Second Place

Equipped with a homemade, plywood guitar, a long and tangled blonde wig, my dad’s worn out sandals, and sporting my mom’s ‘70s patch jacket, which was three sizes too small for me, I was out to catch the eye of the girl of my dreams. I was 14 years old and still hadn’t kissed a girl. But kissless as I might have been, I still knew what it was like to endure the experience of being completely and unmercifully love-struck. For most kids, 14 is a little late to have that first, silly adolescent crush—the one spoken about in all those Backstreet Boys songs—but this was different. This was a full-on Beatles caliber crush.

Coffee House Readings

I was the only solo performer lined up for the Wood River Middle School eighth- grade talent show. My act was a lip-synch to the song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band, which—much like myself—few people in the school had ever heard of. Most of the other kids had spent weeks preparing for the show. I, however, had been preparing for it for years. While most of the other performers wanted to attain the attention of the entire school, I simply wanted the attention of one girl.

I was by no means original in my selection of this particular girl to go crazy about. Amie Miller was by far the most ogled-over girl in all of Wood River Middle School. She had the blonde hair, blue eyes and personality to render any boy in the school a stuttering idiot when he tried to talk to her. She was nice, smart and had a great sense of humor. But any cheesy teen romance movie could have told you this. The thing that pushed my adoration from a stupid-little-crush to a full-out-Abbey-Road-love-at-first-sight-like-I-promised-you-two-paragraphs-ago-crush was her smile.

Two years prior, in the sixth grade—the first time we had class together—we were doing one of those silly introduction name-games. I don’t remember what class it was. I don’t remember what game, but I do remember looking up after giving my introduction to the class (trying to be witty with it) and seeing her across the room smiling at me. At this point in my life, I was more or less over my elementary school cootie-phobia. So, with the realization that I had just made the prettiest girl in the school smile a smile like that, the butterflies in my stomach took out their glow sticks and began the first of many dance parties. But even after having six more classes with her, six more introductions and six more smiles, I’m pretty sure she still didn’t remember my name.

Over the next couple years, other crushes came and went, but the one for Amie never faded. So, as a result of hormones, pop music and That '70s Show, I developed a mountaineer’s obsession. I wanted to get to the summit of love. I wanted to see the peak for myself, not just through the frame of my living room television set. But the monstrous avalanches of my own shyness and the bitter cold of anonymity kept pushing me back to the bottom. In fact, for some reason I had trouble even getting to the mountain in the first place. I wasn’t the kid whom no one talked to because I smelled funny or ate glue; I was simply a quiet wallflower in the back of the classroom. Other kids were curious about me when they thought I was a new student, but were disappointed when they found out we’d been in the same class since preschool. For the most part, I didn’t mind. And by the time I was setting up my act for the talent show, after all my years of plummeting into the chasm of the unknown, I was ready to put my social awkwardness on hold, at least temporarily. I had a young girl’s heart to win over.

The show was a long-standing Wood River Middle School tradition. It was held near the end of the year to try to keep the all of the students’ ADD repressed long enough to finish out the school year. In between the Blink-182 cover bands and 13-year-old Celine Dion wannabes, the teachers had made a section specifically for the eighth grade lip-synch division. In order to get those spots in the show, a group would first have to make it through the qualifiers. That meant was that in order to get into the main talent show, I was going to have to win my “division.” Being a pretty introverted kid, my friends were other shy and borderline-nerdy kids who were under no circumstances going to get up in front of a few hundred people to sing and dance. This meant I was on my own. No backup. No moral support. No return.

For two weeks prior to the show, I planned my line of attack. We were given half an hour after lunch each day to work on our acts. I spent most of my preparation time walking the halls, observing my competition. I needed to get a feel for what I was up against. Success didn’t depend on my being the next American Idol; I just needed to look better than every pre-adolescent Michael Jackson and miniature Madonna in the show. The shyness I’d been carrying from kindergarten throughout middle school had no place in this act. I needed confidence. Each group I passed by, I made sure to find a way to boost my ego. One group of girls was making each of their own tie-die shirts: Cute, but almost guaranteed to look like crap. A group of boys apparently felt one leather jacket was all they needed to transform them into the Village People. Ha! Enjoy making that Indian headband we learned in kindergarten to finish off your wardrobe. A coed group was practicing some choreography that a few of them had learned in hip-hop class. Please, has anyone ever looked cool doing the Worm? One act at a time, I made sure that whatever they were doing, I was doing better.

After two weeks of this, I was sitting in the band room, the official holding quarters of the divisional qualifiers. There was a makeshift stage in the center with four or five rows of chairs in a semi-circle around it. I was wearing one of my mom’s ancient jackets that she still had from the 70’s. I’d also made a sign out of plywood (way better than all the construction paper props I was up against) with words that went along with my chorus on one side. On the other side, I had a replica electric guitar, the handle of the sign imitating the neck of a real guitar. With this, I could actually use the sign for the shredding, mid-song solo. For the rest of my costume, I was wearing a long, blonde hippie wig with a red headband. And along with all of that, I had a XXXL cloak of confidence.

Sitting in the seat directly in front of me was Amie. She—along with everyone else—was looking bored while a handful of guys in dresses finished their rendition of Pretty Woman. She and the rest of her group were sitting together talking; they were performing the Ghostbusters theme. Eventually, she realized the presence of the 14-year-old boy wearing sunglasses, hippie hair, sandals and tattered jeans seated behind her and turned around out of mere curiosity. Then I saw, by far, the best smile I had ever seen her give.

“Oh my god! Who is that, I can’t even recognize you?” She was barely audible as the beginning of Foxy Lady began blaring on the band room’s antique amplifiers.

“It’s Chris.”

“WHAT?”

“CHRIS!”

“OH YA! YOU LOOK GREAT!” It was by far the best introduction I’d had with her yet.

“OH, YOU… THANKS. I MEAN YOU TOO… LOOK GOOD… AS WELL… UM NO… I MEAN THANKS… YOU! THANK YOU!”

“WHAT?”

My cloak of confidence was going through the wash before my eyes and shrinking back to its usual Youth Small. It was getting so tight that it was progressively harder to breathe. But luckily the song ended and it was her group’s turn to perform.

I was able to get out, “GOOD LUCK!”

“WHAT?”

I couldn’t think of anything else other than to just give the double thumbs-up. She beamed back another smile. This time, the extra butterflies were the last thing I needed.

As her group was going up to the stage, I realized I hadn’t seen them preparing during the past weeks since we were on different lunch schedules. As the song began, my cloak was getting smaller and smaller by the minute. Her group was perfectly matching in costume. They had stage props; they knew how to dance and had genuine we-know-what-we’re-doing confidence.

And then I started questioning my own performance. I tested the weight of my sign/guitar and realized it was about 20 pounds more than I could comfortably wave around in the air. I was wearing sandals, which on the shoe dance-ability scale are pushing a three at best. I was forgetting some lyrics to my song and was beginning to gag as the hairs of my wig got caught in my mouth. Most of all, I came to the realization that I was indeed a white kid from Idaho and, incidentally, had absolutely no idea how to dance and spent a total of zero hours preparing for that small detail.

And then they were done. Ray Parker and his backup singers began to fade out, and the applause slowly died down. The voice over the speakers announced, “And next up, Chris Chatterman… sorry… Chapman! Performing Signs by Five Man Electrical Band!” with full synthetic enthusiasm.

My cloak was no bigger than a Kleenex at that point. I stood up, snaked my way through the chairs and up to the front and took position in center stage. But despite the overwhelming desire to find a nice quiet chair in the back of the room to disappear in like I had for the previous 14 years of my life, I looking out into the faces of the crowd and decided that if I was going out in another avalanche, I might as well be facing the summit. The rock organ blasted its first chord, and I lifted my outrageously unwieldy piece of scrap wood up in the air. Then I began to dance (if you could call it that): throw in a shimmy here…jiggle my hips a little there… spin around a bit… wave the sign to the best of ability. The words came easy; I picked a song I had actually known the words to before hand. My guitar solo was something like if Eddie Van Halen was on stage, drunker and more strung out than he’d ever been (or perhaps if he had tried to play sober). By the end, my arm felt like it was going to fall off, and about half the hairs from my wig were now either wedged in my teeth or halfway down my parched throat. There was a moment of pause from the audience after the music stopped, which was followed by a standing ovation. Somehow, I had managed to not make a complete goof of myself… or maybe I just succeeded in making myself enough of one. I had made it to the talent show.

The talent show came about a week later. Like I’ve already said, I didn’t really care about it (I ended up getting second overall). Amie ended up going on vacation for the actual show, so the qualifiers were all that really mattered to me. It was the week after the show that really excited me. This was the when my hard work was going to pay off. This was when we had the annual end-of-the-year barbeque when the teachers handed out yearbooks. This was the day when everyone would be given the chance to express his or her deepest feelings to their classmates in a brief little note on the blank pages of the yearbook of which would be held throughout eternity. This was the day when I would set out from base camp towards that summit. This was when Amie would finally remember my name. This was the part of the movie where Oasis plays in the background and I casually saunter over—high-fiving my peers along the way—to Amie, who is seemingly caught in a void of slow motion, her hair unaccountably blowing in the wind.

After having some hamburgers and chips and signing a few other yearbooks here and there, I spotted Amie sitting at a table in front of the school with some of her friends. I’d already rehearsed my line several times that day, “Hey Amie, would you sign my yearbook?” I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But after going over it 50 times in my head that day, I was pretty sure I could pull it off.

“Hey, um… Amie, do you uh, wanna sign my, ummmmm, yearbook?” It was close enough. She looked up, said hello and we exchanged books. I wrote my farewell (trying to be witty with it) and gave it back to her. During all of this, more people had come to get her to sign their yearbooks as well.

She looked up to me, gave my yearbook back and added, “Have a good summer.”

But wait. This was all wrong. She was supposed to look at me and realize my comedic genius from my performance and engage in further conversation about how great I was. I would play aloof at first and then slowly show my more sensitive side. I would casually ask her if she’d like to go to the movies and we’d hit off the makings of a huge, sappy, high school romance.

But that was all she said. And having practiced only one line all day, there was no way I was going to think up of anything on the spot… The summer came and the next year we ended up going to different high schools. I was 14 and kissless and would remain so for quite some time. In high school (before I had even started), I had already built up a respectable reputation as “that goofy kid with the sign.”

I dedicate this story to the girl who will most likely never read it. The story of the time I tried to climb Everest in sandals. The story of the time I got second place.

I write this knowing it will probably just be lost in the snow as I continue on through the blizzards. I will leave this for anyone else who choses Mt. Eleanor Rigby over the Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) trail hike. I’ll write it now before the bitter cold has gotten to me—before I’ve lost too many extremities to frostbite.

This is for anyone who chooses to dig it out of the snow to see just how dangerous a smile can be.