I recently overheard a conversation between parents at an in-house schooling show at a large riding school. Some parents believed that the kids should always be ranked first to last while others thought that all of the kids getting a participant ribbon was better. Since the kids were all about 5 years-old, I think – why not let them live in this lovely, sunshine and rainbows, everybody-gets-a-ribbon world when they’re little? Because as most of us know, when you get older, the universe has a way of slapping you down and showing you the truth. I remember when the universe first taught me this lesson and my mother’s ensuing advice like it was yesterday.
I grew up in a tiny rural town a little south of the middle of nowhere. We were big strapping, country kids, but with only three schools in our region the athletics pool was rather small. All through grade school, my school was always the superstar in track and field.
We were the proverbial big fishes happily swimming around our little pond. Since I spent most of my childhood cantering around the backyard, pretending I was Nick Skelton, I was a natural in running and the high jump. You made me feel like a star Nick. I even fashioned my own show jumps out of long sticks held up by my father’s wire tomato thingies stolen from the garden. I always went at them like a hurdle, dragging the family Labrador behind me. When it got to the top in my imagined Puissance class, I used the scissor kick. The dog usually had multiple refusals and got eliminated.
Naturally, I was the high jump and 400m champion at the tiny track meets of our country schools, but the universal smack down would come in high school, when we suddenly had to compete against the city schools. At the first meet, the pond suddenly became an ocean and I was plankton. The high jump was now over my head and the girls were going over it head first and backwards. I never saw Nick Skelton jump a jump like that, but my coach insisted I try anyway. I ran up to it, stopped, turned around and flung myself backwards onto the mat. My teammates thought this was hilarious and told everyone that I had cleared it, not touching the bar. When the audience was suitably impressed, they would reveal with hands-on-knees laughter that I had actually gone under. I didn’t fare much better in the 400 meters. The girls were so fast I couldn’t have kept up with them on a bike.
That first bus ride home was quiet, because the entire team would fall from track stardom that day. Only one of us came in under the eight place rankings. My teammate was eighth in the triple jump, only because there were nine competing and the ninth girl tripped and broke her ankle. Since the boys team didn’t fare much better, there we all sat, banged up, scratched, bruised, covered in dirt, all clutching our sad little ribbons. Not the bright reds and blues that we were used to winning. No. These ribbons all had PARTICIPANT emblazoned across them in fancy gold lettering. There would be no real ribbons to show our families, no trophies to go in the case in front of the principal’s office.
My participant ribbon went directly into the garbage when I got home, but my mother fished it out. She asked me if I did my best. I told her that my best was coming dead last. I told her that the girl with the broken ankle stood a good chance of beating me in a foot race.
She asked me if I had fun. I said how fun could it be to jump as high as you physically can and still not touch the high jump bar with even your hair? How would it ever be fun to be so slow you finished the race after the other runners had already showered, changed their clothes and were having a Gatorade back at their bus?
She was out of nice sugar-coated mom things to say so told me to sit down and listen up. She told me it’s not a failure to have people be better at things than you. It’s a fact of life, so get used to it. She said sometimes you’re just not going to be good enough. Sometimes you’re going to suck. Sometimes you’re going to come in second. And sometimes you’re going to come in last. She said instead of resenting it, seek out and surround yourself with people better than you, it’ll push you to be better yourself.
It was a valuable lesson. It was the reason I became a working student many years later and it was a lesson I would learn again when I moved to Germany. That time the message was as subtle as getting hit with a brick straight in the face. But it turns out my mother was right, as hard as it was, it did make me better.
I never did throw out that ribbon again, but I certainly didn’t put it up on the wall with the others. Instead I kept buried at the bottom of my sock drawer. While I had accepted the fact there were people better than me, I certainly didn’t feel the need to advertise it.
And I still have not forgiven Nick Skelton.