I’ll admit it.
I’m one of those annoying checklist people.
Before smartphones existed, with their Notes options, advanced calendaring, and a myriad of sleek task-management applications you can download from the app store, I was already addicted to the day planner. This analog habit for keeping track of items and due dates started sometime in my teenage years, where I would stand in the stationery aisle of a big box store, judging each day planner on a myriad of Goldilocks-esque criteria.
- It must have ample space for me to write the assignment for each class period.
- Week days should be granted the most real estate per page, but I also need to see the weekend represented (perhaps with Saturday and Sunday smashed together).
- The size shall not exceed that of a small pamphlet — it should fit in a smaller pocket of my book bag.
- Three-ring binders are ideal, but a spiral notebook binding is acceptable.
- It must look cool. Not leather-bound (read: for grandma) and not Lisa Frank (read: for babies).
And so on.
This methodology was an important part of my Strategy. It was a system I’d come to rely on for keeping track of assignments, giving myself deadlines, and otherwise trying out for whatever the equivalent of Quiz Bowl is for Franklin Covey acolytes. I knew the right day planner would be my 3 wood golf club for long drives — the head start to keep my grades high.
This keen awareness of the hierarchy of life was an invisible force, underpinning everything I did. And not just from an academic standpoint — I wanted to be top tier in any of the activities I engaged in — volleyball, basketball, regional spelling competitions, finger-style guitar lessons, my Driver’s License exam. I had an insatiable hunger for success, and I gravitated away from any of the skills where I discovered I was mediocre. The joke in my family was that even my blood type was A+.
Thus, steeped in this meritocratic Earl Grey, I remember shopping for a going away present for one of my close friends the summer after we graduated from high school. I was with my best friend, Holli, and we perused the aisles of a local party store for confetti, cards, and other goofy items to include in her care package.
On the way through the checkout line, directly by the register, I saw a line up of the kitschy prizes used for award ceremonies, embossed with gold lettering, and affixed to a safety pin. The location was hilarious to me, as if it was common for people to impulse-buy accolades for $1.99 alongside party favors and helium balloons.
I couldn’t help but read through them, and amidst the standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place options, there was a lone purple ribbon that read, “I TRY MY BEST.” I doubled over in laughter, overcome with the tragicomedy of someone receiving this in lieu of an “Honorable Mention,” an alternative award which would confer at least some modicum of respect to the recipient.
The hilarity bubbled up within me that someone might receive this, the saddest little ribbon. Would they recognize it as a consolation prize? Would it make them a target for smug bullies? Was it actually better than not getting a ribbon at all?
In this unassuming shop full of crêpe paper and cardboard, I was facing a symbol of the world’s lopsidedness. I was a giggling achievement junkie faced with the reality that there might be someone who loses even though they gave it their all. This concept was inconceivable to me based on the stories after which I’d patterned my life.
As an adult, however, I’ve now seen first-hand how this competitive winnowing happens every day. People evaluate daily how to succeed when the odds are stacked against them. I’ve personally filed unemployment insurance claims via state website –noticing that the job board excludes the most lucrative opportunities and that the resume-writing tool watered down my broad experience to banal, inaccurate generalizations. I know a Dreamer who, despite having reassurance about her own legal presence in the United States has to worry day in and day out about her parents, who are still undocumented and in fear of deportation. They have lived and worked here for almost 30 years. I know a trans woman who still goes to the doctor and hears, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” when speaking with experts who should know how to advise her about her health.
The general manager of that card shop likely spent less than two minutes selecting the purchase of those ribbons, and yet they became a reminder for me that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length, and some have none at all. This little ribbon was a single frayed thread in a carefully crafted tapestry, one that indicated that by trying one’s best you might end up on the winner’s podium, and that we would venerate you for your heroism if you won. Everyone loves an underdog, right?
In order to craft underdog stories, however, we have to have underdogs in the first place. What is it about American culture that only celebrates the people who fight against adversity and win, rather than those who simply fight against adversity? To celebrate someone who miraculously survives systemic injustice but to ignore those that are crushed by it? I’ve seen this attitude as it relates to people deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. Grocery store workers and gas station attendants filling the very roles that parents point to when attempting to scare their children into attending college. Line cooks who couldn’t make ends meet on the hourly wage they receive even if their employer granted them a full 40 hours per week. Nurses who are trying to save lives without sufficient protective gear for themselves or their patients.
Faced with a crisis like COVID-19, we allow our government leaders to deflect protective gear from front-line staff who are witnessing full critical care units and mass death. Our solution is to stand in doorways and applaud for healthcare workers as they start the next grueling shift. Instead of providing funds to keep grocery workers housed and fed, we hang signs in the windows saying “Thank you to our essential workers,” and then allow patrons to scream and curse at them when they are requested to wear a mask.
Standing in that gift shop, holding a little purple ribbon, I had discovered a nod to those who didn’t have a Disney-worthy comeback — for those who didn’t reinforce our underdog system. We give that ribbon in form of hero worship when we are unwilling to provide actual support to the people who fight for us. We love an underdog because it reassures that the world will be alright, despite the fact that we ourselves have done nothing to make it so. And we ignore the ones that fall under the wheel — their loss doesn’t fit into the beautiful narrative of achievement. We are children telling stories in the dark –that the world is beautiful, that light will defeat darkness, and we don’t have to lift a finger to help.