Goshen News, Goshen, IN

May 21, 2013

WHOLE FAMILY: I guess if someone has to be last, why not me?


— Summer two years ago, I sat in a dense microbiology course as I angled for admission to nursing school. My grade in the class could make me or break me, and I was nervous. Relatively new to the sciences, I studied hard for the first test — nursing a 3-month-old baby while juggling note cards (or juggling a 3-month-old baby while nursing note cards, I don’t remember).

Before showing us our completed tests, the professor wrote the overall class grades on the board: Highest, 95; lowest, 65. Average, somewhere in the middle. When she passed out our tests, I was mortified to see “65” on mine. Not only was that an essentially failing grade, but it also was the lowest in the class.

Bottom-of-the-pile, back-of-the-line, lowest-on-the-list LAST.

I worked really hard not to cry. Failed at that too.

In recent months I’ve again been a winner at finishing last. Not academically, where I do decently, but at the CrossFit gym where I enjoy learning new ways to make my body strong.

Likely no one even notices that my times for completing a given workout are lowest-on-the-list last, and I get a lot of praise for just finishing and encouragement to persevere. When I commented recently on my slowest-of-everybody time, the trainer said, “Yeah, but you’re faster than the guy sitting home on the couch.” Much appreciated perspective, and she has a wealth of it.

But finishing last makes me think about myself, about my children and how to teach and train them, about how comparison and competition can be useful and harmful. About how the drive to finish NOT lowest on the list can motivate and devastate. About the question, “Is there a place for ‘healthy’ competition?”

Raising our children, my husband and I have largely avoided most compare-and-compete activities for them. They’re not in an academic setting where they can be best or worst in the class. They’re not in sports where the goal is to “kill” or “annihilate” opponents.

They do play chess — several first-place trophies lining the shelves — which is, for sure, a direct competition of skill and talent. But I was happy to hear at a recent chess tourney my 9-year-old son offered his opponent the opportunity to correct a fatal move the other boy had made.

“I was going to win anyway, Mom,” he said, “but it didn’t seem right to win like that. Plus, then he would learn about that move and never make the mistake again.”

It was sort-of a gentlemanly way to triumph over another, I guess.

WHEN IT COMES TO THE QUESTION, “Is the human drive to compare and compete ‘nature,’ or is it ‘nurture?’” anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists — all kinds of other scholars — debate intelligently and persuasively on both sides.

(I realize I’ve been intermingling “compare” and “compete” here, and there is a difference. Seems, though, that when we compare, we humans then are compelled to compete.)

Some say competition is obviously innate just by the way we’re conceived. Did you know only one in MILLIONS of sperm will penetrate an egg to fertilize it? Millions race toward the ovum; only one wins.

Others say we are enculturated to compete, being constantly compared and contrasted with others around us while vying for ways to out-think, out-smart and out-maneuver others.

That’s not hard to believe, either. From the time our babies are born we’re plotting them on charts and testing them for this and that to see how they compare. Then we do everything we know to help them to climb to the top of any given playground pile. Waiting lists for preschool? Lessons, lessons, lessons when they’re barely walking?

THE DEBATE ABOUT COMPETITION becomes something like this: Is there a “healthy” level or kind of competition? Is it all bad? Is it a great motivator for success and thus a good thing?

Boy, I don’t know exactly.

In general, I prefer to be part of endeavors that encourage others to be their best — not ones that encourage me to prove myself better than them. It’s almost as much fun seeing someone else succeed as it is succeeding myself.

Yet comparison and maybe a little chiding — “Let’s see who does this better …” — do prove to be motivating. At the gym, where my numbers are often lowest of many, I find I do better if I’m working to keep up with the guy or gal next to me. I don’t care about being top dog, per se, but I like to push myself to at least stay among the pack.

As for being last? Well, someone has to be. And if I am that someone, so what? Being last can be a motivator, too. After I failed to remain tear-free after that “65,” I visited my microbiology instructor and asked, “What do I need to do?” She assured me I was smart enough — just needed to learn how to study science.

I took her advice and completed that class with a solid “A,” turning my LAST into a FIRST for me. I don’t know how I fared against other students in the class, and it really doesn’t matter. But that “A” after at first failing was a personal record, as they say at the gym.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, midwife’s assistant and nursing student from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”