By Charlene Lee, 15, Walnut HS
Print This Post

Illustration by Cecilia Cho, 16, Burbank HS

“I read that article about your brother. Wow, he’s so smart!” As soon as the words came out, my friend caught her mistake. “Oh, no … I mean, you’re smart too. I didn’t mean it like that!”

“Oh, I know. No worries.”

My response has become automatic. I’ve had this conversation many times over the years. It’s no surprise that people notice my brother. He’s perfect: valedictorian, water polo varsity letterman, mathlete captain, gourmet chef, student body president. The list goes on. I, on the other hand, am merely his little sister and I am nothing special.

Throughout elementary and middle school, we never really had a sibling rivalry because we had different interests. But when he began his sophomore year of high school, he began standing out by playing water polo and conducting scientific research with Cal Tech professors. He started bringing home trophies and awards; meanwhile, I, an eighth grader, had a collection of Teen Vogue and boxes of notes from friends. Relatives began congratulating my brother nonstop, telling him, “Chris, I’m so proud,” then turn to me, “So, Charlene. What have you been doing?” I felt like I had to do so much more.

When I started my freshman year, I felt I needed some incredible, unique extracurriculars, like my brother. He sent me articles about other high-achieving students for inspiration and this list on the website College Confidential titled “Outstanding Extracurriculars.” I couldn’t believe what was on it: publication in national magazines or newspapers, organize a nationwide service project, start a nonprofit and raise $100,000, be a professional actor who has appeared in movies, big city theater or TV. The list went on.

I felt I had wasted so much time in middle school gossiping about boys and reading nonsense on how to accentuate my skin tone. I felt so behind everyone else in the world. I needed to catch up or I’d end up a failure. In my mind, every time I spent an hour watching the dramatic lives of fictional people on One Tree Hill and Grey’s Anatomy, some genius 16-year-old in Virginia was on the brink of discovering the cure for cancer or getting her play produced on Broadway.

It didn’t help that my brother also happened to be one of those 16-year-old prodigies. Even at a school that overflows with highly involved overachievers, everyone knew him. People would always call me “Chris Lee’s little sister” and then say to me, “Your brother is so smart. Did you know that?” No, of course not. It’s not like I’m his sister and didn’t know that already. But of course, I didn’t say that. I usually just shrugged and said, “I guess.” Even the school newspaper was all about him. It wasn’t enough to do a whole page on my brother’s scientific research, but they also dedicated nearly the entire awards recognition section to him. It was all in my face, yet I still just wanted to be more like him.

I tried to excel at writing

I looked at the list of outstanding extracurriculars to see if there was anything I could even hope to achieve. I couldn’t be an actor or start a multi-million dollar business. I decided writing was more in my league. My brother had shown me articles that high school students had published in The New York Times. Though I knew the Times was a stretch, I decided to try local newspapers. Science was his thing and writing would be mine.

Every day after school, I would isolate myself in my room, letting my phone calls go to voicemail and leaving my IM messages un-replied to. I would sit at my computer for hours, studying the outstanding extracurriculars other students did.

Every time my brother caught me watching TV or talking on the phone, he would tell me, “Stop wasting your time and go do something productive.” Go do something productive. Those were words I lived by. Whenever I indulged in something time-wasting like reading a fashion magazine, I would hear my brother in a Mufasa-esque voice echo “go do something productive” and immediately stop and find something “productive” to do, like dissect past AP English essays or study writing tips from college professors.

I’m sure he didn’t intend for me to take it so extreme, but in my mind, complacency and idleness translated into failure. I felt I would never improve if I ever congratulated myself. So I didn’t mind when my brother kept pushing me and telling me to improve. When I got an article published about a city event in a local newspaper, he told me “congrats” and then suggested I try getting an opinion piece published nationally. I wished he were more encouraging. But I thought he was right: I had to get published nationally if I wanted to amount to anything.

I spent close to three hours every day printing out articles from The New York Times and Chicago Tribune and using my orange highlighter and pen to dissect each paragraph, making notes in the margins about why the writing was effective. I wanted my writing to be good enough when I entered the essay contests I had researched. It didn’t even matter what the contest was about—inspirational female math teachers or why the Second Amendment is important. Until I looked through my old entries a year later, I didn’t even realize that the 2nd Amendment essay I had entered was sponsored by the Nation Rifle Association, which supports peoples’ rights to own guns (which I am opposed to). When I wrote the essay, I wasn’t writing what I truly felt—only what I thought the judges were looking for. I wrote about how “owning arms can prevent war and is a symbol of the strength of our country.” I don’t even know what I was writing about. And the same went for jobs: I even considered lying about my address so I could qualify for an internship that was available only to low-income students. Though I feel horrible about it now, I just wanted something—anything—to put as another line on my college resume.

I also looked for leadership positions and activities at my high school: co-captain of the debate team, swim and tennis team, orchestra, vice president of the science club and mentor for middle school kids. I was always tired because I would go to meeting after meeting, and my afternoons and weekends were packed with volunteer work, tennis games and orchestra rehearsal. On some days, I wouldn’t come home until 9 p.m. I’d stay up past 1 a.m. writing articles or trying to finish my homework. I would wake up around 6 in the morning, even on weekends, so I could have more time to work. I started having trouble falling asleep because I would be stressed out thinking about how I needed to do more.

I’d never measure up

While I was struggling to achieve anything, my brother was achieving even more: he placed in the top three in the California State Science Fair, helped build a solar car (which you might have read about in his L.A. Youth article) and still had time to be nominated for prom king. I couldn’t believe how unbelievably flawless he was. After every award he won or honor he received, he would tell me not to worry because he’s older and has had more time. But I ignored him. Time was exactly what I didn’t have enough of.

Time was the most precious thing in the world, and extracurriculars were a top priority. I started canceling plans with my friends and even missed a Sweet 16 party to attend a conference where I could speak to the State Board of Education. I knew people would always have parties, and this conference was a one-time opportunity for me.

Charlene thinks that her brother being away at college has made them even closer and her more independent.

Whenever I told my friends I couldn’t go out with them, they’d ask “Why?” I would reply “Because.” I didn’t want to give a full explanation because none of them could understand how competitive the world was. And I also secretly knew my friends were my competition for college and the future. With different priorities and interests than my friends, I was no longer as close to them. Problems, emotions, boys and friends were all just an inconvenience. If I got mad at a friend, I’d get over it quickly because gossiping and venting was a waste of time. Nothing but my work (and my brother’s approval) mattered to me.

Then, the summer before my sophomore year, I came across an article in Imagine magazine about a student who thrived on the praise he received in high school. But when he went off to college, he started failing because he had little motivation to succeed without praise from others. I realized that though it was good that I had set high goals, my motives were all wrong. I was more interested in having the recognition than learning from the experience.

For two hours, I flipped through all my colorfully highlighted articles, folders of past essay contests, resumes and application letters, thinking, “How could I have to been so desperate to achieve? How could I have forgotten about learning?” I was so wrapped up in listening to my brother and trying to be my brother, I had failed to think about what I wanted.

I realized what mattered to me

Afterward, I sent a letter to the editor of the magazine about how the article made me rethink my motivations for wanting to achieve. Two weeks later, I received an e-mail saying the magazine wanted to publish my letter. When I sent in my opinion, I had no intention of getting published—I just wanted to let the writer know how much her words had helped me. I realized passion really does make a difference. But even more interesting: I was more excited about my epiphany than actually getting published nationally, which used to be my all-time high school dream.

I decided I needed to prioritize my activities because I couldn’t do it all. I decided I wouldn’t do tennis my junior year. I hated going to practice and sometimes didn’t even bother going to the games. I also dropped a lot of the clubs I was in because I would hardly go to meetings because I just didn’t care. After prioritizing, I found time to do things I genuinely liked. I began working as an editor at an online children’s literary magazine and got more involved with my city’s youth council by starting a citywide book drive. I started baking and doing photography (although they weren’t things I could add to my resume, I actually like doing them). I also got more involved with CASC (California Association of Student Councils), a student-led organization whose mission is to give teens the skills they need to improve their communities and schools. The organization especially focuses on voicing student opinion, primarily on education, something I am passionate about.

In the past, I only wanted the credit of accomplishing something. I think it was my way of saying, “Hey everyone, look at me. Look at the things that I do and my brother doesn’t.” I didn’t want to work hard to achieve recognition. I wanted it to come easy, like how it seemed for my brother. But I realized it’s not that easy, and my brother really did work hard. Recognition is supposed to be an award for hard work. But I’ve learned that the accomplishment isn’t even the reward anymore—it’s the experience and the learning that comes with it.

I still struggle to make decisions without feeling like I need my brother’s approval, but I try to figure it out myself. And now, I truly am thankful for my brother. When he got accepted to Harvard, my first thought wasn’t “Now I have to get into Harvard too” but “I’m proud to be the sister of a Harvard student.” It’s not a contest between us anymore—it’s more like a competition with myself.

Other stories by this writer …

Testing my patience. Teachers focus too much on standardized tests, says Charlene, 14, instead of inspiring us to think for ourselves. (October 2007)