The good one. The smart one. The athlete. The artist. The drama queen. The baby. The rebel. The sensitive one. The brat. The loudmouth. The playwright.
Being the eldest of five children, with only eight years between me and my youngest brother, my beleaguered and exhausted parents often used shortcuts to keep us all straight. As the “good” and “smart” one, I had it easy, at least for a while. I was diligent and studious, I got good grades and my teachers sang my praises. What could be bad about that?
Seemingly nothing, when operating in the outside world of teachers, other adults and the like.
[pullquote]The hardest part was to re-write the narrative of who I was based on what I had internalized from other people’s expectations. [/pullquote]
But within my family, my sibling relationships suffered, particularly with my brothers. I was only one year apart from one of my brothers and, as little kids, we were inseparable. He was creative and smart, played soccer and the guitar, and had a broad and sophisticated taste in music, even as a young kid. He was more willing to carve his own path and stand up to my parents and to teachers than I was. As a result, he caught way more grief than I did. When we headed past elementary-school age, our interests diverged and a divide grew. In fact, he pretty much hated me. And back then, I can’t say I blame him.
My parents had lobbied to get my brother into one of my old fourth-grade teacher’s classes, based on the positive experience I had in the class. One day, I showed up at this teacher’s classroom door to say hello. He greeted me enthusiastically, then said — in front of his entire class — that he wished that he had more students like me, and in particular, that he wished that my brother could be even half the good and smart student that I was.
That sucked. The irony was that my brother was smart and curious, but needed to be engaged and taught in a way that this teacher was either unwilling or unable to to do. Instead, the teacher compared, and in many ways, crushed him. Kids being kids, my brother took it out on me, calling me every derisive name in the book (“suck up,” “teacher’s pet,” “brown-nose,” “goody two-shoes” and probably worse). I wasn’t any of those things, but I certainly enjoyed learning on my own, getting good grades and behaving in a manner that was easy for my teachers.
Looking back, the mantle of being the good/smart one began to slide off as early as high school. I was able to leverage that label to skip classes by forging my dad’s signature on excuse notes. My parents worried as I began to come into my own, since I was doing such “horrible” things as dating, sneaking out of the house on occasion, questioning their authority, rejecting the catholic church, hating family gatherings and constantly “talking back” about everything. My mom asked my siblings and friends repeatedly if I had started doing drugs. (I had not.) And both she and my dad were troubled by how much I had shut down and shut them out (which I had).
But I still got all As, was in leadership in various high school clubs, ran pretty much every big event at our school, from homecoming to prom, was a cheerleader, and worked a number of jobs after school and on weekends to make money for my college tuition. I never played sports or an instrument, because I wasn’t the musical, artistic or athletic one. That was left to my siblings.
I fought my label as I grew into adulthood. I started to worry less about being thought abrasive or not likable, finding my voice first in law school, strengthening it as a litigator and advocate, then fine-tuning it through public service and politics and now, as an entrepreneur, startup advisor and evangelist for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ecosystems. I’d like to think I defy labels in a multitude of ways.
The hardest part was to re-write the narrative of who I was based on what I had internalized from other people’s expectations. As if it was some immutable, narrow thing, rather than choices and work. What’s wonderful is that my siblings also have pushed beyond their labels, too: My brother, the artistic one, is an art teacher who plays in a band, enjoys a pickup game of soccer, and is also helping to run his wife’s business. My youngest brother, “the baby”, is an attorney who also coaches sports and plays guitar in his spare time. My sister, who was the actor and artist, is a therapist running her own practice, who yes, has great creativity but also, awesome smarts, spirituality and business sense. And my youngest sister, the rebel, is quite an athlete, who is also deeply caring and intellectual, and is building a successful real estate practice. We enjoy and treasure one another, all of us loving a good meal, good competition and a great debate.
My mom, meanwhile, is ridiculously proud of all us: although at times, when I do something particularly kind, she will say, you know, Kathleen, you always were the good one.