When I was in the sixth grade, I went to a district-level speech contest. I’d prepared and practiced for weeks, beating everyone at my school in order to advance. There were only something like five of us in the finals, all from different schools, and it was a fancy evening event. Everyone was dressed up, there were local “dignitaries” in attendance… it was a big deal.
I got up in front of everyone, so nervous I thought I was going to pass out. But as soon as I started talking, I calmed down. I gave my speech, made everyone laugh and sniffle and clap… it was glorious. I felt like I learned two things from that moment: I was a good storyteller, and despite the initial terror, I loved being on stage.
Fast forward a little while, and all the speeches were finished. They were good, but I knew deep down they weren’t as good as mine. The other kids came up to me and told me how well I’d done. Everyone was shaking my hand. I was bursting with confidence and excitement. I had blown them away, and I felt amazing about it.
When it was time for the awards to be handed out, I could barely contain myself. Third place was called… not me. My heart ratcheted up a notch. Second place… not me. I started to feel dizzy with anticipation. First place was finally called, and… not me.
There was an audible gasp from the crowd. Eyes on me, eyes on the winner, eyes on me, eyes on the winner. I hadn’t even placed.
After the winner accepted his award, and was surrounded by a congratulatory crowd, a judge came pulled me to the side and explained I had gone over time. My speech was disqualified. The first place winner had done a better job. That was that.
Everything I’d felt earlier crumbled. I wasn’t the best speaker. I wasn’t a good storyteller. I’d been too nervous to watch my time. I lost for a reason: I’d done a bad job. It was devastating.
Of course now I look back and remember the compliments. I remember how, even though my ego took a hit, my confidence (eventually) grew from that night. Failing is often more important than winning.
So, while I’m hugely glad that Moonlight won last night (and I know this isn’t a very good analogy to what happened), I feel for those La La Land folks. I doubt their confidence has plummeted much, but still. I know it’s a bit ridiculous to equate a seventh grade speech competition with the Oscars, but that night was my Oscars. And I snatched defeat right out of the hands of victory. It was tough, but it gave me my third lesson of the night:
The winner deserved to win. I did not. And though it crushed me to shake his hand and tell him what a good job he’d done, he had done a good job. He deserved his ribbon. I was devastated for quite some time afterward, but even so, that night was one of the most formative nights of my life.
On stage last night, there was confusion, there was joy, there was shock, there was dismay, there was more joy, there was elation, but there was also grace. Grace in acceptance, grace in winning, and grace in losing. I don’t know that we ever learn much from watching big award shows, but watching humans figure out grace is a nice way to end an evening, especially in a world that, right now, seems to reward hissy fits and drama.
I’m so happy for Moonlight. So happy to see the story of a gay black man win this award. I’m so happy to see the first muslim man win a best actor award for the same movie. And I’m so happy to see humans struggling through confusion, and then doing right, on stage in front of everyone.
Maybe they’d all lost some speech tournaments as kids, too.