This day, it's the question on the minds of seven contenders for the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year title. Judges will choose a state winner from seven districts, and that winner will go home with $11,000.
This day will be long, crammed with photo-ops, nervous small talk with political figures, speeches and interviews.
The kids arrive within the same five minute window, not late, not early. They walk a beat behind their mentors, taking in the surroundings, dog-eared speech pages in hand. They wear new suits, borrowed dresses, shoes that hurt their feet and haircuts they aren't used to yet. Their facial expressions are neutral and fixed with the question that has been steeping for months: "What do the judges want?"
|My charming mentee|
Some seem terrified, some don't. Most don't behave as if they'll win. The ones who do, I know after last year's ceremony, probably won't.
There is palpable tension while the nominees shift awkwardly from foot to foot, their smiles quick, their eyes darting, their faces animated for only seconds at a time.
A willowy, nervous girl dressed in a micro-mini, cowboy boots and a leather jacket is part of this crowd. She has colored her hair in trendy strands of mahogany and fuschia and when she stands near the other kids she says nothing. She slumps as if her height might work against her.
I wonder how she'll do. The judges want poise. Confidence.
My mentee is here, but it's home court for her so she is putting the others at ease. There is not a competitive bone in her body. She's spent a decade learning how to engage with people - too long to put them at arm's length now. She doesn't think she'll win but is here to play anyway.
It's part of my mentee's charm.
Halfway through the day, the judging starts. The door opens, they are called, they step in and the door closes.
Exactly 18 minutes later, the facilitator taps on the door indicating a two-minute warning, then knocks again at one minute. Not before or after, the door opens and out they come, looking even younger than they are with all that relief flooding their minds and bodies. They are smiling, hugging their mentors, the question of what-the-judges-want, behind them now.
My mentee goes in and uses the entire allotment.
The facilitator knocks at two minutes.
Knocks at one minute.
My mentee comes out, beaming.
The willowy girl goes in, she's out ten minutes later.
Another nervous nominee approaches my mentee. "What did they ask?" She whispers.
My mentee starts to tell her, but I interrupt, fearing the other nominee will fret over irrelevant questions:
"They'll ask different questions of everyone. Just answer truthfully," I say.
Later, the judging is done, the kids are themselves again. Everyone's hungry, their gone appetites back with a vengeance . They're silly and boisterous and a bit sassy now that they are off display. Tension leaves the atmosphere like air from a balloon.
Later, through a dinner which precedes the big announcement, new energy sizzles in the room. There are speeches and thank yous and acknowledgments and winners in secondary categories.
Two well dressed teens talk about overcoming absent parents, social awkwardness and unhealthy temptations to craft futures of college and, of "giving back". The girl in the cowboy boots talks about overcoming the low expectations of others to be accepted at the NASCAR Technical Institute to study auto mechanics. A polished, poetic nominee compares her life and role in her community to that lived by her grandmother in a Kenyan village. My mentee talks about her crippling shyness that kept her isolated for years.
But few are fully listening. Everyone's waiting for that MC to open the envelope and now she does.
And the willowy girl in the cowboy boots wins.
The applause is instant and sustained.
She stands up and breaks down.
She turns to her father who wraps her in a hug.
She drifts, dazed, to the podium in tears.
She looks around, eyes on everyone.
She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex and, barely able to speak says, "God, I don't know what to say. I just never thought I'd win. I just didn't expect this. Thank you so much. Just... thank you."
Words fail her and the governor begins a new round of applause to rescue her.
"I never thought I'd win," she says again.
And yet, didn't she show up and walk the walk and talk the talk as if she would.
The faces of the other nominees react, some are smiling and some aren't. Some of the coaches look surprised, others delighted.