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The Last Shall Be First

I’ve had quite a pattern of “lasts” that have informed far too many of my bad choices along the way. As a young person, the idea of being last felt like major failure. In my family, “failure was not an option.” The joke? Most of my last places were in the top tiers. That’s right. I was the last of the best as opposed to dead last. And yet, it felt the same to me. Last was last and first was good, better, best.

My first example of this phenomenon is in third grade. Back in the late fifties, “exceptional” children did not attend classes in the same school as the regular kids. Instead, like today’s magnet programs, there were designated schools for a wide variety of special classes.

The Little Engine that Could

My brother was the first in our little inner city school to be offered an opportunity to attend one of these schools for high performing, high IQ students. He tested very well and upon entering the 4th grade, he rode public transportation to a school that offered gifted and talented classes through 8th grade. When I came up to grade, my mother wanted the same program for me. But unlike my brother, I struggled with the testing and I remember how the proctor told my mother, in my presence, “she’s borderline and if you send her to this program, she will be at the bottom of the barrel.” Lovely.

From that point on, I was on the lookout for more rock bottom experiences.

No surprise, then, when I would be the last one picked for kick ball or the last one in line for lunch. I was the last to understand the math and the last to get the joke.

I played a clarinet in that special school. Last chair. Later, I was accepted into all-city band. Of course, last chair again.

In high school, my mother insisted I take German instead of French or Spanish. And, as a result, I had the opportunity to compete for a statewide AFS summer experience in Germany between by Junior and Senior years. Only thirty students from the state were invited. What an honor. Of course, upon being accepted into the program, I was told I was at the bottom of the class and would have the farthest to go language-wise.

When graduation time came in high school, the top seniors of the class sat on stage for an in-school program where scholarships and the like were announced. We sat in order by our grade point average. I’m sure it’s no shock which seat was mine. Last of the best. I was drowning.

There were other lasts, but these are the ones that replayed regularly through my head as I weathered college and my early adult years. Never good enough: I was the little engine that hoped she could, one day, be at the top of her game, the top of the hill. But even when things appeared to go my way, I got really good at finding the dark cloud.

When I was accepted into a Master’s Degree acting program in New York, that felt good until I realized the school was on its last legs. They must have accepted everyone who applied. This was my self-damaging talk at its best.

What is the upshot of this negativity and self-deprecation? I’m sure there is no standard life response. For me, I translated it all into a drive for fame, not particularly fortune, but fame alone would fit the bill. Unfortunately, the drive was often broken by the old voices and the old scripts. Once a project that was aimed for fame went awry, I walked away before the last seat opened up. Better to have no seat than that one.

Ironically, when I encountered Christ and became a woman of faith in 1979, a common reaction by my peers of the time was something like, “You? You became a Christian? You are the last person I’d ever think would do that!” This particular comment became a signature line for my testimony, as it spoke volumes. The last person indeed.

But all of these examples are about my “first half of life,” a phrase used by such writers as Fr. Richard Rohr (“Falling Upward”), James Hollis (“Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”), and columnist David Brooks (“Second Mountain”). Clearly, the more relevant half now is the second half which I am grateful to finally enter, or should I say, fall into. In this half, there is no last or first. The ego can rest and be released while the soul flourishes.

Rohr writes that the transition between these times of our life is like moving from a “survival dance” to a “sacred dance.” My dance card is full, but not with people, tasks, and shoulds, but with simplicity, discovery, and hopefully, a growing awareness of now. I still have a lot to learn and experience in this new chair.

That is, assuming I get through this dreadful year of political hijinks, climate catastrophes, and Covid 19. Will this be the last? Or the first?