When I was in fourth grade, I was in something called Olympics of the Mind, a competition for future nerds and theatre people. This organization still exists, but at some point, it was forced to change the first word in its name to “Odyssey”, because the International Olympic Committee, in the spirit of brotherhood and good sportsmanship, sued them.
Each year, OM has a bunch of different “problems” you can choose from. They require you to develop a skit around a certain theme, usually historical (certain “problems” also involved some kind of engineering, like building a structure that could withstand a certain amount of weight). There’s also a segment called “spontaneous”, which is basically a word association game. Teams receive points for the skit, spontaneous, and “style” (a concept I have no better grasp of now than I did then).
I’m still not sure why my school participated in these shenanigans. As an adult, it strikes me as the kind of wonderful thing they do at super artsy private schools where kids discover their desks and learn ancient Greek in the third grade. I did not go to such a place of learning. Mine was a thoroughly middle of the road public school. But I was in a gifted students program that met twice a week outside my regular class, and the school thought enough of us to draft us for an OM team (though they didn’t think enough of us to allow us to meet anywhere but a large closet used to store old textbooks).
The first year I did it, the problem involved prehistoric man. I named our skit “Cro-Magnon P.I.” (still my proudest creative contribution to the world). We painted a drop cloth set and put together a few props and rehearsed for months, but even though I was a ridiculously optimistic/delusional kid (I was convinced that somehow I’d be world famous by age 12), I hadn’t the slightest expectation of winning anything. It never even crossed my mind.
So said mind was blown when my team actually won our “problem”, and we all ran up on the stage in the auditorium of the local BOCES and jumped up and down like kids who have just won something surrounded by other kids who didn’t. It meant we were going to the state OM championships in Syracuse!
It also meant I’d be going far away from home, on a bus, and staying over a few nights in a hotel, something I’d never done before in my life. My family had zero money, so we never went on vacation. I’d been to The City many times to visit family, but I’d never been outside of a 50 mile radius of my home. So Syracuse might as well have been Disneyland to me. After all, it was a college town. It was full of smart people, just like me!
The bus ride up was a combination of abject terror and delicious anarchy. My district crammed all of the kids who’d won their OM competitions into one rickety school bus. So that included kids as young as me (and younger), all the way up to high school seniors. I vividly remember one Big Kid blasting “Brass Monkey” over and over from a large, chunky, silver boom box. I remember kids shuttling from one end of the bus to the other as it scooted up the Thruway (this was in the pre-seatbelt school bus era).
I don’t remember seeing a single parent or teacher intercede to prevent any of the madness (though I’m sure adults were present). I was simultaneously terrified and giddy. I was seriously worried that something terrible would result from all this freedom, but I was also swept up in the insanity. I was on a flaming Viking ship headed straight for a rocky shore, so I might as well have enjoyed it.
At this point, it’s necessary to mention that we were heading to Syracuse a few short days after the Orangemen fell to Indiana in a hotly contested NCAA basketball final. So as we sped toward the town in our Crazy Yellow Fun-Bus, Syracuse was still a smoking ruin of rage and resentment. Got the scene?
Someone in charge thought it would be a neat idea to give us a sneak peek at the illustrious Syracuse campus. In order to do so, we first had to drive through that troublesome neighborhood that surrounds every campus: The Shithole of Off-Campus Housing. Places where sofas are used as lawn furniture and the residents do their damnedest to grow trees made of empty beer cans and Solo cups.
And as we drove through this frat boy Beirut, we spotted one house that looked slightly better than the rest. But this was only because most of its exterior was covered by a large sheet. One of the house’s occupants had hung an enormous bedsheet from a second story window. And on this sheet, they had written, in black shoe polish in 10-foot high letters:
FUCK BOBBY KNIGHT!
Word spread through the bus by wildfire, and pretty soon the entire kid population of the bus ran to one side to witness this majestic obscenity. I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t tip over. A huge cheer rang through the bus, with much hooting and hollering. It was easily the greatest thing any kid on the bus had ever seen. I BARELY KNOW WHAT THAT WORD MEANS BUT I KNOW IT’S AWESOME AND I’VE NEVER EVEN SEEN IT WRITTEN DOWN BEFORE IN MY LIFE LET ALONE IN LETTERS THAT HUGE!
As for the OM state championships, I stayed at a Holiday Inn and thought it was the greatest thing ever because I swam in a pool and stayed up late watching cable TV (another luxury I was not used to). We did our skit again and I was convinced we were the best and were destined for stardom.
We finished next to last. The trip back home was not as much fun. However, I did take away something from my trip. I’m not all that into college sports in any form. I did not attend a “sports’ college. But whenever I find myself forced to choose sides in a collegiate game, I say I’m a fan of Syracuse, and that banner is why.