My name is Paul Liston. Seventeen years old. Senior at Northwestern High, an insignificant school in a town that’s just big enough to make the atlases. There are tens of thousands of people just like me. I sit across from a few hundred of them, in fact.
Of course, most of those people aren’t presently speeding towards school hours before they actually have to be there, all to participate in a ritual they despise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
High school is strange in many ways. No matter how much society mutates, no matter how the trends change, high school remains more or less the same. It hasn’t changed all that much since my parents were my age, and I imagine it’ll be the same when I’m well into senility. There’s a certain hierarchy in high school that resists all attempts at change or reform. No one acknowledges it, but everyone who grew up in this country recognizes it. It’s like a cross between feudal Europe and some sort of sci-fi dystopian novel – we all have our place, and we are powerless to resist.
There’s a myth about people not fitting in during adolescence. We all fit in somewhere, it’s just that most of us don’t like where we fit in. The people at the top – the popular kids, the rich kids, the trendsetters – are perfectly happy, of course. So are the entertainers – the athletes, musicians, and pranksters – all of whom have their own special roles to fill. Far beneath them are the misfits, the poor bastards who look different or act different, who come from the wrong families, have the wrong friends or just have rotten luck. They have a place too, it’s just not a happy one.
But I’m not the cool kid, or the funny kid, or the bad kid. I’m the smart kid. I’ve always been the smart kid, as long as I can remember. That’s what they used to call me – There goes that smart Liston kid, I’d hear in the hallways. Sometimes, it wasn’t so nice. There goes that Liston nerd. Yeah, I heard that one a few times, too. It’s cool, though. As the smart kid, I fill a somewhat privileged position in the high school pecking order. You see, I’m very useful. Someone needs to pass a test to keep peace with his parents? He comes to me. Some official wants the school to look good to his superiors? No better way than finding a pack of smart kids and putting them to work doing smart kid stuff.
So it’s a role that comes with some perks, but there is one big downside. Most of the time, I’m effectively invisible. The high school nerd is not a pariah, but he’s not a champion, either. He’s just there, inscrutable and solitary.
There is one exception, though.
Northwest, like most other high schools, participates in the national Scholar’s Bowl. You’ve heard about that, I’m sure – find a couple smart kids with nothing better to do over the weekend, then send them to other schools to compete in trivia contests with other teams of smart kids. Now, most schools just pick their teams out of the gifted program. The administration of Northwest High has a bit more flair than that. A few weeks before the start of trivia season, they have a special school-wide event. It’s called “Trivia Master” and it’s basically a scaled-down version of the Scholar’s Bowl that’s open to all students of Northwest High. The matches are held in front of the assembled student body, and the winning team goes on to represent Northwest.
God, do I love Trivia Master.
Most people look at Trivia Master and see just another sawed-off game show, not even worth consideration. However, if you’re one of those invisible smart kids, this is the one chance you get to shine. You see, I’m not the only person who loves Trivia Master. This event is a big deal. I’m not sure I can even begin to describe how big a deal. Attendance at the matches is up there with homecoming pep rallies, and the behavior of the audience is equally raucous. It sounds bizarre, but it’s the absolute truth.
For the two weeks of Trivia Master, everything changes. For those two weeks, I am an important man. When I walk through the halls, people greet me with open arms. They discuss me over lunch – hell, they fight to sit next to me, just so they can get an inside track on the matches before everything goes public. For two weeks, I am not only visible, I am a damn beacon for the whole school. It’s an awesome time, for me and everyone like me. Of course, there are always a few people who take things too far.
That’s the dark side of Trivia Master, the part that no one ever discusses. Everyone likes to imagine that this event is a scholarly competition between mild-mannered dorks. People who believe this have never spent any time amongst the greater North American nerd. Yes, we go to great lengths to get along, but push one of us even a little bit too far and the claws come out. And with dozens of smart kids vying for attention, there’s always someone pushing.
That’s the real reason I’m hauling ass towards Northwest. It’s not because I really care about the rules of the competition, the changes since last year. It’s because I’m worried about the people whe are eyeballing those rules for weaknesses.
Yes, friends, people cheat. They try and sabotage each other in ways that might shock you. I could tell you stories – the rumor mill at Northwest is as robust as it is in any other high school. But here’s all you really need to know: For the two weeks of Trivia Master, those smart kids who are being treated like the popular kids start to act like the popular kids – and then they get worse.
For my part, I try to avoid that sort of cloak-and-dagger madness. It’s not always easy, however, and with my particular friends it’s often impossible. That’s why I’ve decided to chronicle this, my final Trivia Master competition. I think the world deserves to know just how our kind behaves when the social structures that keep us in check are broken down. I’m not trying to tear anyone down, I just want to dispel some of the creaky old myths that people still hold.
Okay, maybe I do want to tear a few people down. Sue me, I’m not immune. And maybe this wasn’t the best day to start this. I’m a little cranky. After all, Ken Greevey – my perennial teammate – called me at an absurd hour this morning to remind me that trivia season was upon us.
Actually, that’s a good place to start, because Ken falls squarely inside the “takes it too seriously” camp. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy and we’ve been friends for years. We teamed up in three consecutive competitions, after all. Thing is, we fell short each year. Every time we lost, Ken responded by redoubling his efforts the following year. I’m honestly a little afraid of what he might be planning this time.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, though. Ken doesn’t play dirty or anything like that. He’s just a touch obsessive. This isn’t the first time I’ve received a wake-up call because he wanted to discuss some insignificant change in the rules on team registry or read me a long list of stats on the other teams. That’s Ken’s nature. He puts 200% of himself into everything he does. Lord knows he could be worse. A lot worse.
Yes, I’m thinking of someone in particular, but I’m not prepared to start slinging mud just yet. Besides, I know that Ken is waiting for me, and he’ll have a conniption if I don’t talk to him soon. You think I’m exaggerating? You have no idea.
To summarize: Trivia Master is a fantastic competition that displays the best in us but brings out the worst in us. It’s my favorite time of the year, but I also dread it every time it comes around. It’s a simple game, but it’s also deadly serious.
Well, I’m sure Ken is losing his shit waiting for me, so I guess I’d better get moving. Just remember that whatever happens, it wasn’t my idea. I swear.
My name is Paul Liston. Welcome to my world.