I have never been able to think for myself. I have always called myself a follower. I have never felt good enough to be a leader. That is not to say that I don’t think I’m smart. In fact, sometimes I can be so arrogant so as to think of myself as the smartest person in the room. Unfortunately, in terms of mentalities, the latter is too pompous, and the former is just too self-deprecating. I am neither very intelligent nor very stupid. Following, the only logical conclusion is to say that I am average, but that is a hard reality to face. I don’t think anyone would want to think of themselves as being the norm. We’re always inclined to think that we are the exception. Is it possible for us all to be exceptional, outstanding, or at the very least, different? Until recently, I didn’t want to think I was special. I assumed that I wasn’t. It seemed obnoxious of me to think of myself as anything more. And maybe I’m still not special, but I am, at the very least, different.
I am nothing like you. You are nothing like me. We have many basic things in common, but when it comes down to it, we are two very different people. The only thing that we undoubtedly share is our humanity. So, if we are so different, why do I insist on comparing myself to you? Why do I want to follow your exact footsteps? Why do I feel inadequate when I find out that you have done something better than me? Why do I feel superior when I find out that you have done something worse than me? It makes no sense, but I do it anyway.
When I was young everyone was the same. Everyone in my Kindergarden class, including myself, was the same; we had all grown up in the same neighborhood, we all spoke the same languages, we all played the same sports and we all liked the same superheroes. There was very little that could differentiate us. Then, grades came around along with society’s first attempt at separating us up into groups: the smart, the average, and the below average. So what I was going to do? Go with the flow, of course. I applied to the gifted program at my new elementary school, and I got in which did nothing but raise the standards that I would have to meet for the remainder of my life. When you start out on an uphill path the only way down is to fall. I did fine for the majority of the five years, but I was never perfect. I walked away from fifth grade with a Certificate of Completion and a Phenomenal Drama Student Award, a last minute certificate printed on crappy recycled construction paper given to the kids that had nothing else to show for their five year elementary school career. Others were chosen as Valedictorians and speakers and took home certificate after certificate. During the graduation ceremony there were students whose name was called upwards of fifteen times. I was called up twice. That wasn’t bad, but for me, it was not nearly enough.
Then came middle school. Calling the application process stressful for an eleven-year-old would be a drastic understatement. The pressure to get into the same schools as your friends while still making your parents happy was affecting me whether I knew it or not. Unfortunately, I would find out soon enough that the entire process was all for not and that my parents had decided to send me off to a private school, meaning that I would have to do the entire process all over again. By June of my fifth grade year my parents had gotten word that I had been wait-listed at the private school to which I had applied. To avoid giving me any false hope, they simply told me that I “didn’t make it.” Needless to say however, what I heard was: “there were a bunch of kids that made it, but you weren’t one of them.” To be honest, I think this may have been my first rejection, and I wish I could say I grew from it—I didn’t. Although, eventually the school took me off the wait-list which, looking back, may not necessarily have been for the best.
My parents were a little bit better off than many other families at my public elementary school. Unfortunately, until my parents shipped me off to private school I had never actually been cognizant of the existence anything remotely resembling money. In that sense, I was lucky to have been born into a family with the luxury of being able to shield their kids from the corrosive and depressingly powerful effects of money. From then on, I punished myself, and in a way I still do, every time I had a problem of any kind. I always thought that it wasn’t fair that I got to go to a private school and my friends didn’t. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. After my first day at my new school I called a friend of mine to explain to him why I had not showed up to the first day of the public junior high school that I had originally planned to attend. After our ten minute conversation I never again spoke with him or anyone else with whom I had spent the past five years of my life.
At that point, I was living in a different world. In this world the standards were unequivocally higher. My path had diverged from that of my previous classmates. In my new school, there was plenty to be put up for comparison: Where do you live? Where are your parents from? What teams do you support? All of the answers had become unique. The only kids that were somehow able to coincide on some things was a handful of students that had been at the school since Pre-K. All of those lived in the neighborhood, knew the same people, and had the same tastes, absolutely none of which had anything to do with my tastes, my people, and my neighborhood. For some time I was convinced that because I lived so far away from my school that I did not belong. I lived, and still live, in an OK russian neighborhood on the other side of the borough. No one was the same anymore. (And now that I’ve gone to Spain, I have pretty much assured myself that as long as I live I will never find someone who has lived the same life I have, no one that is exactly the same in every way. There are few things that are impossible, but that definitely is.)
As I kept growing people became more and more different. Everyone formed his or her own opinions and chose his or her own role models. Then looks became a factor. Everyone began to dress and speak in a certain way, but that’s not all; the madness continued. Soon, each student had a middle school cumulative GPA, and all of these criteria had a norm. Not all of them could be calculated numerically, but all of them could be calculated. So, you could imagine that this situation would be especially stressful for a chubby and not particularly attractive student with a mediocre GPA, a conservative Republican background, and a slight trace of a Russian accent. That’s what I saw in the mirror every morning, and I would’ve been fine with that if everyone else weren’t better than me. That’s how it started.
I began to make lists of everything that was wrong with me. Then, I would go through all the people in my grade to find someone with the “perfect” life. A life that I could imagine myself living, a life that I could prove was better than mine. A wealthy, intelligent, and hardworking child who lived in a good neighborhood, had plenty of friends, and had even kissed a girl. Lest you think that this was to perfect, I found him. He was perfect. I began dreaming and hoping to be him. I would give anything to have his life, but I was dumb. I didn’t know what was hiding behind the well groomed exterior. Maybe he too had to organize a show every a day: a circus act that doesn’t end until we are alone.
All the comparisons I made me feel even more unsatisfied. I began to become very irritated with my parents’ foreignness, for example. I stopped inviting them to school functions out of fear of standing out of the crowd. Not that they would come to many school functions either way. No matter how hard they try, my mother and father will never be the typical PTA parents. They will never understand the place where I have spent the majority of my life outside of my home. As a kid, I never went on play dates or backyard barbecues that weren’t relatives’. That made me feel unique, and unique is not something you always want to feel.
So, I confess to you that I am, or rather used to be, a ‘comparer’ and I had been for the majority of my life. I compared myself to my friends and my enemies. I compared myself to the rich and the powerful. I compared myself to the homeless and the bankrupt. I compared myself to the dumb and the smart. My comparisons knew no end. Then suddenly, one day I had an epiphany.
Most of the comparisons that I would make fell on to a certain spectrum. There were certain characteristics that, back in the U.S., most people met. Then there was another set of just as specific characteristics on which people differentiated. Here a comparison would be like trying to match apples and oranges. Here the values are different; the problems are foreign, and the people are essentially a different species. The opportunity to look at a world so different from my own where even the simples cultural bases change has given me a previously unattainable objectivity. It was as though, and I know this sounds corny, my eyes had opened for the first time. I felt like a new born desperately trying to open his eyes even though the weight of the world was trying to keep them down, and while I admit it’s possible that the light that I saw upon opening my eyes did nothing more than blind me to the sad truth, but what I saw was beautiful.
We are all different. Whether our differences are minor or major, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what you do with those differences. Some people hide in their circus tents. They hide there true selves to the world. They refuse to let their differences show. They mold themselves to the closest model of perfection they can find, and their model is often just as false as they are. Others learn to embrace their differences and use them to establish their own identity. Their social compasses always point in the same direction. No matter what comes their way they’re always ready face it. Their compass leads them through the thickest and fiercest storms. A wave of changing trends could never touch, let alone change, them. The rest of the world has to worry about getting lost in a capricious hurricane of changing styles and fashions. They lose all the sense of identity they have.
It’s true, I’m not perfect. I’m no where close to it, but for the first time I’m completely comfortable with that. I’m happy with who I am. That’s not to say that I intend to stay exactly the same for the rest of my life. To the contrary, I intend to keep changing until the day I die. However, I will change when I feel the need to change. I will take into account my surroundings, but I will not let them control me. I will get the grades I get and live the life I live. I won’t envy anyone else for living better, looking cooler, being funnier, or getting better grades. I will be happy to have the life I have. I will not ask for a different one. I will not complain, and I will do my best to always see and make the best out of my situation. I have my compass, and I have my journey. Now, all that’s left is to see where they take me.