My earliest lesson in the consequences of surpassing those around me came when I was in the 4th grade. Despite my painfully tiny bone structure I was a good athlete, especially when it came to distance running. One day I stayed after school to practice for the Presidential Award for Physical Fitness, on that day the coach who over saw the program decided to stage a competition, me running 660 yards against the fastest boy in school who was in the 6th grade, a boy I thought was really cute.
It seemed to me that losing would be a disgrace but I hadn’t anticipated the impact to the boy or me should I win the race. I naturally put forth my very best effort, ran like the wind and won by nearly a quarter of a lap. As I ran I had no idea how far ahead I was tracking because he remained behind me during the entire race and I never once saw him. I ran the race as if I could feel him nipping at the heels of my sneaker, having paced myself for the first laps at a solid clip but as I came around the last half lap I broke my even pace, shifted gears and willed my tired muscles to a dead-heat, fast as my legs could carry me, run.
Sucking air as I tried to catch my breath without throwing up, I crossed the finish line, so far ahead that I watched as Aaron ran the last quarter lap. I never pushed myself that hard and in retrospect, I am certain that this was the point of the whole exercise, a nudge from a coach to get me to kick it to the next level and I delivered.
I don’t recall winning praise from anyone but the coach whooped and hooted as my eyelet lace anklets crossed the finish line. The boy I beat was humiliated and I knew that long before he ever finished the race. It didn’t matter that he was faster than all the boys taunting him, it mattered that he wasn’t faster than me. After that day Aaron never again made eye contact with me…even after we moved on to middle school. Being beat was ego battering but being beat in front of the school by, not just a girl, but a girl the size of a 3rd grader wearing a sundress and eyelet lace anklets… it made the defeat all the more brutal.
At the time, I really didn’t understand the dynamics and simply expected that winning was the benchmark to strive for. What I learned was that benchmarks are contingent upon objectives. If my goal was to win then I was right to put everything on the table but if my goal was to win the attention of this boy, or to preserve a budding friendship then beating the pants off him in front of the school was certainly not the route to take. While society claims great strides toward gender equity, I have to say that the results today under the very same circumstances would more than likely not be entirely different. Aaron would have saved face had he been handed his ass by another boy, or the sting of defeat would have been lessened had he lost to a large hulking female… he just couldn’t loose to a girl who by shape and feature was the epitome of feminine.
I was intrigued by this, suddenly keenly aware of the fact that the individual male and female experience is largely influenced by that which society deems inherently feminine. A petite man who is not gay would not find carrying a “man purse” as easy as a male who stood 6’2. Likewise, my earliest attempts to navigate in the business world held its share of pat her on the head and let her address envelopes…regardless of my GPA and regardless of how competent I was. While not done consciously, the tides did turn for me but interestingly enough, not until my hair came off at the buzz of a number 4 clippers.