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.