The first crushing defeat of my life occurred in sixth grade.
Up until that point, school had gone pretty well for me, considering I was a card-carrying nerd who took more books on vacations than bathing suits. I wasn't cool, and I knew it. But I wasn't exactly trying to be cool, either. I knew that I should stick to my strong suits, one of which was drawing.
"You're the best drawer ever!"
That's what approximately twenty kids wrote in my fifth grade "yearbook," which was really just a discontinued social studies book that the school let fifth graders keep that year. I still have it somewhere. It was a book of North Carolina history, featuring less than accurate descriptions of how our state was settled, including quaint drawings of pilgrims and Indians hugging that we, as kids, thought made a pretty awesome souvenir of fifth grade.
Enter middle school, with four times as many kids and changing classes, and the distinct possibility that I would actually drown if I tried to get along with the wrong people. So I clung to Art class like a life raft, building my entire public identity around the fact that I could draw just about anything (Except for babies. My babies always looked possessed).
For a while, the strategy seemed to work. I won competitions, but in a good way, where people actually admire what you can do, as opposed to winning the school read-a-thon which only got you branded as a nerd. The popular kids even noticed me, asking me to draw posters for the school basketball games that I had never attended. To my shame, I spent countless hours making these signs to cheer on the Vikings, followed by hours of sitting in the stands, utterly confused about what was happening in the game but glad to be accepted, and valued.
Right before winter break, our Art teacher announced that there would be elections for the Art Club when we got back. I knew as soon as she said it that I would be President. Of course I would be! I was nice to everyone. I was always helping other people out. And I could draw. Like, REALLY draw.
I spent winter break making posters for myself this time. I made enough to put one in every hallway, even though there were only seven of us in Art Club. When we got back to school, I was so nervous for our Art Club meeting, where I would get to pitch myself to the other kids and ask for their vote.
When the meeting day came, I walked into the Art room, feeling a mix of excitement and nausea, only to find that there was a new bunch of kids in the room. My old Art friends were there, but so were a bunch of boys who'd never come to Art Club before. They were in Art. I recognized one of them from my class, even. His name was Bradley. He was clearly the ring-leader of the group, making noise and shoving at the other boys the way kids do. He gave me a look that said, "What are you looking at?" So I sat down, wondering why he and his friends were even there.
Our Art teacher called us up, one by one, to give our speeches. I gave mine and hardly remembered what I said. Then she called Bradley up to the board. He stood there, grinning like he was getting away with something terrible, and told everyone how he would do all of these crazy things as Art Club president, including taking a field trip to Italy to see the Mona Lisa. I rolled my eyes, feeling pretty certain that he was just messing around and it really didn't matter.
We voted blind, on little slips of paper.
Then the Art teacher tallied the votes. When she was done, she read the results. Secretary. Vice-President. And President--Bradley. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How was it possible? Had everyone turned against me?
I remember twisting around in my chair, staring at him as he hooted and laughed over his eleventh-hour coup. That's when I realized that he had seven friends with him. Which made eight votes for his side. Whereas there were only seven original members of the Art Club. None of my friends had turned against me. It was just that all of his friends had voted for him.
You'd think that would have made me feel better, but instead I was SO upset by the utter unfairness of it all that I cried all the way home and most of that evening, and even begged my mom to let me skip school the next day. She didn't. She said it was going to be okay. I knew she was right, but that didn't make going back to school any easier.
I wish I could say that Bradley's win got reversed. That the teacher tossed him out of Art club. But that's not what happened. Instead, I got used to the idea that I'd lost. I'd been crushed by a bunch of jerks who never even showed up to Art Club again--except for Bradley. Strangely enough, he stayed on as President, doing a horrible job, but trying anyway. It hurt a lot at first. But it did get better. Mainly because I realized that I didn't need to be President to do my best, or to be a leader. Being a leader means choosing to be kind to someone when they need it. It means sharing your favorite drawing tricks with someone and helping them get better, too. It means being yourself even when you feel like a total loser.
Since sixth grade, there have been plenty of times when I've felt like a loser. In fact, it happens most days, in some way or another. But that election was when I learned that being a loser is just a feeling, the same way that being a winner is just a feeling. It isn't WHO we are, but HOW we feel, for a little while. Who you are is up to you.