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Best Of The Best

Best Of The Best

When she was a child, her parents would dress her up in branded clothing from the university where they had met. They would take her along to football games, on pilgrimages back to the campus that she began to think of as a holy land of sorts, littered as it was with beer cups and demonstration flyers, and filled with erudite people carrying large books and highlighters in colors they did not carry in the stationers back home.

Here is the Kappa house, they would say, there is the student union. This is the lecture hall that had hosted the zoology course for which he would always need to borrow her mother’s notes. Her mother had always taken excellent notes. At some point, her brother came along and another set of branded clothing was procured, and they became a family wandering the hallowed halls of lives long past.

She was a child, and she did not understand how the world worked. But she had determined that whatever college was, it must be very important. And she thought that, when the time came, whatever college she chose, would have to be the best. So much depended on it. One day she heard about Harvard, and she announced to them her intention to go there because she had heard on good authority that it was the best of the best.

Her mother told her how expensive it would be to attend a school like Harvard. Her father laughed. He told her that people did not just decide to go to Harvard — it was difficult to go to Harvard. Everybody wanted to go to Harvard. He told her that for her whole life, everywhere she went, there would always be somebody better than she was, smarter than she was, and that if she only wanted the best of the best, she would only always be disappointed, and she would never get what she wanted.

She thought long and hard about what her father had told her, not wanting to believe what he said, but feeling she had no choice. He was her father. As far as her experience had taught her, he was the smartest person in the world. She looked around for somebody to tell her that, in this case, her perception was right, and his perception was wrong. But that person was not there.

In moments of uncertainty, she would continue to look for that person, in one form or another, for the rest of her life.

She looked at the branded university clothing piled up in her closets, collected years before she understood the promise she was implicitly giving by agreeing to wear it on the annual trips to the university where her parents had met. She thought about what she could do, if she couldn’t go to Harvard — if she wasn’t going to be good enough for Harvard, what could she do, she wondered? And she started ripping up all of the clothes she could find, shredding them into tiny pieces, vowing then and there, that if she did nothing else, she would never go to that school, even if it meant that she would end up being the worst of the worst.

After they divorced, she found out that her parents had never even dated while at the university. As it turns out, they had only been distantly acquainted while in school; to her mother, her father had only been the kind of person you know well enough to lend your zoology notes to, and then when you meet again it is like you are meeting for the first time. They married after graduation. The campus trips had been constructions, but if there had been any castles built, it had been the little girl as the architect, for the two of them did have fond memories of college life that they wanted desperately to share with their children, even if history dictated that it could never be one in which they spent that college life together.

As for the little girl, she never did go to Harvard. Instead, she went to the school across the bay from the school where her parents had (not) met. And though she never became the best of the best, she never could quite get herself to stop trying. The effort was long and frustrating, with many pitfalls. Along the way, she learned to parcel herself out in pieces, only giving parts of herself to people whom she felt deserved them, withholding herself from people when she could not bear to give any more. There were those times when she felt like she wanted to take things away from people, when she wanted to rip up the metaphorical sweatshirts and stuff them in people’s faces. But even on those hard days she would try to remind herself that this was not the worst she had seen, not by far.

Comments (9)

  1. Dec 21, 2010

    How I wish parents would not plant the seed of that thought in a child’s head — that the only thing to be is The Best. So many people I know with the same taped message playing in their brains, and I’d like to go in, tear that tape out of its cassette and put in a new one that says “You are the best YOU there ever was. No on else will ever be you but you.”

  2. Dec 21, 2010

    I like this post, and not just because I suspect that picture up there is from my alma mater. 😉

    Seriously, I can completely identify with that “must be the best of the best” mentality, whether it comes from without (where it usually starts) or within (where it’s even worse). I had my first existential gotta-be-the-best-no-wait-do-I crisis in grad school, and (if I’m being honest) relived it about ten years later, too. It can be hard to escape.

  3. Dec 21, 2010

    Dude. That’s deep.

  4. Dec 21, 2010

    For the five years after I graduated from (a different) college, I worked as a staff assistant in an academic department at Harvard (referred to with heavy sarcasm by a Boston Globe columnist as World’s Greatest University). In my time there, the pink collar workers–the secretaries and clerks–unionized. One of my favorite pro-union button sayings was “You Can’t Eat Prestige.” Once you see what goes on behind the scenes at a place like that, you get better at separating myth from reality.

  5. drhoctor2
    Dec 21, 2010

    “But that person was not there.” And that knowledge can be ever so hard to bear.
    The entire body of my parenting philosophy rests on ONE conviction I have , that is, as long as I’m always there, with my kids, they’ll grow up with confidence in their self worth.

    So far, I have been correct in that assumption.

    Unfortunately seeing a lot of collateral damage among my kid’s classmates who have had “that person who was not there.”

  6. michelle
    Dec 21, 2010

    Our parents mean well when they tell us how the world works. Our authorities should be more impartial and more thoughtful in what they say. They often have no idea what we actually hear.

    Hopefully we can do better as parents.

  7. Dec 22, 2010

    And I had almost the exact opposite upbringing. My mom wanted me to stay with her on a goat farm in Alaska and NEVER leave. Which meant that I felt the need to flee to L.A. alomst the minute I was able. No worries about being “the best of the best,” simple survival was enough.

  8. Dec 22, 2010

    Though we have really different stories, I identify with this post so much.

    I had the same relationship to the idea of Harvard as a kid, though neither of my parents went to college. Possibly because of that, they also told me that I wasn’t Harvard material and one of them gave me a brochure for the Army Reserves while the other took me to tour the local community college. While I never made it to Harvard, I did graduate at 16, leave their house, and start self-funded at a local but nice public university, and later went on to grad school (something else they were discourage-y about).

    Now they have complete amnesia about being unsupportive and suggesting I attend a dental hygienist program instead of university. Instead, they think they were with me all the way, and have actually said wondered why I didn’t go to Harvard instead of the public university I’m now getting my PhD at. So I got both “it’s too hard!” and “well, if you were going to graduate school, I don’t see why it’s not Harvard” as if it would have been easy.

    (And, it wasn’t. I got rejected from every Ivy and accepted to every public. So, I guess I’m NOT Harvard material, but whatever).

  9. Accidents,

    I have a friend who applied to Harvard for undergrad. Rejected!
    Masters Degree. Rejected!
    PhD Rejected!
    Tenure track professor job. Hired!

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