On Competition

When I was in fourth grade, one of my friends, who happened to be one of the few Hispanic boys came up to me and said: “I wish I were a genius like you.” And I said, “you are a genius, I can’t play sports like you, I’m just good at school stuff.” This was the first time he had ever heard he was good at anything and then the teacher said “no, he can’t be, he is not doing well in school.” She made a point of tearing me apart and shaming him. His whole demeanor changed, he had been standing tall and I never saw him stand tall again. What that teacher did is tell a kind, thoughtful, 8 year old that he had no value. This made me angry and it is one of those memories I’ve hung on to and thought about a lot. I’m always mad at myself for not being equipped to defend him, for being powerless.

In school, I won every academic contest, but I really don’t like or thrive in competition. I want everyone to be successful and I was notorious for telling teachers that their competition was unfair because it didn’t capture the talent of everyone.

The problem with competition is that someone has to fail. In working class culture, you are raised to understand that everyone has value and that no one succeeds if someone fails. You leave no soldier behind. This is why it was so difficult for me when I got to Stanford, I was frustrated and suffering from survivors guilt. I knew a lot of people who were just as talented as the kids in my dorm who weren’t there. As a teacher, my understanding of working class culture was a major asset. The vast majority of educators didn’t come from that culture or were successful because they rejected that culture so they lack the ability to see the value of every child and build classrooms that are damaging to children.

I don’t like competition, I don’t do my best work in competitive environments and I don’t know a creative, gifted person who does. I need to be locked in a room with the freedom to think. I hate the way it makes other people feel, and I hate when my success is used to mock or oppress others. If we are serious about creating an education system where every child can be successful then we have to get rid of competition and start seeing the beautiful things each child possesses. The first problem in education is that our educators have no experience of what it takes to learn when everything isn’t set up for you to be successful or when you don’t have the skills and talents required to be successful in a narrowly focused and oppressive environment. The majority of people in education are people who were successful in the education system and think it’s fine because it worked for them and don’t understand the people it’s doesn’t work for. They were successful because they were competitive and happened to be good at school, and usually had parents that had the cultural capital to help them be successful, but they don’t understand or think about the advantages they had or why others struggle. They think the solution is to destroy the working class in kids and turn them into machines. That’s not creativity or rigor and it is not even something the brightest children succeed in. Every time they tried to implement that with me, I subverted it and then staged protests. I wasn’t successful in school because I was a “good” student. I was a nightmare of epic proportions, I just happened to be gifted enough to succeed without trying. I would do what I had to on assignments so I could get to what I considered my real education, which included a lot of reading of literature and what I could get my hands on to study science and math (so limited, I watched Good Will Hunting and was jealous because of his access to Harvard).I was successful on every metric, but I really wasn’t learning anything in school. I am an autodidactic learner, and I had to be to get out of my neighborhood. I want the freedom to write and think, and I love learning but when I’m in a competitive environment I will do almost anything to subvert it and try to help others be successful. Adding competition to a task just annoys me.

Because I am naturally good at certain things people assume that I’m confident and want to hold people down. Or, at least people in education did, I was fine during my undergraduate years when I didn’t have to worry about it, but the minute I got into education I got in trouble . They told me I talked too much and the people training me did everything they could to tear me down. They wouldn’t call on me and let my classmates say mean things to me, I almost never got any positive feedback. I was deeply hurt when they told me that the other STEPies didn’t like me because my presence and voice made them feel bad, so I just stopped engaging and I started to hate my work and I started to underperform. I was so sick, but I was too scared to tell anyone because I was afraid they would use it against me. Because I’m white and female, every time I tried to contribute my insight, I was and am almost always the only person with my background, I was told it was invalid. I had to prove I suffered enough to be considered marginalized. On several job interviews and even my PhD interview at UCLA , despite being from a background similar to my students I was told I didn’t belong because I was white. But my background is what makes me a good teacher. Having been someone who watched the system fail people, and who succeeded despite the system allowed me to see the flaws and to reach kids and build a classroom that worked. But the entire time I’ve been in education I’ve been treated like I don’t belong.

The Dean of the School of Education had a meeting with me to discuss how to deal with the way I was treated in my Masters program. He said to me, “what are you doing here? You are an intellectual. Go get your PhD.” At the time I was hurt, just as I was hurt on every job interview where I was told I was brilliant but didn’t belong, or wasn’t a good fit. Just as I was hurt every time that people whispered behind my back that even though I had grown up in horrific urban poverty, I didn’t belong in my community because I was white. Just as I was hurt every time a male colleague or mentor talked down to me or told me I was too abrasive or not good enough. But I was wrong, the dean was trying to protect me.

For a long time, I comforted myself by saying, “you’ve fought before , someone has to take the bullets to fix things, this is no big deal, you’ve seen worse” but at the end of the day all I had to show for it was my badly damaged body. I don’t want to fight or struggle anymore. I’m too tired and in too much pain. I want to be somewhere where I can hide and write and do research and where people are kind. I should never have been asked to endure in the first place and I don’t owe anyone my back or neck or knee or mobility or health. I have the right to be happy and healthy and free, anyone who doesn’t believe or prevents that is dead to me. I’m not letting anyone do that to me anymore.

And you shouldn’t either.


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