It started with a tap on my skin, then a second one for emphasis. I was young, probably 3 years old, with the neatest bowl-cut this side of Lancaster could see. There was another tap on my forearm with a voice behind it saying, “Piz—“
I was in speech therapy.
My mom was teaching me how to say “pizza,” which is probably why it’s my favorite word. I struggled with my syllables, only saying the first halves of words like “piz” instead of “pizza.” They told my mom to count the syllables by tapping on my forearm with her index and middle fingers. I’d make an Anne Sullivan joke, but it would be in poor taste.
While childhood amnesia doesn’t give me an entire recollection of these memories, I could tell you with certainty why I was there. She had mousy brown hair tied in a pink scrunchie with a five-year age gap, putting her at the brink of her “ugly stage.” She was my sister.
I was her shiny new toy, her almost-as-cute-as-Holly-from-“Breaking Bad” baby sister. I was never one for speaking, so she assumed the role of Professional Speaker at 8 years old, paying at a rate of two Dunk-a-Roos per hour.
Relatives would ask me pointless questions that I already knew I had no time to answer due to my busy schedule as a 3 year old. Instead, my professional speaker took the liberty of answering these bothersome annoyances.
“What are you doing, Taylor?”
“She’s gonna watch this movie with me and then we’re gonna go play Barbie ‘cause she likes to do stuff like that,” my sister answered.
We were having the time of our lives, the two of us, one being chattier than a mom reminiscing about high school and the other taken to looking at mime school applications – I was an overachiever, even at 3 years old.
But there was one tiny Achilles heel in our brilliant plan: I didn’t learn to speak.
I obviously overcame my short-lived disability, but it certainly cast a mold for our futures. My sister could do it all, and I could only do some. As we both grew older, it became clear she was the star of the show. The Beyoncé, if you will. I wasn’t even Kelly Rowland in this analogy – no, I was the Michelle Williams of the family.
She was picked by Teen Vogue to attend a Fashion University, allowing her to rub shoulders with Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger and Tim Gunn. She got scholarships upon scholarships thrown at her, one even allowing her to meet Tom Hanks. She was in Temple’s honors program. She interned at Vogue. She studied abroad. Twice. She’s gone skydiving in the Swiss Alps. She temporarily lived abroad for a few months, working on organic farms in Spain and France. She has a food blog. She works as a copywriter for Anthropologie. She’s better than you.
It’s a copy-and-paste success story: a high school nerd-turned-powerhouse, dominating her 20s. While she claims it all just happened out of sheer luck, even a blind man could see that she had a personal drive unmatched by her peers. Success wasn’t just a seven-letter word, it was an ingredient she put in her power smoothies, along with beets, strawberries and bee pollen.
I was at a disadvantage. She set impossible standards for me. I was nowhere near as good or as qualified to achieve the things she had achieved. I got an “A” on my calculus test the same day she was awarded a prestigious scholarship that paid for her summer abroad in Italy. I was overshadowed, and found everything else to blame. I played victim, waiting for the flood of pity to pour in as I self-handicapped my situation. Perhaps it was the age difference? I used to logically think that a 16 year old couldn’t accomplish the things a 21 year old could. Now, at 21, I still haven’t done the half the things that she has.
But I tried.
One day, while killing time in the Annenberg Hall atrium, a friend from a previous class began talking to me. He persistently asked me questions about what he should be doing to further his career in advertising. At one point, he apologized for bombarding me with all of his inquiries.
“You just seem like you really have your s— together,” he said.
Me? Really? The girl who accidentally ate part of her napkin when taking a bite of a soft pretzel? Who was ecstatic that her dog ate her cat’s vomit because it meant that she didn’t have to clean it up? Who accidentally called it a “crappuccino” to a customer on her third day as a barista at Starbucks?
The fact that I was able to write a dozen of these anecdotes meant that he must be mistaken. But hold on, wasn’t I the one who applied to a handful of scholarships, internships and jobs? Was accepted into the honors program, but decided it wasn’t for me? Made my own website? Actively reached out to professors to talk about career opportunities? I forced myself into ambition, all for the sake of keeping up with my sister. I was pushed around and I pushed back. I planned for everything. I planned for failures and for successes. My backup plans had backup plans. I realized I was never at a disadvantage. I had the upper hand. I had a sister whose perfection drove me to try, even if I failed.
He was right.
I did have myself together.
Taylor Freisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.