Those who watched me develop through the turmoil of my childhood can agree on at least one universal truth — Thomas Pardee sucks at sports.
Football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis ... you show me a game, and I'll show you a stunning array of ways to fail miserably at it.
As a kid, I spent many agonizing hours at recess staring wistfully at my classmates on the playground. They dribbled and bounded up and down the blacktop, chased soccer balls in never-ending circles around the field and fired blazing red dodge balls at one another with a kind of viciousness that both horrified and fascinated me.
The girls' tetherball games spun my head, their jump-rope matches defied the laws of physics.
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I lived with my deficiencies by reasoning that I simply hadn't found the right sport yet. Somewhere, I insisted — perhaps in Malawi, or on the fringes of some obscure village in the Czech Republic — there existed a sport that involved no running, kicking, swinging or aiming of any kind.
It was only a matter of time, I told myself, before scouts for this new sport would show up at my elementary school looking for raw talent and discover me, huddled in the shade of a sappy eucalyptus tree, clenching a poorly disguised Harry Potter book in my chubby fingers. Then, I told myself, I'd show them all.
But, as I recently learned for a second time in my life, non-athleticism and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive. When I decide to really compete, no force can deter me.
In 2003, I beat out 10,000 other American kids in a national essay contest sponsored by Scholastic Inc. I was flown to London, where I got to meet "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling and live out a childhood dream.
This victory instilled in me a kind of blind optimism — when you win one national contest, the rest are just oysters waiting to be cracked open.
So last month, I entered an online contest through Mugglenet.com, the largest Harry Potter fan site on the Internet. The winner would get to work as a traveling intern with a company that runs Potter-themed tours in England and Scotland (which, to me, translates into a monthlong, all-expenses-paid geek-out fest).
I made it past the first round (the essay), then the second (the personality test). When I got the news that I would get to compete in the video portion of the contest (in which Mugglenet viewers could vote on mini-movies we had to create), I felt a strange and unfamiliar anxiety. I was a single step away from the grand prize, which Harry Potter fans all over the world were absolutely drooling over. I was going to win. I knew it. I had to.
I pulled out my camera and hit Chicago's icy streets, putting to use every videography skill my flustered teachers had drilled into me since I started college. I purposely made a fool of myself everywhere I could — the library, various street corners, my local Taco Bell, the train platform, even the Millennium Park ice-skating rink. I spent a few tedious days in an editing lab pasting together my creation in iMovie and uploading it onto YouTube.
Soon, videos from 23 other finalists emerged. Though I knew the video with the most votes wouldn't necessarily win (the other factors still were at play), I watched each with gritted teeth.
They were all different, but they all seemed to highlight the same information about their creators, which included why they would be great interns and why they loved Harry Potter so much. This, I realized with a lurch of regret, was something I failed to do.
When the four-day voting period opened, I tried telling myself that it was out of my hands, and that fate would decide the winner, but this didn't stop me from absolutely loathing my competitors. Each finalist's percentage of the total vote was listed and updated by the second, so the lower my percentage dropped, the more inhuman my diatribe became.
I raged into the phone at Paulina, listing off all the reasons why the musically inclined "Dan" should be attacked by a pack of hungry hyenas, and why the bubbly "Hope" would be more useful to society if she were dropped into the middle of Lake Michigan in a oversize burlap sack weighted with cinderblocks.
I began to understand those bloodthirsty expressions on my classmates' faces during their blacktop brawls all those years ago. There is something about the promise of victory that ignites a lust for glory in the human spirit. What starts as a fun rivalry suddenly becomes more like a street-gang rumble. Instead of guns and knives, our weapons were snippy comments on the Mugglenet message boards and countless vote-mongering e-mails to "friends" we barely knew, all in an unabashed effort to will our numbers even a tiny bit higher (or at least not fall any lower).
The fact that my competitors seemed perfectly nice and — God forbid — a lot like me was irrelevant. I could think of them only in the context of gruesome fantasy, in which each met a uniquely messy demise.
After more than 80,000 votes and a tireless campaign by run by my friends and family, I came in third place with about 13 percent of the votes, while "Joel" and "Shannon" had garnered about 25 percent each.
But neither of them got the call. I did.
Winning, as I learned that day, has a sobering effect on a fiery temperament. My thoughts took me from spiteful, animalistic egomaniac to temperate, dignified diplomat in about as long as it took for my new boss to say, "Congratulations, Thomas. You got the job!"
Was I the most noble competitor? Perhaps not. Could I have been more civilized? Arguably. All things considered, would I do a single thing differently? Absolutely not.
Because after a lifetime watching from the sidelines, I finally got my taste of glory.
And I didn't have to go to Malawi to find it.
Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago. Check out his video at youtube.com/pardeehere.