Sunday, February 19, 2012

The sting of coming in last

"This is the worst day of my life and I'm the worst kid in the world," sobbed Zoe as I pulled the car off the highway. She'd just bitten her lip to the point of tears and spilled half a container of milk all over her lap and the floor mats from frustratedly tangling with a Happy Meal toy baggie. I grabbed a few handfuls of paper towels from a gas station and blotted up the soon-to-be-sour puddle as she hiccuped, coughed and howled her dismay at how the afternoon had ended.

Zoe had been looking forward to her first gymnastics meet ever since she made the GIJO Level 3 team in September. The arrival of her velvety team leotard, warm up suit and monogramed gym bag only heightened her excitement. She was so amped up when I sprung her from Hebrew school that she only ate half of her sandwich before singing along--loudly and slightly offkey--with the Taylor Swift songs I'd gamely let her play over the car stereo during our 1 hour drive to far north suburban Grayslake.

She performed well, staying focused, never falling and supporting her teammates. She beamed when her name was called out for fourth place and she stood just to the side of the awards podium and positively glowed as she placed her medal around her neck. But as the rest of the awards were handed out, my sharp little girl figured out that fourth place was just fancy adult language for last place in her age division. And, tragically for her, none of her fellow teammates got anything lower than third place. Seated across the room, I could see a change in her face as she did the math. She arranged her expression the best she could, but it was pale and her lips turn down and slightly wobbly as she walked toward me. All the excitement from wearing her uniform, from walking in a line with her teammates and competing before the judges, from digging through her goodie bag... gone. She stuffed her ribbons in her bag, scorned her "dark, ugly, non-special" medal and looked longingly for exit.

I tried my motherly best to explain that I was proud of her and that she did great for her first competition. Her coach chimed in that her score and those of her teammates were mere tenths of a percent apart and she had still qualified for State, but she was tormented. She vacillated between blaming herself for being bad and blaming the judges for being unfair and mixing up her scores with someone else's. Then she just raged against the unfairness of someone younger and less accomplished getting 1st place (which happened when the kids are divided up by age). Her rage led to the miserable lip biting, which was shortly followed by the violent efforts to open a Happy Meal toy... and that's pretty much how the milk got spilled.

So she cried over that, too.

Ultimately, this will be a character-building experience for Zoe. She's academically gifted and used to being on top. She's academically gifted. She's a big sister. Hell, even though she never studies anymore, she's never scored less than 100% on her weekly Hebrew tests. Being at or near the bottom of the ability pool on her gymnastics team is new for her.

But she's not quitting. She's got my competitive streak and having had a taste of judge's scores, rankings and medal ceremonies, she's more determined than ever to succeed. March 5th can't come fast enough.

Here's a glimpse at her routines. 4 hours of waiting and watching condensed into 2 minutes for your viewing pleasure.