number potassium is on the periodic table (19) or who wrote Silent Spring (Rachel Carson) for the millionth time. It ended in a mini kersplosion. “God,” she muttered. “I wish I was on the Benton team.”

Our captain was dumbfounded. She was straight-laced, focused, and didn’t find much of anything funny. But her academic indignance and acumen emerged and she spat, “You’d never make it on the Benton team! You’d just be an innocent bystander!”

I don’t know why, but it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. A few years later, “Innocent Bystander” was the name I chose for this (mostly crappy) blog.


See, this is why I don’t write stories or tell jokes. I can do a great set up, but the ending/punchline always sucks. Stupid inverted pyramid.

Edited to add that this post refers to the old blog called Innocent Bystander.

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