Creative Nonfiction: A Chance for Sorrow
By Courtenay Schembri Gray
An emotionally neglected child will grow up to doubt their capabilities because they could never live up to a standard set by the people who were supposed to inspire them. Nothing makes you feel more ordinary than being compared to someone of the same ability who has been treated as a prodigy.
When I was at primary school, I was forced to compete with another pupil in my class. For the purpose of this essay, we will call them Bubba. Myself and the rest of my class were no longer good enough for our teachers. They set a bar that was impossible to reach. Whenever we handed in our work, it would be dismissed—ripped up, in some cases. They would stop the lesson and draw our attention to Bubba, basking in an invisible spotlight.
“Everyone, can I have your attention please?! I just want you to look at Bubba’s work, ok. That is what we expect of you, and you’re not doing that right now. Come on, let’s get it together.”
We would roll our eyes and hopelessly return to our work, for we knew we would never make our teachers happy. Bubba could never do wrong. They were the star of the show—the rest of us were merely dwindling peasants. We would hold weekly raffles, and guess whose name would somehow always be pulled out? That’s right, Bubba’s. They would saunter to the front of the class, smiling knowingly.
I never showed it, but that entire situation was killing me inside. Experiencing the lasting effects of being called ugly every single day by the kids in my class, and also being compared to another child destroyed any shred of self-confidence I may have had. My desire to be an individual took over, and I kept a mantra in my head. Well, at least you’re smarter than all of them. There was a key flaw to this way of thinking, however, as I always found myself sitting at the back of the class with the ‘less capable’ kids. We were set up to fail.
At home, I devoured books and wrote short stories. I was this creative force, but I wasn’t given the opportunity to show any of it in school. Instead, I was ignored by my teachers and bullied by my peers. All I wanted was to be acknowledged—to feel special. Bubba was a steel wall that none of us could break. It transmuted into every part of my early academic life.
Sports Day was by far the worst. Bubba was quite athletic, and their entire family wanted them to be the best at everything. They had siblings in the lower and upper years who were the same. As an openly non-athletic person, those days were frustrating because I had no way of beating Bubba at anything, unless it was the egg and spoon race. My mother would try to comfort me, but all I wanted to do was sob out of sheer frustration.
Our teacher had the class run around the field one morning. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, but I made it one. I ran as fast as I could, far in front of Bubba and the teacher. They warned me that my legs might give out if I kept at the pace I was going. Admittedly, Bubba was right. I was inches away from being first to finish when my legs became two sticks of jelly. Bubba won, again. Completely out of breath, I lay on the grass and silently cried. It was another failure in the journey to becoming better than my enemy.
In the last year, I finally got to experience some of the glory. I had been reading a book when I stumbled across a couple of words I didn’t know. I found a dictionary and looked them up. Proud of the words I had just learned, I decided to incorporate them into my school work. Shortly after this, I was called up to the top table (the place where Bubba and the other ‘gifted’ kids sat) so my teacher could mark my work. I gazed out the window, not expecting anything exciting, when I heard something that shocked me.
“Wow! Amazing! This is excellent work, Courtenay.”
I looked at Bubba, and they looked at me, confused and a little green. It would turn out that by using these adult words, I had managed to get a slice of the pie I had been longing for. This particular piece of work was shown to the headteacher who sent an achievement award home. I was instantly moved from the bottom table to the top table. I will confess that Bubba’s agitation to this development pleased me. After that, I would read the dictionary regularly to find new words that I could use. I did it so much that I was bestowed a nickname. Dictionary Girl.
I was known as the writer of the class. A whole new world of opportunity had opened up for me. A few months before we left for high school, I was asked to represent the school in a public speaking competition. There would normally be one team to represent each school, but, unfortunately for me, we had two. I was the head of my team, and as you might have guessed, Bubba headed the other. My role was to choose the topic and present it to the judges. I settled on arguing why Spanish Bull Fighting was morally wrong.
When the evening came to compete, I did my best. We waited in anticipation for the results. Our school won, but it was Bubba’s team that sealed the deal. I felt my heart sink when they announced it. My headteacher looked at me and tried to placate me by saying that the school won, but I knew that it was another defeat. The school may have been awarded the win, but it only reaffirmed the hierarchy which had been in place for six years.
In a surprising turn of events, the judges personally came up to me to shake my hand. Even though I wasn’t the winner, they seemed to believe I was extremely talented, despite the painful loss that had just occurred. They handed me my prizes and left. When our leavers assembly rolled around, our teacher dedicated an hour to assigning us different roles.
The part of an author lit up the screen, and my teacher said:
“An author! Hmm, let me see. Who should it be?… Ah! Courtenay, our writer of the class, you can be the author!”
Despite my newfound fame, I would still find myself feeling perilously enraged. During rehearsal, Bubba read their line back to me in a petulant way. It was only because they had to say something that put me in the spotlight.
“Yes, Courtenay’s books are topping the charts!”
Bubba didn’t like that, and I didn’t like Bubba, so we were almost even. The final stab in the heart came for the final musical. We were due to perform High School Musical. I auditioned for the role of Gabriella, just like many of the others. A week or two after we auditioned, the results were posted on the wall in the playground. I shoved my way to the front to see I had not been given the role of Gabriella. I was given the part of Kelsi, and I was a little insulted because she had glasses. I figured that was the reason why I was playing her. Usually, Bubba would get the main part, but they didn’t this time. Even though I didn’t get it, I was elated that Bubba didn’t either.
Tragically, the person who was given the part was moving away, and they wouldn’t be around to see the performance. This meant that Bubba now had the part, and I found myself wanting to cry again. My only respite on the night of the performance was that the script called for me to roll my eyes at Bubba’s character at the beginning. I was able to relieve some of my frustration through the medium of acting.
It didn’t take long to realise just how badly I had been affected by what happened. The stories in this essay happened from the ages of four to eleven, which are your formative years. It has been fourteen years since I left primary school, and I am still affected by it. As an adult, I find myself sensitive to favouritism. It is incredibly damaging to pick favourites. Unfortunately, I have realised that this is something rife in our industry.
I will always fight against comparing other writers to one you have deemed ‘the best’. Having experienced what I have, I understand how you can slowly kill someone by doing this. I encourage you to reassess how you dish out praise—how you talk about other writers. Examine the language you use.
“X is the best writer out there.”
“Nobody deserves this more than X.”
“X is a genius.”
The above statements harm so many people, and you may not even realise it. You are setting an impossible standard that will only alienate yourself and others. Dishing out praise is a delicate practice, but it is vital that you get it right. Now, people often talk of how nobody deserves anything, but that is a pedestrian statement. It is one of ignorance, and will ensure that you remain stagnant. Everyone deserves to feel valued and talented. Telling yourself that you’re worth something only does so much. Having others say it means more than can be expressed.
If you are someone who is frugal with praise, but selfless when it comes to your favourite few, just think about how you would feel if nothing you did was good enough. Imagine if you were stuck in a cycle of being compared. A passing positive comment can give someone the strength to keep going. Why would you be stingy with something like that? We are all deserving in this life. Don’t reward the few, reward the many.
This has fuelled my search for greatness. Having been doomed to fail—to die an unknown—I now crave an almost hedonistic glory. Time and time again people swear me off searching for ‘fame’, but they don’t know what it’s like to be an invisible child. Every day is a step towards the divine need to shine. If I make it, the wall that Bubba built will be destroyed.
“And there's no remedy for memory, your face is like a melody. It won't leave my head…” — Dark Paradise, Lana Del Rey.
Courtenay Schembri Gray is a pushcart nominated writer from the North of England. You’ll find her work in an array of journals such as A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Misery Tourism, Expat Press, Red Fez, and many more.