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Golden chains

By REYCEL HYACENTH N. BENDAÑA, Philippine STAR Published Mar 19, 2021 5:00 am

I started school at three years old. I was the youngest in class, but even then, my mother wanted me to beat everyone else. It didn’t matter that my classmates had a year or two ahead of me. Nor did it matter that kids my age were still unaware of the alphabet. I had to graduate kindergarten as valedictorian. And I did.

I thought it would stop, but it only grew more intense as I brought home medal after medal. My mom used to be so unhappy if I wasn’t the top one. But as years went by, the demands grew heavier. Being the top one wasn’t enough. I needed to bring home perfect scores, too. She said it was the only way to stay undefeated.

Looking back, I understand why she was obsessed with having an academically perfect child. Opportunities don’t come easily when you’re poor. Children from impoverished families had to fight tooth and nail to get those limited scholarship slots. Philanthropists and foundations never select the ordinary. My mother understood this even when I didn’t. And she was right. 

When you’re on top, people have no choice but to notice you — to notice me. And they did. 

Our society quantifies our worth into numbers and titles. And it fools us into believing that it has everything to do with how hard we work or the sacrifices we make. These are all lies. 

Every perfect examination score led to varsity slots in quiz bees and debate tournaments. Every competition victory meant more points and recommendations for graduation awards. Every valedictorian moment corresponded to a full scholarship somewhere we couldn’t have otherwise afforded. 

It felt like every victory undid some reality of our poverty and brought me closer to the life my mother and I dreamt of for our family. But victory also brought with it isolation and even resentment from others. And over time, I grew alone. 

In elementary school, I skipped recess and lunches with friends to study for examinations weeks before the schedule. In high school, a guy I had a crush on never asked me out because, according to him, “I was too intimidating.” In college, there were people who didn’t like me because “I was just too competitive.” 

None of them understood why I was so driven. They found me obsessive and unreasonable, sacrificing my friendships for medals and recognition. But they didn’t get it. I wasn’t choosing between being great versus having friends. I was choosing between their love or my mother’s. And I chose her every time. 

It didn’t stop with loneliness. Being on top also meant people were always watching. I was never treated normally — there were brutal criticisms for even the smallest mistakes. People were unforgiving when I fell a bit short of “excellent.” My mother promised not to attend my high school graduation because, for once, I was only a salutatorian, second to the best. And even today, she carries with her the grudge and intense disappointment that I wasn’t a valedictorian all throughout.

I’m 21 years old now and often labeled as an “overachiever.” Yes, I am. But I am tired of being one. 

We are conditioned to gaslight ourselves. We are trained by the system to obsess over rankings so we can get ahead in a deeply unequal society. It’s time to undo this obsession. 

I competed for almost two decades of my life. I proved myself every chance I got. I sacrificed all that I could just to be where I am. I told myself college was finally the last step. I thought I could escape my history, but here I am, struggling to fulfill suffocating expectations that come with my reputation. 

Everywhere I go, I am introduced as “the Ateneo valedictorian.” My university friends and teachers expect me to be a public servant and do NGO work, while my relatives back home shame me for refusing all the glorious corporate offers. I deleted my Facebook for a year and when I came back, everyone was messaging me for updates on my life.  Am I choosing my family’s stability over serving the country? Am I still the person they hoped I would be? Or would I prove all my critics right that I was, indeed, undeserving? 

For decades, I lived my life to please my mother and be the perfect child. I pushed away chances to be happy so I could uphold the reputation I worked so hard to build. 

I do not want these golden chains any longer. I am tired. 

I am tired of people’s opinions of me, of living with their idealized expectations of who I should be, of always being pressured to do my best, of never being enough. But most of all, I am tired of not being able to stop. 

My mother raised me to always win. And at 21, I’m struggling so hard to undo the obsession. Tell me, where do I start? 

Where do I start when my friends always introduce me to their parents with the list of my achievements? I know that their hearts have good intentions, but sometimes I wonder if I could ever just be, beyond those titles. 

Where do I start when my parents parade my awards in front of relatives and loved ones? I know that they’re just really proud, but sometimes I wonder if they would have loved me the same if I weren’t number one. 

Where do I start when my self-worth is built on the external validation of a capitalist system? I know that I have proven enough, but sometimes I wonder if my dreams will turn to ashes if I stop. 

At first, I wrote this piece to be relatable. I know a lot of us are struggling to “feel enough.” I wanted to show you that even those who seem to figure everything out are crumbling inside. I wanted to make you feel that you aren’t alone in this journey and we’ll figure it out together.  

But I changed my mind. 

I am writing this piece to tell you that we shouldn’t even feel inadequate in the first place. We lack self-worth because this capitalist system raised us to never feel we’re good enough. 

You’re learning, so what? Your grades don’t reflect it. 

You’re qualified for the job, so what? You’re not from the top four universities. 

You’re working so hard, so what? You’re still not earning enough. 

Our society quantifies our worth into numbers and titles. And it fools us into believing that it has everything to do with how hard we work or the sacrifices we make. These are all lies. 

Let’s stop asking how to get in the top universities and start questioning why students across the country don’t receive the same quality of education. 

But these are lies I once believed and was raised to preserve. I am done. 

Let’s stop asking how to be a valedictorian and start questioning why children should even be ranked in schools. 

Let’s stop asking how to get in the top universities and start questioning why students across the country don’t receive the same quality of education. 

Let’s stop asking how to select courses with decent salaries and start questioning why our workers don’t get paid a living wage. 

We are conditioned to gaslight ourselves. We are trained by the system to obsess over rankings so we can get ahead in a deeply unequal society. It’s time to undo this obsession. 

You are enough. Don’t believe society’s lie.

Banner and thumbnail photo Art by Bri Guingona