Competitive Drive or a Cooperative Spirit?

What’s more useful? When deciding how to teach, educators should mull this one over and over. Parents and guardians when deciding how to parent. Business owners when deciding how to organize their companies and motivate their employees. Lovers when negotiating the perils and pitfalls of emotional intimacy. Citizens when engaged in public life.

Of course it’s both/and, but what’s the right balance? Everyone will answer differently. The longer I live, the more I lean towards the “cooperative spirit” end of the continuum. Except for when I’m going uphill on my bicycle, way, way towards it. I’m not sure any good comes from my competitive drive. I’m convinced the more I learn to suppress my competitive instincts in favor of partnering selflessly with others, the better my life will be.

Which brings me to this wonderful Elena Ferrante excerpt from My Brilliant Friend. The setting is 1950s Italy.

     At least twice a year the principal had the classes compete against one another, in order to distinguish the most brilliant students and consequently the most competent teachers. Oliviero liked this competition. Our teacher, in permanent conflict with her colleagues, with whom she sometimes seemed near coming to blows, used Lila and me as the blazing proof as how good she was, the best teacher in the neighborhood elementary school. So she would often bring us to other classes, apart from the occasions arranged by the principal, to compete with other children, girls and boys. Usually, I was sent on reconnaissance, to test the enemy’s level of skill. In general I won, but without overdoing it, without humiliating either teachers or students. I was a pretty little girl with blond curls, happy to show off but not aggressive, and I gave an impression of delicacy that was touching. If then I was the best at reciting poems, repeating the times tables, doing division and multiplication, at rattling off the Maritime, Cottian, Graia, and Pennine Alps, the other teachers game me a pat anyway, while the students felt how hard I had worked to memorize all those facts, and didn’t hate me.

In Lila’s case it was different. Even by first grade she was beyond any possible competition. In fact, the teacher said that with a little application she would be able to take the test for second grade and, not even seven, go into third. Later the gap increased. Lila did really complicated calculations in her head, in her dictations there was not a single mistake, she spoke in dialect like the rest of us but, when necessary, came out with a bookish Italian, using words like “accustomed,” “luxuriant,” “willingly.” So that, when the teacher sent her into the field to give the moods or tenses of verbs or solve math problems, hearts grew bitter. Lila was too much for anyone.

That transports me back to Zachary Taylor elementary school in Louisville, KY where I dominated at “Around the World”, a game of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I’d weave up and down row after row leaving slower classmates in my wake. Then, at recess, I was the Russell Westbrook of kickball. At least that’s how I remember it. When it came to conjugating Spanish verbs in junior high, not so much.




2 thoughts on “Competitive Drive or a Cooperative Spirit?

  1. Before your elementary school memories swell your head to nether and unhealthy regions, I feel obligated to inform you “Russell Westbrook is NOT a kickball player.”

    • I was being more figurative than literal. Actually, whenever I watch him, I think track and field superstar, decathlon or triple jump. Of course T&F doesn’t pay quite as well.


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