(Thank you, rainy days!)
In kindergarten, I always topped the exams that's probably why I graduated first honor. For someone who dreaded going to school at all and who came from two families with largely unschooled folk, that was a miracle. I would repeat the same feat in grade school, in Grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. I dropped to second place only in Grade 5, but everyone in my family conceded I was most probably cheated.
I am fond, most of all, of my time in Grade 1, when I competed in town-wide spelling bees and wordplay contests and singlehandedly won all the various categories. I have lousy certificates to prove it, which my mother laminated, to my embarrassment (or is it secret satisfaction). I carried off my winning streak through Grade 6, when I competed for town-wide and province-wide science quiz bees. I only suffered defeat for the first time when I was nearing the regional levels, but I thought that’s okay, for I had had my fill. Maybe I was just consoling my wounded pride. Of course, I wondered how it felt to win further up in the competition. Today, I am half-glad to think that, had I really won the grand prize, I would have proclaimed myself as God's special gift to mankind. In this case, being defeated was a little form of triumph.
High school was even more competitive, for I was up against the children of the most prominent people in town, people way beyond my league. So I got the surprise of my life when the freshman class voted me as their class president. Honestly, I don’t know what they saw in me. Maybe it's because I seemed shy and unassuming yet topped the exams sometimes (or oftentimes), so they mistook that for genius and balance and competence, never suspecting I had hidden insecurities and terrible EQ problems, too. (Ha-ha.)
That class president 'achievement' proved to be no fluke. In the succeeding years, I was likewise voted as Science Club president and other assorted positions, including laughably enough -- believe it or not -- Math Club president, my aversion for the subject notwithstanding. Good thing I didn't have the required smarts for singing and sports, or I would've invaded the Glee Club and jocks' turf too. Now they would've worshipped me as Mr. Perfect instead of scoffing at me as The Odd Nerdie. (Club activities supposedly included quiz shows, field trips, tutorials, etc.)
I’m pretty sure the others were given the same chance, but I remember ending up having a grand time ‘hoarding’ achievements like those as I ascended the high school 'years.' Nobody knew I eventually developed an evil motive: since I was always expected to be on top, I made sure I always got the highest honors, hopefully snagging it especially at graduation time. Someone happened to have whispered to me that the final grading system would not only factor in the academics but also the extra-curriculars. I was a sorry little jerk starving for approval that I was willing to do all that: spread myself thin and all.
I guess I fooled them all, not the least myself, and no one was unkind enough to blow my cover. I even managed to graduate as the class salutatorian, which I took as a form of subtle defeat. I wasn’t that bitter, though, because I half-conceded that Jonathan, the class valedictorian, was way smarter, and naturally so, i.e., without even trying, without coming off as nerdy and bookish like you-know-who. It also helped that he’s one of my closest buddies at the time. I would have certainly resented it had it been someone I didn't like as much.
There was a time I would learn to love competition for the thrill of it, despite having known the bitter taste of defeat, or perhaps even because of it. It was in third year, I think, when I had my favorite win of all: the YMCA-sponsored province-wide essay-writing contest to which I was sent by my school to Dagupan City as representative, together with Jonathan. It was a totally unexpected triumph, and I am not trying to be humble. First, I didn’t expect to be sent because I had no idea such a competition existed. Second, all my fellow contestants looked like Einstein with better hair and had a gift of gab too, which certainly made me feel like an also-ran.
Not thinking of ever winning, I just wrote on and on, with my instinct as my only guide. I enjoyed the thought process more than I was nervous, if indeed I was. I was the type to have stage fright, and writing didn’t involve facing a hostile audience, so you could say I was in my element. The subject given on the spot was something like, “How the youth can show initiative in changing society for the better,” or words to that effect. It sure sounded corny, but it was abstract enough for me I felt challenged. (I can’t even begin to contemplate the crap I wrote, but where is that gold medal of mine, now that I remember it?)
I now attribute that win to sheer luck and perhaps gift, because, like I said, I felt so intimidated that I didn’t have the gumption to even premeditate on winning, as I was won’t to do: preorganizing possible ideas in my head, and so on. The result was, I simply had fun doing it, with the thought that I had nothing to lose.
When it’s time for the awarding ceremony, oh boy, was I standing tall, though with my head a bit bowed from time to time from sheer embarrassment: I wasn’t sure I had the best haircut or the best shirt on. Meanwhile, our class adviser who accompanied us, Ms. D., was visibly proud not just of me. It turned out to be a double win for for our school: Jonathan also won the grand prize in poster-making, something he treated as "all play" as well. For a minute there, I didn't regard him as a rival-friend but as a co-winner.
The icing on the cake? The two of us were presented one morning by the principal in front of the entire assembly of not just high school students but university students as well. (I studied in a laboratory high school for a teachers’ university, so the student-teachers who experimented on us must also be in attendance (but our actual teachers were all college professors, sometimes with doctorate degrees).)
It's not like I'm saying I could win without even trying, just that I won because I loved what I was doing. Since winning didn’t even matter, I didn’t even feel I was competing.
By this time, I had learned that winning was sweet, but it was also addictive: I always craved for it, always wanting to reap honors, yet I was never fully satisfied. In the end, the very idea of seeking honor and glory for myself stank like stench.
As I moved on for college, I think that one last win made me lose my appetite for competing as my way of begging for approval and soliciting acclaim. I figured out that, competing, if pure, can be real fun, but if not, forget about it. For once, I wanted to be just one of the guys, and UP being the unnatural environment that it is, the desire to be invisible was easily met. Surrounded by the nerd of nerds and the really gifted child, I finally blended in as one among 'nobodies,' never to be noticed, never topping any exam (just once), never becoming class president, never snagging that coveted position in the school paper, never competing in the name of the school... If I wanted to be popular, it was because I had enough charm. (I think I fooled a lot of folks in that part too.) If I was too grade-conscious, it's because I wanted to keep my DOST scholarship.
With the background of being so honors- and award- and achievement-driven early on, it was thus a great dismay to discover what nobody in school (and at home too) told me: None of those would matter on one’s future resume. Not even one. What’s worse, one’s resume won’t even matter if one ends up jobless in the end, or is trapped in a dead-end job, or proves to be inadequate on the job, or have nothing to show for all the hard work.
Then again, what's not in my resume, which we all know is the world's yardstick for worth and character, is happily enough, also never a reflection of the great things that happen inside us in between the stages of schooling and career and life. Worst of all –- or best of all, depending on one’s view -- none of it would ever matter when one dies, or alternately, none of it would matter anyway when one is dead unless one has loved the way one should in life -– oneself as is, what one did for a 'living,' and everyone and everything that came life's way.
I wonder what we should tell our kids now, given this reality? Of course, it's easy to argue that a 'solid foundation' leads to a successful college and career life, and it is right, but what if kids discover what I discovered about resumes? Even more critically, what if they discover that they are never thought the one thing that they should learn?
I wish someone taught me these things growing up. It would have made my young life less pathetic in its self-centered scheming, I would have enjoyed the ride better, and I would have lived my life today even more fully. But it's never too late to learn as long as I finally learn the one thing I should. In which case all of my mistakes were at least of some use.
Maybe that is one of those things one ought to learn by oneself. How sad and tragic, then, that each time it is missed, one hasn't learned a thing no matter how learned he is, no matter how mystifying his resume.