For Ten Points: A personal essay by Christopher Helton

By Christopher Helton


Chicago is the hog butcher for the world.

Emily is the Brontë responsible for Wuthering Heights.

Rosinante is Don Quixote’s horse.

These are facts I cannot forget.

During my freshman year of high school, the Librarian recruited members for a new Quiz Bowl team.  It’s the academic equivalent to football, in that both award trophies. She placed a notice in the daily announcements and I was intrigued but hesitant. The Librarian also served the elementary school and I had known her since I was five. However, I used the library less as I became older and our interactions were limited to the occasional book checkout.

I approached her between classes.

She explained the basic concept. Two teams competed to answer the most questions correctly. Each district had their own style of playing, but certain things were agreed upon. There was a time limit for answers and wrong responses resulted in the other team getting another opportunity to ring in. Four players comprised a team, but alternates could be subbed in at designated moments. Most questions were worth ten point.

“If you’re interested, there’s a meeting Monday before school.”

Seven people, counting me, showed up. Three, including my friend Karl, were also freshmen. The others were a couple of years older than us. The majority of the library was dedicated to wooden tables, four seats to each, and that’s where we met. The collection of books was limited, with two shelves covering a corner for fiction and a longer one snaking down the side of the room for nonfiction and reference. It smelled of worn paper and floral cleaner from the cleaning crew the night before.

The Librarian passed out thick packets, thirty pages apiece. Inside were questions, facts, and figures, ranging from scientific firsts to famous literary personalities. She said that if we wanted to be on the team we could. No auditions. No tests. Just read the packets, research, and learn.

At night, I’d read through a series of questions and try to memorize bits I thought were important. The Librarian encouraged us to pursue topics that we showed interest in, so I focused on history and literature because I wanted to read more. That didn’t stop other facts from catching my attention.

Silicon is the second most common element in Earth’s crust.

Each morning, she would separate us into teams and host mock games. For the first year, we didn’t practice with a buzzer system used in real tournaments because we didn’t own one. Instead, I’d keep my hand floating inches from the tabletop as she asked questions, slapping the wood when I knew the answer. We snorted when easy questions turned up because all hands would slam down, a pop pop pop reverberating around the library.

Our first match took place in an elementary music room. Laminated photos of colorful tubas and half notes lined the walls. I took a seat at a table normally used for holding donuts at staff meetings and dropped my handwritten nametag in front of my buzzer. The opposing team, I was told by their coach, had existed for over a decade and trained even on weekends. Their nametags had plastic covers.

When the moderator signaled a start to the game, I held tightly onto my buzzer. The other team answered quickly, ringing in before the questions were finished. They knew the binary value of 20 was 010100. Francis Ford Coppola directed Apocalypse Now. “Jack the Dripper” referenced Jackson Pollock. We knew, too, but their strategy was to know faster. By the end of the first half, at ten points per question, the score was 90 – 0.

“This President was the first to throw—“

My thumb mashed the buzzer.


“William Howard Taft.”

A pause. “Correct.”

Taft was the first President of the United States to throw out the opening pitch at a baseball game in 1910 for the Washington Senators.

While I was thrilled my infatuation with studying Taft had paid off, it was the only point we scored. The Librarian told me the next match would be better.

This was somewhat true. Practices continued. We expanded to five mornings a week. I read more, discovering the prose of Voltaire, the plays of Ionesco, and the chilling comfort of Agatha Christie. During free periods, I’d duck into the library to practice. Often this meant scanning the shelves, looking at the titles and trying to place their authors.

Though my knowledge of trivia expanded, we were viewed as a novelty club that took over the library every morning. The school struggled to understand our function and dealt us no funding. Insurance dictated that the district was responsible for our transportation to competitions. So on weekends, we crusaded into school parking lots riding in the driver’s ed car, a forest green monstrosity with no discernible make or model. An emergency break protruded from the front passenger floorboard. At one match, our team was almost disqualified when Karl took his buzzer apart to see how it functioned. The Librarian barred Karl from the front seat.

During the last tournament of my third year, we won a trophy. Fourth place. There had been an ice storm in the area, so only four teams showed up. Three feet tall and topped with a woman holding a torch, it rode across everyone’s lap in the backseat for the trek home. The principal cited no room in the lobby trophy cabinet, but the Librarian was overjoyed to find it a home behind the circulation desk. I celebrated that night by looking over a list of classical composers.

Rossini created The Barber of Seville.

By the next year, the trophies had multiplied by four and half of those weren’t consolation prizes. Before I graduated that May, more members were added to the team and packets of questions distributed. I scanned the book spines on my last day of school, matching title to author. Though I hadn’t made it around to reading most of them, I had been introduced to their workings. The Librarian gave me a handwritten note I keep tucked into a copy of History’s Worst Decisions.

Not too long ago, I completed my Master of Library and Information Science. After I submitted my final assignment and checked that it was delivered, I sat back and took a breath. Then I remembered the capital of Gambia is Banjul and smiled.

Christopher Helton enjoys writing about children’s literature, libraries, and theatre. He lives in Washington, D.C.

One comment

  1. Christopher Helton has made my day with this story about his high school academic team. I hope the librarian is still alive and has a chance to read this tribute to an unsung hero.


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