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Embracing the Dog-Eat-Dog World

Meet John: Number one in the senior class. National Honor Society president. Perfect scorer on the ACT. If I tie for third in the Poetry Slam, he places second. If I set a personal record in cross-country, he’s team MVP. It’s always the same story: In the world of transcripts and awards ceremonies, I am one step behind.

I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for him, the glory would be mine. Not that I ever worked for glory; I am simply passionate about learning and growing, and the trophies and certificates mean little.

But at the end of the day, I am human. This powerful little adjective encompasses both the dark and the light, and the darkness, the id, cries out for recognition.

Conversely, the light of my humanity remembers—wonders how I ever forgot—that I once called this incredibly driven spirit my boyfriend. The only boyfriend of my high school years, the one whose hand I held while walking in verdant May woods, while watching friends act and dance on stage, while praying at youth group, while pre-race nerves pulsed in our guts. That’s John. The texts, the red envelopes, the notes between class changes, the barrage of pathos as our cortical reason and our primal desires entangled to form a brilliant alliance: that's John and me.

And brilliant we were. Nothing stood in our way—between his capacity for math and music, and mine for writing and art, “if we wanted to do anything together it would work out.” (His words.) And ‘things working out’ does not mean parental acquiescence to Saturday movies or Friday afternoon get-togethers.

Indeed, we never went to the movies together. Never saw a single one. We did things like jumping on a trampoline with his 5-year-old niece, running laps around the track to raise money for the band, quizzing each other on Constitutional Amendments, and co-leading the National Beta Club.

I know, we were the ultimate nerdy duo. But to two sophomores in love, “nerd” may as well have meant “muse.” What a beautiful three months it was.

Three months, the span of spring—but by summer it was over. Neither of us can remember why it ended, except that perhaps we spent too much time quizzing and racing and poetry-slamming to understand that love transcends performance and ability, even ability to love. It was I who scripted the end, so perhaps that misunderstanding was solely on my end. But it is at least clear that we, the two sophomores, were nothing if not the definition of sophomoric.

But I quickly became my own entity—my own nerd—and my muse became the rain and the road beneath my feet. It took nearly a year to restore our friendship after the break-up.

But even then, I could not offer him sincere congratulations. In answer to humanity's innate competitive drive, I wasn't satisfied unless I was the best. And clearly, John was the best. So I decided I was sick of the high-school-scale "rat race," of the comparing game, of pride and external validation.

But, you want to know something? John and I dream different dreams. I am not walking in his shadow; I'm going in an entirely different direction. On Saturdays when he's coaching soccer, I'm helping middle-schoolers design yearbooks. On Thursday nights when he's studying for a calculus test, I'm serving at my youth group. When he's practicing the sax, I'm writing for my blog. His joy and success is no greater than mine, regardless of whether or not it's accompanied by another blue ribbon.

The world, I realized, is full of Johns. John is the colleague who gets the raise, the researcher who gets the grant, the entrepreneur who gets... past bankruptcy. He (or she) is the lead role in the play and the writer with an actual book deal. But that's how it's supposed to work, isn't it? Retreating to Walden Pond isn't likely to change the world. Competition, at the risk of wasting time, capital, or dignity, on the other hand, is another word for passion.



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