Have Someone Else’s Back
I am homeschooled. I don’t have a bell schedule. There’s no cafeteria for me to eat in. No hanging out in the hallway. No lockers. None of that stuff. I can pretty much organize my day the way I want, and believe me, that is awesome. But one thing you might not realize about being homeschooled is that even though I’m not sitting in a classroom with twenty-nine other kids every day, being homeschooled means that I’m almost NEVER alone.
I have my own room and everything, but my dad or my mom or one of my brothers--or ALL of my brothers (insert eye roll here)--are somewhere close by pretty much all the time. Things can feel crowded, but crowded isn’t a problem for me. I love my family. I love knowing they’re nearby whenever I’m working on something. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m sitting there thinking, Gee! It sure is great to have my family within two hundred feet while I practice dribbling! It’s more like a feeling that happens quietly in the background. It might sound cheesy, but it’s like being surrounded by love. And also chaos. There’s plenty of chaos. Except the chaos is all mixed up in the love. And it’s the number one reason that if you want to level up, I think you can’t start with yourself. You have to start with having someone else’s back.
Having someone else’s back probably seems like a weird place to begin when you want to level yourself up, but I have something to say that you need to hear.
Ready? Here goes.
I, Zaila Avant-garde, two-time Guinness World Record holder, winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and (possible) future geneticist, am not alone. If I were alone, I would not be a two-time Guinness World Record holder, winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, or anything else, because being on a team is part of what makes me a champion.
I can almost hear you saying: “But, Zaila, what about looking out for number one?”
I’m not saying you should never take care of yourself. It’s just that a lot of people think that being a champion is only about taking care of yourself and doing what you want to do. I’m here to tell you that if you only look out for yourself, you’ll never be great.
Let me rephrase that: I’m sure lots of people get great at things by hurting people, stepping on people, and thinking only about themselves. Pause and ask yourself: “Do I really want to be that person? Is that what will make me happy in the end?”
For me, the answer to both of those questions is 100 percent no!
Do you know that saying “There’s strength in numbers”? In my world, having other people to look out for is a strength. It means you’re a part of a group. If you’re looking out for the people in your group and they’re looking out for you, you don’t have to be strong enough to stand on your own, because other people will have your back when you need it. Just like you’ll have theirs.
Try this on for size.
I’m a big sister, and in my family, that means I’m kind of a half parent to my younger brothers. I’m not in charge of my brothers all the time, but when my father is sleeping and my mother is at work, it’s my job to watch over them. With my youngest brother in the mix, believe me, that is NOT AN EASY JOB. My youngest brother is . . . well . . . I’ll save that story for later. For now, let’s just say that he’s energetic and curious. Extremely energetic and curious. And even when my youngest brother isn’t getting into things, being a big sister is a lot of work. Looking out for my younger siblings, making sure they’re doing what they need to be doing, and helping them out when they need it can be a bit of a challenge, even when my parents are there.
“Zaila, what’s this?”
“Zaila, open that!”
“Zaila, what does this mean?”
Being a big sister can be exhausting. In some ways, it might be easier to say, “Mom? Dad? I think you should hire a babysitter. I want to be great, so I need to spend all my time focusing on me.”
Except I would never do that. Being an older sister is a really big, important part of my life, and don’t tell my brothers but . . . I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Yes, I’m helping them, but every time I help them, it feels good for me. It reminds me that I’m powerful enough to help someone else. Maybe not superhero-level powerful, but somewhere on the superhero spectrum.
One of my brothers is really into science. He’s the kind of kid who always checks out books about dinosaurs and space and weather patterns from the library. And he does not try to keep whatever he is reading to himself. He talks about things like climate change a lot. Sometimes he’s annoying about it. Don’t get me wrong. I love science, too, and I also like to talk about it. The thing is that nine times out of ten, my brother isn’t trying to talk to me--he is trying to quiz me.
“Zaila, do you know the speed of light?”
“Zaila, how far away is the sun?”
“Zaila, can you name all the types of clouds?”
If I take too long saying the answer or, heaven forbid, I don’t know the answer, my brother hits me with his shocked and disappointed voice.
“Whaaaat? Why don’t you know that?”
I know he’s just quizzing me because he loves science so much and, since I’m the big sister, he thinks I should already know everything he does. I could definitely do without him constantly quizzing me, but the big sister in me loves to encourage him, especially about science.
That brings me to a very science-y opportunity I had. I was invited to Washington, DC, for a big event. The Smithsonian was opening a new exhibition about the future. It was really cool, and so was the fact that I’d been invited to be a speaker. At the event, it turned out that I was paired with Bill Nye. Bill Nye! As in Bill Nye the Science Guy. He was exactly how you would imagine him: super sweet and wearing the bow tie and everything. It was a glorious experience for me, and part of what made it so good was:
1. knowing how big a fan of Bill Nye my brother is, and
2. plotting ways for my brother to feel the glory, too.
I couldn’t get a time machine to go back and bring my brother with us or develop transporter technology to whiz him there on the spot. The best thing I could do was ask Bill Nye if we could record a video of him saying hello to my brother. Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to look all dorky fangirl in front of Bill Nye. Still, I’d do it a thousand times over just to see the look on my brother’s face. He was SO excited. Super excited. Uber excited. Just imagine him running around squealing, “Oh my God! This is Bill Nye!” for twenty minutes straight and you’ll get the picture.
And do you know what? It felt good. Being able to do something that would bring my brother that level of happiness is basically the definition of win-win for me. My brother was happy--win--and I was reminded that I can make a difference in someone else’s life--win. Those might seem like small wins, but they aren’t. It will be almost impossible to become the ultimate version of yourself if you don’t believe in your power to make a positive difference in the world (even if it’s just with your little brother!). The hard work I had done was paying off, and it was not just for me. It was for my whole family, which made everything I had done that much sweeter. So sweet that three hours later, when my brother came to me like he does sometimes and said, “You know, meeting Bill Nye on video was great, but I really wanted to meet him in person,” all I could do was laugh and say, “Okay. Why?”
“I wanted to discuss climate change with him,” he said.
Cue huge big-sister grin. “Maybe I’ll meet him again. If I do, I’ll bring you, and you can talk to him about climate change. In fact, I could just walk off and come back three hours later when y’all are done.”
Will I get to meet Bill Nye again? Who knows. But I promise you that, on the adorable factor alone, the world deserves to hear that conversation between Bill Nye and my brother--even if it’s three hours long.
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Getting good stuff from having someone else’s back isn’t the same as making a trade. It’s not like swapping chips at lunch with a friend. Yes, in that scenario maybe you wanted chili cheese and your friend wanted plain, so when you trade, you’re both getting something you want instantly. That’s good, but it’s not what I’m talking about. On the road to leveling up, having someone else’s back is less of a straight line and more of a Celtic knot. Or any kind of knot.
When I’m helping my brothers, I’m not expecting them to turn around and help me right back. I mean, they’re younger than me, so they don’t have as many chances to help me as I have to help them. The same thing is true when I do something for my parents. When I’m helping my mom and dad, I’m not expecting them to help me right back, either. If you do it enough, uplifting the people you love becomes a part of what you do and who you are. In a way, you’re filling your space with goodness and support. And when you’re surrounded with people who love you, too, that goodness and support will be there for you when you need it most.
Take my mom, for example. She’s always keeping me grounded. I don’t mean taking away my allowance or my privileges. I mean reminding me that parts of me are extraordinary and parts of me are ordinary, but all the parts of me are worthy of being loved. Deep, but true. That’s my mom! She says no to buying me Starbucks way more than she says yes, and she hardly ever takes chores off my list, but she also drops everything to bring me to photo shoots, games, and events in California or New York or Washington, DC, without batting an eye.
And even so . . . if my little brothers are running around wild, my mom still expects me to look out for them, even if that means stopping them from throwing rocks in a parking lot right after I won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. For her, it’s all the same. I’m me and I’ll always be me, and as weird as that sounds, her keeping me grounded actually makes it easier for me to grow. She has my back and I have hers, too. It’s not ever an even trade, but that doesn’t matter. In my family, the knotty, curvy spiral of love and support surrounds us all.
Maybe you’re reading that and thinking that you already can’t do the very first thing because, for whatever reason, your family doesn’t look or feel or behave like mine. That’s okay. Just pause right here and imagine you’re looking me in the eye while I say, “You are not alone.”
You’re not. Whoever you are, you’re a part of a community, even if you have to go out and find it. You have people out there; it’s just that maybe you haven’t met them yet. You might have to spend a little while finding them, but once you do--whether it’s a softball team or people who end up standing at the bus stop with you--you are a part of a team. And helping your team, your family, your community, reminds you that you have the power to help other people, and there are other people out there who will help you, too. There’s safety in that. A messy, chaotic, beautiful safety. And feeling safe is exactly what you need to help set yourself free. That’s where the real fun begins.
Weird and Around
You know that thing about you that you think everyone else would think was weird? Yeah. THAT thing. Cool. Well, the thing that makes you weird is probably what makes you YOU, and you should embrace it. Embrace the weird!
I’m not encouraging you to run around doing every little thing that pops into your head--especially if it’s illegal--but a lot of people spend a whole lot of energy trying to be “normal,” and seriously, what is normal? I know I’m not, and I wouldn’t want to be!
For example, when I was a little kid, I used to go around memorizing license plates. Trust me, that is not “normal.” My parents thought it was so strange that they didn’t even believe me at first. One day I was riding in the car with my family. I was reading the license plates going by us, and suddenly I saw a license plate that looked familiar. I was like, “Hey, I know who’s in that car.”
“You recognize the car?” my father asked.
“No, I remember the license plate. It’s my teammate’s dad.”
“Are you sure?” my parents said. And they said it in a way that made it sound like it was okay for me to be wrong. Like, I could change my mind and they wouldn’t be upset or disappointed. I didn’t change my mind.
“Really,” I said. “I remember him saying the number that’s on that license plate.”
My parents just kind of looked at me. There was nothing special about the car, and neither of them recognized it. When we drove a little faster so we could see who was inside, I was right.
My parents were still skeptical. They thought maybe I had just seen the person in the car. But--and this is important--I didn’t know that reading and remembering license plates was weird. Maybe if I had, I would have doubted myself. Maybe if I had been thinking about being normal, I would have tried to come up with a more reasonable explanation to give my parents, like I had seen that father leaning on the car and remembered the way it looked. I didn’t know it was strange to overhear someone talking about their license plate and still recall the number months later. So instead of shrinking back, I insisted.
Copyright © 2023 by Zaila Avant-garde. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.