By Tim Hayes

In seventh grade, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand apart from the crowd, other than when bullies taunt certain kids, making them stand out in ways they’d rather avoid.  Our seventh grade class at St. Joseph School abided by these cruel and crushing rules of budding adolescence, just as strongly as any public school, let me tell you.

Yet somehow I managed to stand out in a positive way – even if only for a fleeting moment – when I wrote my masterpiece.  My Sistine Chapel.  My Pieta.  My Mona Lisa.  My Newton’s First Law of Motion.  My E = mc2, for gosh sakes.

“The Binary System.”  A 15-minute presentation researched, written, and delivered as my entry into the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competition.  A thing of beauty.  Binary beauty, that is.

For those keeping score at home, the binary system refers to the series of “1”s and “0”s used in digital technology, with 1 and 0 the simplest possible method available.  How I stretched that single fact into 15 glorious minutes, I couldn’t tell you.  But somehow I did, delivering my presentation in front of a bunch of unfamiliar science teachers in a school building about 75 miles from my house.  For whatever reason, that morning I was in the zone, rattling off points like nobody’s business, even handling the Q&A like a pro – and won a First Place medal at the regional competition for my trouble.

History is littered with luminaries who rose to fame too quickly and plummeted back to earth, torn to ribbons, flaming out in spectacular fashion.  Ah, the heady times at St. Joe’s that following week, as a once moderately popular nerdnik attracted the spotlight.  Adulation can be quite the intoxicating muse, if memory serves.

I should have seen the crash coming, though.  As a regional First Place winner, the next phase would come a month later at the State Competition, held that year in – wait for it – Erie.  Yes, folks, he said Erie.  The Erie, PA, of today may be a clean, wonderful spot to live, visit, and vacation.  The Erie, PA, of 1973, however?  Uhhh, not so much.

My parents and I drove up the night before and stayed in a local motel, since my presentation had been scheduled for the morning session.  A girl from my class had also won top regional honors, and she and her dad came up, too.  The following morning, a Saturday, I got dropped off at a large, dark, cavernous parochial school with too many floors and too many confusing hallways.

Finding the room where my Binary System manifesto was to be declared once more, I sat in the hall with the other hotshots from all over Pennsylvania.  When my turn arrived, I entered the classroom and instantly lost my mojo.  The presentation went down the tubes in a hurry.  I got my facts out of sequence, felt completely at sea during the Q&A, did the big choke, and ended up with a stinking Honorable Mention.  “Humbling” doesn’t begin to describe it.

But the day got even worse immediately afterward, when my parents weren’t at the front of the school to pick me up.  I walked all over that school building, getting disoriented, seeing the other kids driving away with their folks.  I finally flagged a nun, a woman who had dedicated her life to the Lord, and who told me in no uncertain terms to “Toughen up – your parents wouldn’t leave you here!”  Heavens, thank goodness you showed up, Sister.  Thanks so much.

They finally did arrive again, about an hour after everything had ended at the school.  Turns out my classmate’s father, an old high school friend of my parents, suggested that they go see his campground while we were doing our presentations.  He promised this campground was just a couple of minutes away.  Yeah, right.  More like over an hour.  Each way.  I thought my mother was going to kill that guy.  She would have had to get in line behind me.

Friends, few things in life can beat, for instant depression, a long drive home on a dreary winter afternoon, glaring at an Honorable Mention certificate from the Junior Academy of Science, knowing that you choked and that your parents had been hoodwinked, leaving you alone in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s as simple as 1 and 0.

Copyright 2015 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting