Education, Inadvertent and otherwise

That feeling when it’s 3 in the morning and you’re watching an old PBS documentary aimed at grade-school kids and the mill workers are going on strike while Sumner declares that industries of the North are complicit in the slave economy of the South, and you’re like yes, exactly!

We’d all be so much better off, had the lessons of fourth grade only stuck.

(Also, the voice actor for the engineer/architect type character in a lot of those David Macaulay adaptations was Brian Blessed, which is pretty nice.)

I met David Macaulay once when he gave a talk at MIT and I happened to hear about it in time. I’m glad I had the chance to interact even briefly with the fellow who wrote and drew the books I grew up on, you know?

Some years prior to that, I saw James Burke of Connections fame in person, but I didn’t have the chance to ask him a question after his talk.

That’s part of a good story, actually. It was at a defense-industry trade conference, which (I presume as part of some PR package) hosted “Astro Bowl”, a trivia-team competition for high schools around the state. It was pretty much like academic team, which I also did, except that all the questions were about astronomy and space exploration. This was Huntsville, Alabama, and sponsoring that kind of thing was very much what the local industry would do. Did I mention that the event was at a convention center named for Wernher von Braun? Anyway, we were answering trivia questions in one room, and in the next banquet hall over, James Burke was going to deliver a keynote. So, during a gap in our schedule, I ducked in, missing the beginning of his speech and having to leave before the Q&A.

The prize for winning Astro Bowl was a trip to a space shuttle launch, so we were pretty motivated. Our chemistry teacher had gathered a few of us to form a team — this was the first year the competition was being held, and we didn’t really know how it would work. Neither, it seems, did the organizers. They sent us a packet of material to study, and we figured that material indicated the general subject matter that would be fair game, so we brushed up on those topics. Turns out, they asked questions *directly* from the worksheets and glossaries and such that they had mailed out, including some real esoterica like being able to identify shuttle missions by their STS numbers.

Well, we did a pretty mediocre job on the first day, barely squeaking into eligibility for the second. So, we gathered at my house and spent the night memorizing the exact mathematical minimum of each item in the info packet that uniquely identified it.

Come the next day.

“Question: What is the red—”


“Yes, Grissom High?”

“‘Photosphere’, Steve!”

And that’s the story of how we won a free trip to see the space shuttle go into space.

Winning trivia contests got me two other trips to Florida, because I also did Academic Team, and the school that won state each year got to go to the nationals at Disney World, jointly sponsored by Disney, Pepsi and Panasonic. And it was every bit as surreal a hellscape cross-fertilization of capitalist faux-largesse and conniving college-placement gamesmanship as that would suggest.

Academic Team was mostly a way to hang out with people I liked and to get out of school during the day, so it was fine, though. For the first chunk of the year, there were competitions at the different high schools around the city (which was an education in relative economic advantage, for sure). If you won the city, you went to district, then regionals and then state, as tournaments typically go.

There were also various other competitions floating around the schedule. I have a fond memory of the one at Vanderbilt, which was special because college kids wrote the questions and so you could get real oddballs thrown in, like how to kill Ganon in the original Zelda or the ways to order hash browns at Waffle House. Fuck if we didn’t own on that. Where else was there to hang out in Huntsville, AL, except for Waffle House?

My own best moment, though, was a “Who am I?” question, where you had to guess the person or character’s name based on a purported self-description. “Who am I? In my youth, I read alchemists like Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus—”


“Doctor Victor Frankenstein!”

The guy does a legit double take — like, who the hell could get that from that — and then recovers. “Please, it’s pronounced Fraahnk-en-shteen.”

Speaking of relative economic advantage: We were definitely the rich kids within Huntsville, and pretty clearly not so in a broader context, like at state or the Vanderbilt tournament, which drew from schools across the southeast. The Vanderbilt meet, actually, let a school send as many teams as they wanted to pay the registration fee for.

And shutting down the teams from the private schools who could field half a dozen of them? Was pretty fuckin’ sweet.

If you want to make a movie out of it, you can call this part of the story “the power of teamwork”. A lot of the schools who did well at regionals or state and such actually only had one good member on their team, who would be a glory hog and try to carry it all themselves. They’d jump in and answer early, sometimes earning big, but failing often enough to be weak against an adversary who could gather up the pieces they missed. That would work against a lot of teams, but what do you know, we learned how to respect each others’ capabilities. I could lean back and let Daniel take a question or vice versa. So, we could divide the field, and when matched against an egotist, we won — well, pretty much every time.

I did Academic Team in 11th and 12th grades, and both years, we won state and got to fly down to Orlando for nationals. We stayed at the Contemporary, drank excessive quantities of free soda, and rode the monorail often enough that “!Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas!” became a running joke.

The first time, the summer after my 11th grade, we came in sixth in the nation. That is, we made it to the final round, where we placed sixth out of six. The year after that, we cleaned up on the first day, which by the way the matchups were arranged meant that we could skip directly to the semifinals on the last day. Then, we kind of gave up during the semifinals and barely brought our game, so we washed out and didn’t proceed to the finals at all. It was the summer after we graduated high school. Who the fuck cared?