Sunday, October 20, 2013

Participant Ribbon

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

It may come as a shock that back in school, I was not one of the athletic kids.

Most of the running around on dry land always left me gasping for air, flapping around stupidly in the hope that I could fathom their games, or at least dive out of sight. Recess became a series of experiments in interspecies biology as I tried to convince the fins that helped me swim through oceans of books that they could grip branches easily as any monkey’s paw.

So when the sun rose fiery like hellish laughter casting disdainful rays onto chalk ovals on the grass, I watched – skin drying out as they piled mats and measuring tapes into an obscene arrangement that could only mean one thing -Track & Field - The day they took this young square to a field of round holes with nothing but a mallet soaked in malice, and eyes burning twisted with the suggestion that a fine paste can fit any shape.

With hyenas cackling in the background, I couldn’t help but check the faculty’s sides for spots. I couldn’t help but check their encouraging smiles for foam at the corners. Bright teeth that said “you can do this!” covering up tongues that clucked “you don’t have a choice.”

Once a year, all day, I ran slow, I jumped low, I fell short in every way I could, with no option to opt out, trapped in the field, feeding the track, asking earnestly why we didn’t have yearly spelling bees, or writing contests to be told we didn’t want to make the kids feel inferior. They told me this after I walked off the track at the halfway point because the other kids had already finished.  And as if to back the ass up that had just shit that all over my feet, they presented me a shiny purple ribbon stamped with the word “participant” for every event because nothing deserves a reward quite so much as mandatory participation.

Once a year, all day, I endured humiliation after humiliation, only to be handed a special token for each one so I could look back fondly at those times and say “Yeah. They did that to me.” I could march home with my head held high and say “Look, mom and dad! I failed at something! Stick this fucker to the fridge, because if there’s one thing I want – it’s to be reminded every morning that this school only celebrates the strengths I don’t have “.

All we’re doing with these safety-pin placations is painting over lessons about loss and replacing them with prizes, so we can all grow up accepting that it’s easier to get a ribbon for doing what you’re told than it is to search your heart for the chambers in which your real talents lie.

Fish can’t climb trees, but they live and breathe the same water that allows those trees to grow. Aquaman is helpless in the desert, but there’s a reason they don’t send The Flash to investigate the deepest parts of the Ocean. Our talents are what separate us from the drones we become, so let me be the fish to declare that there is more to life than suffocation on the way up to the canopy, that there is beauty to be found in even the darkest recesses, and that none of us will ever win if we don’t stop running the same circles.

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