Every year at about this time, which just happens to be Black History Month, I am seized by sudden anxiety attacks. Questions will race through my skull, causing my eyes to roll back in my head and my lips to tremble. Often I will speak in tongues. What was the name of the fourteen-year-old boy who was lynched and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman? What East African province was formerly known as Upper Volta? Who was the first black man in space? Even now, upon reading these queries, a select pocket of society will experience similar seizures, then shriek "Emmett Till, Burkina Faso, Tamayo Mendez of Cuba!" before collapsing in exhausted heaps on the floor.
That's because every February, PANDA -- the Pan African Nurturing and Development Association -- holds its annual competition, a Jeopardy-style academic event in which contestants vie on matters of African history, geography and current events for cash prizes. But PANDA is about so much more than money.
At East High School, back in the diz-nay, in the weeks before the contest, we'd spend every lunch period in our sponsor's classroom, quizzing each other from the competition booklets. There were about two dozen kids on the East squad, split into teams of five, and at the end of the period, we would compete head to head, slapping the tables in the absence of buzzers until our hands were swollen and blue. All of the teams were named "Ashanti" (not after the singer -- look it up), but the only teams with any shot at the championship were Ashanti One and Ashanti Two. Ashanti One was solid: five girls, all at the top of the class, all members of the cheerleading squad and, most daunting, third place at the PANDA games the year before. Ashanti Two was my team, and though we'd never placed, we dominated Ashanti One in practice. They couldn't touch us.
Ashanti Two consisted of me, my friends Monty and Darren, and two more members we referred to as Dead Weight, a sub-squad we ignored after memorizing their share of information, a situation they seemed entirely cool with. Monty was one of the smartest kids at East, alarmingly adept at chemistry and single-handedly responsible for getting half of the class of 1998 through school. Darren was a self-proclaimed "drama freak," a genius who rocked dual Mohawks and had indecipherable methods of learning as a result of his severe dyslexia. Together we were unstoppable. And we performed with flavor, too. As the only white kids on the squad, we had to.
For example, we requested a name change to the Falasha Queens, after a native Jewish sect of Ethiopia, with the idea of competing in drag. No go. So instead, we assigned ourselves secret PANDA powers that allowed Darren to fly, me to shoot fire from my eyes and Monty to secrete paper towels out of any orifice. All right, we were nerds; what do you expect? We were skipping lunch to memorize facts, for Christ's sake.
At the competition, both Ashanti One and Ashanti Two coasted through the first round, despite Darren's near-fatal confusing of "NCAA" and "NAACP," an answer that, though quickly corrected, sent tremors of shock through the auditorium. "He's dyslexic," we explained, covering his head with a jacket and ushering him out of the room.
In a turn of events that couldn't have been penned any better by the drunken hacks chained to their desks at Disney, we were forced to square off against Ashanti One in the first round of the finals. Midway through a heated battle in which neither side had answered a question incorrectly, the room was silent and tense. It was clear that although this was the semi-final, the two best teams were competing. I looked at Monty and then Darren. Fucking cucumbers: We had it in the bag. But then the unthinkable happened. Dead Weight, a duo that had probably uttered three words between them the entire season, got buzzer-happy.
"Ghana!" Wrong. "Joseph Cinque!" Nope. "Malcolm X!" Not even close.
It was as if they had awakened from comas and were elated simply to participate. We tried to buzz in before them, but it was pointless. Despite a late-round tear by Darren, Dead Weight's influence was inescapable. We lost by two points.
Later, Ashanti Two methodically disposed of a pitiful George Washington team to take third place, thus ensuring a cash prize, but we could barely muster a smile at the victory. Ashanti One had beaten us for the first time ever, and had done it when it mattered.
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Looking back at my PANDA experience, I realize that winning wasn't important. We shared a unique experience, embraced pan-Africanism and learned important yet often overlooked information, facts I still remember to this day. Increasing awareness -- wasn't that what it was all about?
And besides, by pooling our third-place prize money, we were able to buy an ounce.
Job well done.