January 22, 2018

Sister Act

When I was entering fourth grade and transitioning from Catholic school to public school, I went through a battery of IQ tests and placement exams to see where exactly I belonged in the educational tracks that they'd established.

I passed everything with flying colors and then some, qualifying for the "Gifted and Talented" program and reading, writing, spelling, and doing math at a seventh-grade level.

I was so far ahead of my fellow classmates, in fact, that my new school was inclined to have me skip a grade—but my parents refused.


Because that would put me in the same grade as my sister, who was only 15 months older and just one school-year ahead.

Her test results hadn't been spectacular enough to warrant her leapfrogging fifth grade and landing right into sixth grade.

I don't know exactly why my parents didn't want us in the same grade, though I suspect it was more of a social decision than an educational one. They knew I'd get along with the teachers better (even though we wouldn't necessarily have the same teacher). They knew I'd make friends more easily.

So they held me back. And, as a result, I was a freak.

Maybe I would've been freakishly young for fifth grade. Maybe having skipped fourth grade would've also made me an alien, as most of our classmates were more likely to repeat a year.

But I can't help but resent the fact that my parents sacrificed my academic success to save my sister's feelings from being hurt.

I did the best I could to cope with the hit that my own social life had taken. That was way more challenging than the schoolwork.

After all, I didn't have to work very hard on my homework, and I didn't have to study for tests—and by the midpoint of fifth grade, I'd already finished the entirety of junior high for those subjects I'd been allowed to advance in.

By mid-fifth grade, I was ready to study a foreign language—something that students weren't normally allowed to do until seventh grade, even if they were particularly precocious like me.

I literally had nothing to do for the rest of fifth grade and the entirety of sixth grade for half of the subjects. Teachers didn't know what to do with me, so they had me help the other students.

I was so bored, but I was also so grateful not to have to be at home with my mother.

But looking back, it's clear to me that if I wasn't going to skip fourth grade, I should've skipped fifth or sixth grade. To my knowledge, though, the subject was never discussed again.

Whenever given the choice, though, my parents preserved my sister's feelings and protected her, even when I would take a hit as a result (sometimes literally).

At times during our childhood, my sister and I managed to overcome being pitted against each other. There were times that I was my sister's best friend.

When she stayed home during both of her proms, no date and no dress, I turned on the stereo in the basement and danced around and sang to entertain her and take her mind off of what she was missing out on. And when she struggled during her freshman year away at college, I recorded cassettes for her featuring messages from all our dolls and stuffed animals, in each of their individual funny voices. I made her mixtapes. I wrote her letters.

But since I was just a year behind her in school, that was also the time that I had to be figuring out my own college plan and sending in my applications.

I wanted to go to Yale—and I was certain I could get in—but my parents didn't want me in New Haven and refused to bring me there for a visit or help me pay the application fee. I wanted to go to Columbia—again, convinced I was a shoe-in—or NYU, but my parents wouldn't allow me to attend any school in New York City. In fact, I got one out-of-state college visit, which I used on Williams College in the Berkshires—where I got waitlisted.

I applied to a couple "safety schools" where I was sure I could get a lot of financial aid, if not a free ride.

And at the insistence of both my parents and my guidance counselor, I applied to Colgate—a "Little Ivy League" school I'd never heard of until my sister applied there—because she'd gotten a nearly full scholarship and they all thought I had a good chance too.

My parents had already made it very clear to me and my sister that they would be contributing no money to our tuition or any college expenses. If we wanted higher learning, we'd have to figure out how to pay for it ourselves. So, it almost didn't matter where I wanted to go; it was more about where I could afford to go.

And I had to go somewhere. I needed to get away from my parents.

But, much to my dismay, Colgate forked over the most amount of money. And once I'd applied and been accepted, there was no way I could turn that down.

Here's the rub: My sister got there first, and she wanted my arrival to be on her terms. I had to let her sign up for classes, and then I had to make sure I didn't end up in any of them. I couldn't live in the same dorm. She even forbade me from auditioning for theatrical productions that she'd signed up to work backstage on—even though I'd been the one to introduce her to the drama department in high school.

"I don't want to introduce you to my friends," she said. When I asked why, she said, "Because they're going to like you better."

"Well, that's true," I said.

I couldn't even claim any of the glory of receiving such a big honor—the "Alumni Memorial Scholarship"—from such a prestigious university. Next thing I knew, my mother was calling the local newspaper and pitching a story to them about how we both graduated as salutatorians of our respective graduating classes and both wound up getting the same award from the same school.

I was only special because I'd only done the same thing my sister had done the year before. I'd argue at the time and even now that I was only salutatorian and not valedictorian based on a technicality (whereas my sister was actually in second place). But that doesn't make very interesting news.

Still, I'd been a ham for attention ever since I appeared on the front page of the Lifestyle section of the local newspaper that ran on Mother's Day when I was in nursery school. At least I was going to be in the newspaper again.

The article was a big feature with a big stupid back-to-back photo of our "sister act" that ran on the back page of the Saturday paper—a pretty visible press clipping. I felt humiliated and diminished. And then my mother ordered a poster-sized print of the article from the newspaper and gave one to each of us.

I don't know what my sister ever did with hers, but mine has been rolled up in a poster tube with a bunch of other stuff for years, shoved into a dusty corner of my current kitchen, having been moved from dorm room to dorm room and apartment to apartment. I pulled it out and read it recently and had two reactions.

First, the quotations sound like me. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure I've actually changed that much since then, at least in the most fundamental ways.

Secondly, I don't think I was actually speaking the truth. To me, it sounds like I was trying to give them a good article. After all, I worked for that very same local newspaper and had landed a front-page story on it. I knew what worked for them.

I'm kind of inclined to throw that poster out, but it's an artifact of a big time in my life. It's unpleasant, but I think it's important I remember it.

Related Posts:
Open Letter to My Biological Sister
Black Swan, And The View from Behind First Place (Excerpt from Extra Criticum)
Upping the Ante
A Missed Calling

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