Out of My Brother's Shadow
(By Charlene Lee)
I read that article about your brother. Wow, he's so smart! As soon as the words came out, my friend caught her mistake. "Oh, no ... I mean, you're smart too. I didn't mean it like that!"
Oh, I know. No worries .
My response has become automatic. I've had this conversation many times over the years. It's no surprise that people notice my brother. He's perfect: water polo varsity letterman , gourmet chef, student body president and ... The list goes on. I, on the other hand, am merely his little sister and I am nothing special.
Throughout elementary and middle school, we never really had a sibling rivalry because we had different interests. But when he began his high school, he began standing out and started bringing home trophies and awards. Meanwhile, I, an eighth grader, had a collection of Teen Vogue and boxes of notes from friends. Even at a school that overflows with highly involved overachievers , everyone knew him. Relatives began congratulating my brother nonstop, telling him, "Chris, I'm so proud," then turned to me, "So, Charlene. What have you been doing?" People would always call me "Chris Lee's little sister" and then say to me, "Your brother is so smart. Did you know that?"
It was all in my face , yet I still just wanted to be more like him. So when I started my freshman year of high school, I felt I needed some incredible, unique extracurriculars , like my brother. I asked my brother for help and he sent me inspirational articles and this list on the website College Confidential titled "Outstanding Extracurriculars." I couldn't believe what was on it: publication in national magazines or newspapers, organize a nationwide service project, start a nonprofit and raise $100,000, be a professional actor who has appeared in movies, big city theater or TV....
I felt I had wasted so much time in middle school and I needed to catch up or I'd end up a failure.
I Tried hard
Every day after school, I spent close to three hours printing out articles from The New York Times and Chicago Tribune and using my pen and my orange highlighter to dissect each paragraph, making notes in the margins about why the writing was effective. I wanted my writing to be good enough when I entered the essay contests I had researched. It didn't even matter what the contest was about.
And the same went for jobs: I even considered lying about my address so I could qualify for an internship that was available only to low-income students. Though I feel horrible about it now, I just wanted something - anything - to put as another line on my college resume.
I also looked for leadership positions and activities at my high school. I would go to meeting after meeting, and my afternoons and weekends were packed with volunteer work, tennis games, orchestra rehearsal and On some days, I wouldn't come home until 9 p.m. I'd stay up past 1 a.m., writing articles or trying to finish my homework. I would wake up around 6 in the morning, even on weekends, so I could have more time to work.
I started having trouble falling asleep because I would be stressed out thinking about how I needed to do more.
But I'd never measure up
While I was struggling to achieve anything, my brother was achieving even more: he placed in the top three in the California State Science Fair,helped build a solar car and still had time to be nominated for prom king....
After every award he won or honor he received, he would tell me not to worry because he's older and has had more time. But I ignored him.
Time was exactly what I didn't have enough of and extracurriculars were a top priority . I started canceling plans with my friends. Whenever I told my friends I couldn't go out with them, they'd ask "Why?" I would reply "Because." I didn't want to give a full explanation because none of them could understand how competitive the world was. And I also secretly knew my friends were my competition for college and the future. With different priorities and interests than my friends, I was no longer as close to them. Problems, emotions, and friends were all just an inconvenience. Nothing but my work (and my brother's approval) mattered to me.
Then, the summer before my sophomore year, I came across an article in Imagine magazine about a student who thrived on the praise he received in high school. But when he went off to college, he started failing because he had little motivation to succeed without praise from others. I realized that though it was good that I had set high goals, my motives were all wrong. I was more interested in having the recognition than learning from the experience.
For two hours, I flipped through all my colorfully highlighted articles, folders of past essay contests, and resumes, thinking, "How could I have been so desperate to achieve?" I was so wrapped up in listening to my brother and trying to be my brother, I had failed to think about what I wanted.
I realized what mattered to me
Afterward, I sent a letter to the editor of the Imagine about how the article made me rethink my motivations for wanting to achieve. Two weeks later, I received an e-mail saying the magazine wanted to publish my letter. When I sent in my opinion, I had no intention of getting published - I just wanted to let the writer know how much her words had helped me. I realized passion really does make a difference. But even more interesting: I was more excited about my epiphany than actually getting published nationally, which used to be my all-time high school dream.
I decided I needed to prioritize my activities because I couldn't do it all. After prioritizing, I found time to do things I genuinely liked. I began working as an editor at an online children's literary magazine. I started baking and doing photography, although they weren't things I could add to my resume.
In the past, I only wanted the credit of accomplishing something. I think it was my way of saying, "Hey everyone, look at me. Look at the things that I do and my brother doesn't." I didn't want to work hard to achieve recognition. I wanted it to come easy, like how it seemed for my brother. But I realized it's not that easy, and my brother really did work hard. Recognition is supposed to be an award for hard work. But I've learned that the accomplishment isn't even the reward anymore - it's the experience and the learning that comes with it.
I still struggle to make decisions without feeling like I need my brother's approval, but I try to figure it out myself. And now, I truly am thankful for my brother. When he got accepted to Harvard, my first thought wasn't "Now I have to get into Harvard too" but "I'm proud to be the sister of a Harvard student." It's not a contest between us anymore - it's more like a competition with myself.