I remember, most of all, the end of competition. The team gathers its things and heads for the bus, plane, or van ride home. It's over.
Those two words ring hollow in our minds. It can't possibly be over, not after all we've done and all we've studied. There's more to this, right?
No. It's over.
Impossible! So much effort, so much energy, so much time went into our Academic Decathlon competition... how can it possibly be over? How can there be any finality to this event?
Question as we might, the physical reality sets in around us. We are going home, away from the scene of the competition. We're done studying this year's curriculum. Things have come to an end. It could be a regional or state competition, but it's over. Someone else moved on to nationals. It's over for us.
We head home. We talk of things other than Academic Decathlon. We don't study any more packets. Some of us cry. We don't cry because we didn't make it. We cry because we're exhausted and the adrenaline needs a release. Crying seems right at the end, at a departure.
We get home and, suddenly, we're alone. Our team is gone. Our packets are idle. It's quiet. No, not quiet: silent.
I remember climbing the stairs to my bedroom after the Texas state competition in 1986. My team wasn't going to nationals that year. I looked out my window into the darkness. I had won a little money for my personal accomplishments at state, and a little more for my team's performance. That money would be gone after college, for sure, and then what would I have to show for all my work?
I looked out that window and wondered. I was alone and it was over.
Twenty years later, I felt that end of competition again. I was a coach this time, at the same school I'd competed at the first time I felt the end of competition. This was my third year coaching and my second year to get my team to the state competition. We had pushed hard to win it all, but fell short.
Once again, it was over. The silence settled in around me as I wondered why I kept feeling like it was over. Twenty years after my first competition, I hadn't really ended things. I had learned how to deliver a speech, interview, and enjoy learning in Academic Decathlon. Twenty years later, I had lived the answer to my question when I stared out into that Texas night in 1986. That part never ended. It seemed like it was over that night after state, but I kept speaking in public, I kept interviewing, and, most of all, I kept learning. I loved learning and I loved Academic Decathlon for teaching me how to love learning and all that went with it.
But as a coach, I found those answers insufficient. I wanted my team to go on to nationals. I wanted to go on to nationals, something I hadn't been able to do as a student. Nationals, the top competition, perhaps if I went there, it would never be over. Perhaps winning there would cure the quiet and the intense feeling of being alone when I got home.
Then Daniel Berdichevsky, head of DemiDec, emailed me to see if I could attend the national competition in San Antonio as a member of the DemiDec entourage. I jumped at the chance. I felt my loneliness subside. I felt a reason to keep studying, even though I wasn't really competing.
I went there, had a great, swirling time. I met new people, ate new things, and celebrated life with my counterparts from twenty years gone. And then -
I felt that pang again. I hadn't competed, but there it was. Staring out of my hotel window into the Texas morning, I realized I was heading home again. There was no way to continue with this year's topics. They were over and done with and next year's were to be fully announced the next day. No matter how much I wanted to hold on to the last 48 hours, they were now gone, except as memories.
It really is over...
... isn't it?
As I looked out my window, watching darkness change into light, I thought of things again. I had made friends, both on my team and with others. That wasn't going to end. I still loved learning, and had met many, many others still on that journey of knowledge. It wasn't over.
My days as a competitor were gone, and my days as a coach would one day end, no matter what I had won or lost with my teams. My learning would never end, though. I had won that love, twenty years ago, and remained ever faithful. the events along the way came and went, but the journey toward knowledge never ceased.
When I realized that, I realized I had won. I had won all the prizes Academic Decathlon truly offers. The scholarships and promises of travel are only enticements to trick short-sighted children into partaking of an experience far more beautiful, far more awesome, far more sublime than they could comprehend in their limited experience. The competition is not about a few people winning this scholarship or that medal. The competition is about everyone, yes, everyone, gaining a desire to learn for the rest of their lives. It is about enriching our lives with deep and profound experiences. It is about following the path less taken, and realizing it has made all the difference in our lives.
I had won the same things everyone else had won, whether they made it to nationals, state, regionals, county, or district. Competitions end for all of us and we all return home to look out that window. But we all win the same things, if we but realize it.
If we win, it never has to be over. We can keep learning.
We can keep winning.
I will always remember, most of all, the end of competition. I now have a new way of remembering, one in which after all we've done and all we've studied, we realize there truly is more to this. There is joy in realizing the truth of the next four words:
It goes on forever.