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The Problem With Being Superlative (A Post That’s Not Really About Education, I Guess)

A Note on the Context: This is a leftover that didn’t make it into Drawn Into Danger. It was a little too dramatic (and there are some serious stylistic flaws) and it simply didn’t fit. But for me, it captures the ethos of what it felt like for me when I was in middle school. It’s about two young superheros, worn out by the pressure to be perfect.

In the past, Perla was the member of our family who won the awards. Back in Phoenix, she went by the nickname Superlative. I gave it to her when we were both in the fifth grade, because if she had to a superhero, she had to be the best – the smartest, the nicest, the strongest, the funniest. Perhaps even the kindest. Don’t get me wrong, she picked on me when she was bored and she initiated many of the “I will turn this car back if you don’t shut up or so help me . . .” but nobody ever helped her and the car remained in forward momentum and Perla, in her perfection, would always manage to apologize not only for herself but for me.

The name stuck on accident. Some girl named Marissa was planning to beat her up and I stepped in and said, “Why the hell would you want to beat up someone who is better, stronger, smarter and nicer than you? She’s superlative.”

It didn’t stop the fight, but when Perla knocked Marissa to the ground, she became a playground legend. Rumor has it that the primary grade kids started asking for her autograph and singing songs about her, but I doubt it. I think at that age they still idolized cartoon figures. Still, the kids at school called her Superlative, too – even the children who had no idea what that word actually meant, which I have a hunch is most kids from kindergarten through eighth grade.

When our dad committed suicide, we both wanted to see him one last time. I didn’t have the courage to face death in the flesh, but Perla ventured into the mortuary and insisted that she had a right to say her goodbye to the father. She wasn’t about to stare into a shiny urn of ashes. The snarling lady with the caked-on make-up and the painted-on eyebrows told Perla she couldn’t, but Perla just calmly said, “Oh, yes I will. You can’t get in the way of a grieving girl and her daddy.”

Perla was successful. That’s what happens when you’re Superlative.

On the plane ride back, she told me, “It was fitting, I guess. I saw him just as he had been, present but lacking in life, distant but still with me. I expected him to feel different or to look different or to smell like death. But he seemed like he did when we were little, passed out and drunk when he’d get depressed and tell us lies about how great he had been as a superhero.”

Perla’s deep like that when no one’s around – a pearl in a bed of oysters. It’s not that she tries to hide, either. She just blends in. Invisible, I guess.

At school, she knows how to play the game of “oh did you here about . . .” and “I was just talking to . . .” and she uses them like the sentence stems we used to get in our ELL kindergarten classroom when we were first trying to understand the rules of English.  Our home had supposedly been bilingual, but no one talked too much, so it could hardly  have been described as lingual, much less bilingual.

Sometimes Perla breaks the Rule of Silence and says something that reminds me that we’re still human and sometimes I turn off the television just to remind us all that we need silence. Perla doesn’t list this in her aptitudes, but if I have the ability to create awkward silence, she has the ability to pull out the humanity in others; especially when we feel inhuman.

She’s the only one who addresses the glass shattering incident at first. Not with shame, either, but simply with, “Gabriel, you’re still my brother. I don’t think any less of you today. Don’t punish yourself, either. You already missed a meal. Isn’t that enough?”

On the four-year anniversary of his death I ask Perla, “Do you ever feel guilty for not missing him more?”

“I guess I do, Gabriel.”

“Me, too.”

“What do we do with that guilt?”

She just shrugs her shoulders and says, “You become a better man than he ever was, I guess.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll try to forgive him.”

And that’s it.

Back in Phoenix, we would fight most of the time. Stupid stuff. She would leave her crap out on the counter all the time – magical potions and oils and lotions that are supposed to make her seem attractive to the boys, even though most boys in the eighth grade will only be looking at one part of her, though if I see anyone looking at my twin sister with “that look,” I swear to God that I won’t even bother showing up to their funeral.

Not really.

I would get angry and maybe even consider a fight, but then I’d back down at the last moment and curse myself for my lack of courage. What is a man if he can’t defend the honor of his family? And maybe that’s why we wear tights and masks and save the community – we’re too close and too helpless to the people around us who know us too well to need us.

Sometimes Perla and I fight over the remote control, which is telling in itself. It’s what we’re both after. Having control, even if it is remotely controlled, is the closest thing to real power we get at our age. At school it’s always read this and answer that and solve this and so the remote becomes a symbol of power in our home.

Maybe that’s why the fighting stops in the Superpower. We both have control over our lives and so we don’t have to fight one another. We have space and freedom and we’re foreigners together. She is my last reminder of the Outside. She’s my reality check.

Perla’s friend Kristen pulls me aside at lunch, “I’m like, you know, really like, um, trying to you know make sense out of Perla right now. Cuz she isn’t, you know, talking as much.”

“Sometimes she gets like that. She just wants space or time to think,” I tell her.

“Yeah, um, I see what you mean, but like, this seems like it’s a bigger deal than normal.”

Perla’s friend Esme adds, “This isn’t an intervention or anything. We’re just worried. She’s . . . she’s not acting right.”

“Are you saying she’s on drugs?”

“No, but we’re just worried, that’s all.”

I write if off at first, because junior high girls are always like that. I think some of them seem to thrive on drama, or at least the theory of drama, and so they try and fix the problems and in the process they create problems or expand the problems so that something as small as a moment of quiet turns into a “something serious is happening in her life” kind of deal.

I’ve heard girls do this. They sit in a circle and they say things like, “I’m really worried about her” or “she’s making bad decisions,” as if they are the play-by-play announcers for the decisions of their friends and they are analyzing relationships like it’s a game of football. And maybe it is. Maybe to girls, relationships are a football game, with plays and codes and going on the offensive and acting all defensive and trying to gain territory. And maybe, like a football player, what they’re really scared of is safety. Or maybe not. I’m not a girl.

Maybe they really do care more about one another. Maybe, for all the bizarre behavior of the play-by-play announcer conversations, at least they recognize that we are three dimensional. Even among Jerome or Jesse, I get few opportunities to actually talk about what’s going on inside of me.

A few days later, I arrive home earlier. I usually hang out with Jerome and Agatha at the library, but lately, I’ve wanted to be alone. I get the sense that Jerome is into the plan because of the intellectual challenge while Agatha has this sense of honor or justice or dreaming and today it all feels too heavy for me, so I go on long walks by myself and try and make sense out of the universe. I know it sounds strange and I guess it is, but sometimes I go to the park and I sit on the swing like my before-the-school-year ritual and it’s like the swing itself becomes this magical portal that can remind me of that part of childhood that always felt safe. Instantly, I feel the warmth of footsy pajamas or fishing trips or a fresh tortilla or the corridos that mom used to play before she started working three jobs.

Today, though, I’m in no mood for nostalgia. I just want to sleep. I’m not depressed, really. I’m just angry. Pissed off at the dying light and the earth in her drunken dance, refusing to tilt just a little closer to the sun. And I’m tired, really tired. I have this desire to hibernate. Just put me inside of a cave with a stash of snacks and I’m good all winter.

When I reach our side of the cave, I hear a noise. I’m wondering if Tyler has discovered the Labyrinth of the Heroes or if maybe Jesse has invited a few of his villain friends to do some intelligence gathering. Or maybe an Outsider wants to rob us.

Perla’s supposed to be at Kalos practice, so I’m perplexed by the muffled sound. When I move step into her room, I see her on the ground with drops of blood running down her arm.

“Who did this to you?” I ask.

She’s sobbing. Not little tears, either. Huge streams pouring down her face and dampening her hair.

“What happened?” I ask.

She’s silent.

“Who did this to you?”

More silence.

Who did this?” I yell.

“Life,” she says. “Life did this to me. It’s just one effed up mess,” she says.

I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy, especially with my sister. But I embrace her and her head collapses on my chest.

“Put the knife down, Perla.”

She drops it on the floor and I begin holding my hooded sweatshirt up against her wrist. She’s wearing the Outsider clothes that she wore on the way here.

“I’m not trying to kill myself.”

“I know,” I tell her. The truth is, I don’t. I don’t know what to believe or what to do or why she thinks this is the best way to handle her pain. I hold her in my arms awhile longer and she convulses into tears.

I want to cry, too. For her. For mom. For me. For dad, wherever the hell he is, if not simply gone forever. But I can’t. I can’t cry. I even try. Ever tried that? Ever tried making yourself cry? It’s impossible.

So, I just hold onto her tightly, asking her in my awkward silence to stay around awhile longer, because I can’t do this life without her.

The next morning, she pulls her sleeves down and wears a thick black wristband. “It’s like a mask for my wrist,” she says and smiles. It’s awkward for a minute and I’m too scared to say anything about what happened yesterday. But I’m tired of being afraid to say what’s really going on. I’m tired of a family that doesn’t talk. And as afraid as I am to speak up, I’m more scared of going through life never knowing how to really talk about the Big Things in Life.

“Perla, you don’t have to answer my question.”

“I know,” she snaps. I think she’s embarrassed and maybe a little ashamed.

“But why were you cutting?”

“I just wanted the pain on the outside to match the pain on the inside. There’s a rush to it. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but that’s why.”

“I’m scared for you,” I tell her.

“I’m scared, too,” she says.

She crunches on some corn flakes for awhile and I take out a second box of Pop Tarts. I’m sitting on the counter and she’s staring at the cereal box and we both recognize we’re at a standstill.



Damn, I yearn for a place to stand, for some stillness in this chaotic, ever-changing tragedy we’re living.

Finally, she adds, “I’m tired of being Superlative. I’m tired of being perfect. I’m tired of pretending. I’m tired of the masks. I don’t want to die, but I’m already tired of life. Do you know how that feels to be fourteen years old and already tired of life?”

“I know how you feel,” I tell her. And that’s it. I want to tell her that I’m scared to death that she’ll cut the wrong vein and I’m worried that she’ll do this again and I know I lack the courage to ask for help, because life is never quite as easy as that Ad Council propaganda.

We grew up too fast. We saw too much too soon. We’re both just tired, really tired, and confused by life itself.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


2 thoughts on “The Problem With Being Superlative (A Post That’s Not Really About Education, I Guess)

  1. This was not about education as commonly framed by adults and this was certainly not about ‘public schooling’. Still, you hit on a most important theme for youths.

    Life’s lessons, learned outside the boundaries of what teachers might think of as their domain, are more important than standard curricula and tests that push them to attempt the impossible task of always being superlative, being better than the rest and of being ‘exceptional’. “Our” future, the future of this USA nation-state, the future of “us” adults is not to be found in children — their future is their very own.

    Thanks for reminding us that youths are human,

    Posted by Brent Snavely | January 4, 2012, 7:47 am
  2. I feel your pain brother, and appreciate and understand what you are saying… Godspeed

    Posted by Bill | January 4, 2012, 9:56 am

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