I always got the shakes before I did it.
Now, you might think that comparing a geography bee to a planetary assault from Starship Troopers might be stretching the point. But I’m telling you—an auditorium full of screaming ten year olds and all those pairs of eyes with their hopes riding on you—it feels like combat. At this point it’s not about the tallest mountain in America or the competition or anything else. Your knees can’t help but shake at the weight of expectation that all of these little people are putting on your back.
My mind couldn’t help but think back to those memories when I read that the United States just won the International Math Olympiad. Congratulations are in order. This is the first time in twenty-one years that our country has managed something like this.
This victory represents the best of America, in a very real sense. Just look at guys on the team; Shyam Narayanan, Yang Liu Patil, Ryan Alweiss, Allen Liu, and David Stoner. To me, this group represents a mélange of peoples embodying the old motto, “out of many, one.” Bonus points for Yang Liu Patil who has a Chinese-American mother and an Indian-American father.
Fantastic. But I’ve participated in this kind of childhood gladiator contest at a much lower level and I remember the not-so-good things. The hours spent during lunch in the library by myself, going over past questions. Competition of this kind is an incredibly lonely thing.
But what if they had lost? How would their young minds cope with letting so many people down? I know I didn’t fare too well. I went to the bathroom…and cried for fifteen minutes straight. And all those guys who were cheering for me back then? Well, they had better things to do than to hang out with me. Even my homeroom teacher—who had previously thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread—gave me the cold shoulder. No matter what people say—the human mind worships winners and shuns losers. Imagine coming to that sobering conclusion when you’re ten.
Thankfully, the American team was victorious. I hope that they have effective family structures and support networks to care for them. What a tragedy if their greatest victory in life is the Math Olympiad and the rest of their lives are just a replay of Bobby Fischer’s.
After the congratulations and the parties are long over, we cannot as a country ignore the mental development of these kids. The world was built on the backs of young men such as these. In our moment of triumph, perhaps we can acknowledge their sacrifices. Furthermore, we must ensure that they realize their full potential as healthy adults who are able to enjoy life.