"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

simple gifts

it came in a green shiny plastic folder, a preparation my father no doubt had prepared and slipped for me under my door while i was getting ready for bed.

when i opened it, i immediately understood what it was, and could do nothing more than pick it up and read it right where i stood, standing in my room, surrounded by books and remnants of childhood, feverishly reading these papers from beginning to end.

it was my brother's application essay.

this was the essay i had spent an hour talking to him on the phone about, the longest i had ever spoken to my brother in at least ten years. it was for his application to Stanford, the college of his dreams, and the proverbial basket for all of his hopes and future chickens.

the prompt asked him to recount something a person he knew had said to him that changed his life or inspired him, and why.

and my brother, with his endless knowledge of historical figures and speeches, had written about me.

when i recall the night of our hour-long conversation, i remember thinking that he could write about me, but i never dared suggest it. never even entertained a hope that this kind of suggestion would fly, that he would even consider it, that he didn't have a million other people to talk about. furthermore, i never wanted to assume a role of authority in my brother's life, he got enough of that from my parents. no, i opted for a hands-off approach, and encouraged him to do whatever made him happy. sure, that might have undermined my parents' authority (and i did occasionally take the flak for that), but i was happy to be the voice of dissension when it came to my little brother. as the older sibling, wasn't it my job to understand both my parents and my brother, to reflect on my childhood and the role my parents played in it, to yearn for a happier time without all the nagging, and to be the parent and unconditional love my brother always wanted? i was the one that was supposed to go through the worst of my parents' experiments; my brother was supposed to get the improved and streamlined versions.

i grew up with my life planned for me, with every potential glorified and encouraged, my every misstep serving as a lesson for improvement. i was raised to be a superstar, an academic over-achiever, an all A's student and a scholar, a leader, a trophy child. i was to be the bragging right of both my parents.

but since i refused to attend an ivy league college, essentially dashing the hopes set out for me since childhood, i have felt endlessly disappointing to both my parents and myself. when everyone has such lofty expectations for you, you begin to believe your own hype, and then lose yourself when you lose sight of the potentials people imagined for you.

i ended up a nervous wreck, a misguided kid who mistook grades for achievement. now, i'm a sufferer of stress and sleepless nights because i argue with professors for every point on an exam, a perfectionist who considers a 94 an unacceptable step down from my usual 100's. i can never succeed, because my own standards set me up for failure. i'm never happy with my schoolwork, despite the fact that people tell me i'm brilliant. "Really?" i ask, dumbfounded by their blind disregard for that B i got in Intro to Comm my freshman year. i remind them: "Intro to Comm! It was an introduction to communications class!" with so much potential, and so many high hopes, you're bound to fall short of one of them eventually. and with all the running about and the lack of stopping for breaths, it's a wonder i didn't burn out sooner.

but my brother, in the cool kid way he's always done, saw through all that and wrote about me. he understood the pressure we were under as kids to succeed. he wrote about it as "an unofficial war" we waged "since we were children," a war for the attention and approval of our parents. i think we both knew what was going on, and what child doesn't understand the subtle ways in which parents can pit their own children against each other, forcing them to compete and better themselves through comparison? over time, this kind of competition can destroy you, can tear you apart, driving siblings away. it happened with my brother and me: we never talked any more, because school had become our lives, and you don't reveal your strategies and secrets to the enemy.

i guess enough time and distance has come between us that we can reach out to one another now. he's applying to colleges, and i've been despising mine for so long now that i consider myself a specialist in what to avoid in an institution of higher learning. i was also kind of a wiz at the admissions process, having applied to schools for fun or something when i was his age four years ago (i'm not even kidding, i remember sending off a total of FOURTEEN (14) separate applications by the time December 1st hit).

but as much as i consider myself a hot shot, it was truly humbling to see that the simplest gesture had made a profound impact on my brother (or, at the very least, important enough to inspire a college essay): he wrote about my first holiday home from college, and how i had simply uttered these simple words: "You're a great student, I'm sure you'll do fine." so simple, i bet i said them on auto-polite [sic]. but they meant enough to him. my brother has also kept post-its i've left on his door the nights before big exams, like the one on his door now, which reads "Good luck today, Cal! (Not that you'll need it) -Steph"

despite my own misguided flailings [sic] in the educational system and my increasing desire to drop out, it was jarring to see that when i thought no one cared any more, there was one person who is still watching.

and it makes my heart so warm and glad to think that of all the things i have accomplished and of all the things i dreamt about doing with my life, the one that brings me to tears from laughter and gladness is an essay by my brother, an essay that is surely going to land him a place in Stanford, which i don't even think deserves him.

thankfully home for a happy thanksgiving,

p.s. if i get enough requests i will post the essay my brother wrote. it's really a brilliant work, because it's honest and quirky. no where else will you find such open and personable writing with HISTORICAL ANALOGIES so masterfully interlaced and interchanged! the kid's a prince. a real prince. an example, in speaking of our sibling rivalry: "like the intense American-Soviet deadlock of the past half century, my sister and i each did all we could to overcome the other and finally win this long struggle." who wouldn't want a kid who knows his history well enough to make an ANALOGY out of it?! fools! only fools!


Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving! (Even though we don't celebrate it in UK).

stephan!e lee said...

thank you Emma.

and it's ok you don't celebrate in the UK, the native americans don't celebrate it either.