I stood in a great big white room surrounded by art and poetry and instead of admiring the work, I shook with a terrible case of envy.
I was twelve, I think, and was here with my family in a gallery with glass walls that looked out onto the big glass and graphite grey city to celebrate my brother’s success. He had placed in a state-wide competition for writing. There was a ceremony, there was a certificate, there was money, and I was proud.
Until I was angry.
Only a year ago I had been invited to enter this same competition, to send my work off to the great Readers of Things and have them judge my fifth grade poetic work about how America is one big quilt of cultures. And I still remember looking into my teacher’s face and shaking my head, “No.” And she asked if I was sure, that it was a good poem, that I should try it and again I said “No.”
But lo and behold, here I stood more than a year later at a ceremony for the same competition with the same subject matter limited to the same grade level, READING MY OWN WORK.
Of course it wasn’t really my work. It written by some other girl, someone a year younger than me from some other school in a different part of the state-but we had done the same thing. It was nearly the same poem, word for word, with quilts and beauty and America and yay…It was the title that had caught my eye in the first place. But the difference between ME and HER, and it’s a very, very important one, was that she had entered the competition and then she had won. I had done neither.
I was…I don’t know what I was really…I was 1) Oddly comforted that her work wasn’t unique, then 2) Interested to know how many times these people had received the same poem and bestowed a prize on its writer 3) Bemused as to why they bothered with the competition if they received the same damn work year after year 5) In a sort of existential limbo where I wondered about the nature of originality and 6) I was mad/envious. This was my poem, this was my place, this was my glory she was basking in, whoever she was (I’m not even sure she was there for the ceremony). This was supposed to be mine.
But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, it would not be, I could not claim any prize or conciliatory prize, I had no ground here.
I burdened my mother with my mood. She empathized with me and apologized, and finally asked me why I hadn’t entered when I had the chance.
“Because I thought it was stupid,” I said bordering on tears.
“Well,” she said. “You can’t do anything about that now, honey, that’s how you felt about it. None of us could have told you otherwise. We couldn’t have told you ‘you should do this because you’ll be angry if you don’t’.” She looked down into my face and smiled that “my child is hurting, but learning something as well and it’s sad” type smile. “We didn’t know and you didn’t know, right?” She shook the hand I had put in hers as both reassurance and reinforcement.
I sulkily said “right” and frowned for the rest of the afternoon with this weighing on my mind. That was my place, I could have been here, had a prize, a certificate, a check. It could have been me. It should have been me.
When my brother received his prize, I did my best to smile and clap through this feeling of sadness, failure, frustration and indignation. My brother had done beautifully, he had earned a prize he deserved, he had claimed a place in the world of writing, a world most people didn’t acknowledge he had talent for, and he had gotten time in the spotlight. But I had not.
To this day, the memory makes my face set in some ugly expression, like remembering the taste of rotted food that I ate voluntarily. Because of it, I have entered competitions in hopes of proving my worthiness. I have developed a chip on my shoulder for others who succeed. And I dream of the day I when I will succeed where I didn’t years and years and years ago.
And even as I write all these ugly sentiments down, I try to discover the moral of the story. I try to figure out where Mother Goose would shake her head and say I went wrong. I think it’s all summed up thusly:
“…you can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”
– Aunt Jet, Practical Magic 1998