98: Active Believer

My first time winning a legitimate competition for my writing was my junior year of high school.

I was a participant in ACT-SO, or Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics. I had joined the program in 9th grade, after an essay I’d written for fun went ‘viral’ among my parents’ friends and members of our church. It was called “Never Underestimate a Perm”, and it relayed in harrowing detail my most recent experience at the hair salon, and my resolution to never undergo the chemical process again (I did not hold to this). I showed it to my parents, expecting some laughs, but to my horror, they made photocopies and distributed them like flyers, which then subjected me to endless questions and compliments from adults that made me feel 2% proud and 98% uncomfortable. But when one woman in particular suggested that I join ACT-SO and compete in the Original Essay category, I agreed. Despite my taciturn nature, I craved group validation, the feeling of belonging. Many of the cool older kids in my church were a part of ACT-SO, and they were known for being talented and high achieving. I did not feel like either of those things, but thought that if I joined, maybe I could pretend otherwise.

My essay won the gold medal on the state level, which qualified me to compete nationally. I did not win, but I returned to ACT-SO the following year in 10th grade. Another gold medal win for the state, another disappointment at nationals. I wasn't particularly upset - I was thrilled at having made it that far, twice. I felt like maybe I was starting to become of the talented kids.

11th grade. I won't deny that I felt some pressure, as I'd won two times and I was now an upperclassman. My coaches, and I, expected more. But I was having trouble coming up with a topic. Then I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda with my parents, and they had to wait for me in the lobby while I stood outside the theater doors and sobbed. I went home and typed for hours. That year, I won gold at state, and walked away from nationals with a silver medal. Despite my previous losses, there was something in the air that year that made winning feel inevitable. I’ll never forget sitting with my group in that giant convention center auditorium, heady and flushed with excitement, knees bouncing as I tried and failed to suppress waves of nervous energy. When the emcee announced, “And the silver medal for original essay--” I almost mouthed along with her, “From New Brunswick, New Jersey--” and felt I would burst as my teammates’ heads whipped around to grin at me; there was no one else from our branch competing in original essay-- “Carla Bruce!” Everything after that is a blur, of course; I have never had to walk to a stage to accept an award for something only I had accomplished that wasn’t strictly academic, but purely mine, something I had done, me. The lights and the cheering and the sweat and my heart swelling, swelling, my mouth aching from smiling. I won a cash prize, I think, and a laptop. It died about two years later.

That was also my last time winning a legitimate competition for my writing.

After each rejection, I tend to fall into a wormhole of reading the testimonials and advice of successful writers on their own years of rejection. I read and reread their lamentations and calls to action and try to believe them. It’s not that I think they are lying. There is a difference between believing something passively and believing it actively. Until I gave birth, I believed that I would survive the experience - passively. People kept telling me that I would, and books kept telling me I would, but it didn’t seem probable, or even possible, that I could undergo this experience and live. While in the throes of labor, I was even less inclined to think so. But then she was born, and so my perspective shifted. And now I am that annoying person telling other pregnant women I know that they will make it, with all of the arrogant good intentions of an active believer.

I am not well-equipped to handle rejection. The softest of peaches have nothing on my pride, so easily bruised by even an imagined disdainful glance. I grew up nauseatingly sheltered: no siblings close in age to joke and fight with, to build a tough and calloused exterior to shield me from the world’s petty hurts. I went to school with the same classmates and teachers, more or less, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I was insulated, in every sense of the word, and told one too many times how special and smart and unique I was. Started reading at age 2! Honor roll all four years of high school! Secretary of the National Honors Society! (Can I tell you something? Our NHS didn’t do anything. But damned if I wasn’t putting that on my college application.)

I live in New York, to my physical delight and spiritual detriment. This city thrives on competition and social climbing. Virtually nothing of worth is easy to come by, and I have only my myriad avenues of privilege to thank for what I do have. I feel like I’ve coasted, to an extent, and now at the twilight years of my twenties, I’ve lost all patience with my own complacency. In spite of my sensitivity, my fear of being burned, I’m trying to make some strides. And I cannot take more than two steps before I crash, again and again, into a wall that some many others before me have also bloodied themselves against: the word NO. 

I am coming to terms with my own mediocrity.

This is where I falter: do I accept my failures as truth? Do I bow out of the rat race with grace and humility, sparing my future self this crushing defeat and humiliation? Is this realism, or pessimism? Or do I persist, chasing my dream with myopic determination? What are the odds of success in a city of hungry dreamers? Is that optimism, or delusion?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just have my most recent rejection, casting a long, dark shadow over other opportunities I have yet to seek. The shadow usually dissipates, though, through no real actions of my own: the tyranny of time and memory. So I will try. But it’s hard, so hard, to try and try and try and try and try and still, somehow, expect to win.