By Mary Summerbell
Basically, I’m not competitive. Mostly because I’ve never been athletic, and never aspired to be, so I’m not sports-minded. I understand that participating in sports can be fun and healthy – teach lessons in teamwork and discipline, and help develop mental and physical skills. I get all that. But I don’t understand the fanatic fervor of spectator sports.
When I was young, however, I was competitive in other ways – academically and creatively. In school I was a bright student, a good student, but not consistent enough in my grades to compete for high class rank or to be in National Honor Society. I was very good in some subjects – even in “accelerated” classes – and I struggled in others. English and Art were my strengths, and I took great satisfaction in having my poster designs for school plays chosen for production over those of my peers in Commercial Art class. Especially the time that the final choice was between my design and that of a snooty, pretty, popular cheerleader. By art student vote, I won. That felt good. Really good.
Also, I would shine in the light of attention and praise whenever my writing was acknowledged as an example of excellent work. One time I especially remember – my English teacher, up front in class, passing back book reports, took mine off the top of the pile and held it up, saying that it was the only one of them all that was worthy of that class’s abilities. That meant a lot to me, that recognition, because that teacher didn’t like me, so I knew my work had to be truly outstanding for him to admit it like that.
Sometimes my competitiveness was about trying to prove to someone – like that teacher, or my parents, that I thought devalued me – that I was superior, or at least worthy, in some particular way. Other times it was more about wanting to be better than a specific individual. And so it was that I had it in my head to constantly compare myself to, and compete with, one particular classmate in high school. She sat near me in every class we had together, due to alphabetical proximity of our last names.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. Quite the opposite. I admired her very much. She was beautiful, smart, perceptive, expressive, graceful. One of the things I liked best about her was her unique sense of style. She often wore clothes that were clearly one-of-a-kind. And they fit her figure and demeanor perfectly. In addition to all this, she had a boyfriend who was similarly intelligent and attractive. Walking the halls, they were a stand-out couple. Yeah, she was pretty much everything I wanted to be. I was jealous of her. I held her in such high regard, that I felt I could never be like her.
But, looking over her shoulder to see what grades she got on her tests and assignments, I noticed that sometimes I did do better than she did. Whenever my grade was higher than hers, I secretly gloated I had this persistent attitude that since she was so great, beating her at anything made me better.
Junior year, three students from our class were chosen to participate in a scholarship competition held annually by the National Council of Teachers of English. You guessed it. It was me, her, and a guy named Gary. It was a big deal. And a long process. Multiple times we were taken out of classes to go to the school library, where we sat at a circular table in a small, separate room, taking the necessary tests. When we were done, we were told that we wouldn’t find out the results until the next school year. Waiting, I really wanted to win – not just for the high honor and national recognition, but because I had convinced myself that if I won this award, over my mental nemesis, it would be final, absolute proof of my superiority to her.
Or so I thought. When the time came, I was told, before anyone else, that I won. I was ecstatic. It was my greatest accomplishment in life, so far. I was instructed to tell no one but my parents until it was announced in English class in a few weeks. I told them – and my two best friends. No one else. It was a fine kind of pleasure, indeed – winning, and holding that glowing secret inside me while I was waiting. And the best of it was sitting right behind my classmate, day by day, as usual, but knowing I had beaten her at something really big.
The day my English teacher announced it, the whole class clapped for me. I was so proud. But then came a real surprise. My classmate, the one who had competed with me, and lost to me, turned around in her seat, looked right into my eyes, and said, most sweetly and sincerely, “Congratulations, Mary Kay. I’m so happy for you.” And she meant it! I knew she really, truly meant it. I could tell by the expression on her face and in her voice that she spoke from her heart.
I was shocked. Dumbfounded. Gobsmacked. I had never considered the possibility of this happening and I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know how to respond. This was a girl whose head I wanted to step on all through high school, who I had set up in my mind as an adversary, almost an enemy, even though she had never done or said anything to hurt or offend me. And then, not knowing how I felt about her, she was the first to give me a victory flash. I just sat there, feeling deflated. Feebly said, “Thanks.”
Inside myself, in that moment, I changed. I was instantly, indelibly different. A light went on in my head as I realized what I had done, and saw what I lost because of my stupid, competitive mind frame. I remember, so clearly, exactly what I silently said to myself. – “I’m a shit. We could have been friends.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug her, explain to her, apologize to her. Something. But other kids were offering congratulations, and I was smiling and thanking them, and then it was time to settle down for class. The moment had passed.
Soon after, we graduated. And I haven’t seen her since. She moved away. Years later we spoke on the phone a couple of times, wrote a few letters. Got to know each other a little better. Somewhere in there I told her what I’d done. She was surprised at my hidden feelings of rivalry toward her, and flattered that I admired her so much. Funny thing, when I told her how much I liked her clothes in high school, how much I envied her in them, she told me that her mother made most of her clothes because her family didn’t have a lot of money and that she was embarrassed, wearing them, because she knew how different she looked from everyone else. Who knew?
Of all my classmates, she’s the one I’d most like to see again. But she’s never come to a reunion, maybe never will. My thoughts of her now are friendly – with a hint of longing for what might have been. I still feel that I missed a chance to have a meaningful relationship because of my wrong-headed thinking. But I’m better for it, that I changed my thinking. This experience took something out of me – in a good way. Something harsh, dark and mean-spirited just fizzled out in me, never to be like that again. Ever since, my goals and ambitions are not driven by outdoing others, but by striving to ever better my own best.
I know its part of human nature to compete for survival. And I’m human, so that’s part of me; no getting away from it. But this experience was an awakening for me, with insight that permanently changed my perspective on success, giving me reason to pause, reflect, and ever question the value of competition, and the meaning of winning. I ponder it yet.