Fiction

Contest of Distinction -Tom W. Miller

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Contest of Distinction

FROM THE UPPER TIER OF THE AMPHITHEATER, James watched a biomedical engineering student rise from his seat and walk toward the stage where he would receive his diploma. Dr. Andrea Schminter, wearing a velvety, octagonal tam that James associated with Flemish painting, stood at a podium and leaned into a microphone. “With high distinction,” she said, denoting the graduate’s honors in modern English instead of the traditional levels of laude that few people could decipher.

James’s older brother John, a new Master of Science, sat on stage in a small group of graduate students accepting advanced degrees today. John had already completed his stroll of glory, but he and his family had to sit patiently through the seventy or so undergraduates who had yet to receive their cherished scroll. In the seat to his right, James’s mother continued to click uninteresting photos of John, who sat motionless and expressionless in his chair. In the seat to her right, James’s father rested his eyes and breathed deeply.

Dr. Schminter announced another name. A young woman, the top of her cap decorated in a pink paisley pattern, stood up and walked down the aisle. James listened for one of the three honorary levels, “distinction,” “high distinction,” and “highest distinction,” but no such honor was forthcoming from the announcer’s lips. A few people in the amphitheater’s lower level cheered for their graduate, violating strict instructions to hold applause until all the names had been called.

“She squeaked through and she’s just happy to be here,” said Jenny, James’s twin sister who sat to his left. He turned to look at her. Though Jenny was only three minutes older than he was and possessed many of the same facial features, James was often amazed that they had coexisted in the same womb. She was assertive and bossy, while he avoided confrontation. Jenny preferred individual accomplishment and achievement, while James took more pleasure from contributing to a team effort.

James felt the need to advocate for the young graduate in the paisley cap. “In a major like biomedical engineering, that’s still something,” he said, keeping his voice low.

“When it’s my turn to do this in five years, I’m not going to be satisfied with a distinction-less graduation, and neither will you.”

“You’re probably right,” said James.

“That brings up another thought,” said Jenny. “If we graduate on the same day, I guess neither of us will have to do the dishes then.”

“Mom will get Dad to do them,” said James.

“Too bad for you that’s not the case tonight. Mom’s preparing a Thanksgiving-level dinner. It’s your day to do them and you’re going to be at the sink for an hour.”

James knew their spacious farmhouse sink was already full of dirty dishes because he had helped Mom by peeling and slicing potatoes, while Jenny had hid in her room and probably watched a reality television show on her phone. Today was James’s day in the twins’ rotation, but the special banquet that Mom was preparing put the day in a special category.

James’s reflexive response to his big sister’s exertion of will was to just go ahead and do them. He knew, though, that he had to start standing up for himself. John’s graduation reminded James that he himself would soon embark on his life’s journey outside the home, where his parents would not be able to intercede on his behalf. It would be better to start his training now, in a safe environment, by refusing to give into somebody that was obligated to love him forever.

“Afraid not, sis,” said James. “We rotate on the big days. I did Easter, so you’ve got tonight.”

“No way,” said Jenny. “Ask Mom.”

James leaned toward his mother, who was still looking through her phone at her masterful son. “Mom, shouldn’t it be Jenny’s turn to do the dishes this evening since it’s going to be a huge meal and I did them on Easter?”

“I think you should do them together,” said James’s mother without moving her eye from the phone’s camera shutter. “Many hands make light work. I trust that you and Jenny can hash it out.”

James nodded and did not try to change his mother’s mind. He found that he actually preferred to fight this battle himself. James moved back toward his sister and relayed his mother’s edict. “That’s a terrible idea,” said Jenny. “If we work together tonight, we’ll have to work together every holiday for the rest of our lives. How about rock-paper-scissors, three out of five?”

While this seemed like a fair solution, Jenny had a distinct advantage at this game. While James was bereft of psychic powers, his sister Jenny had received an ability to mind meld with her twin. He needed a contest where his sister could not predict his next move.

On stage, Professor Schminter called another name. Up popped a young man, wearing a gown but no cap, his long beard hanging eight inches below his chin and his wild locks compressed into a man bun on top of his head. James waited for the announcer to state his honor level, but she remained silent as the new graduate climbed onto the stage and shook hands with the dean.

“I kind of feel bad for the ones who have no distinction at all,” said James.

“Oh, I could have called that,” said Jenny.

“I thought you didn’t stereotype.”

“I don’t, but in that case it was totally obvious.”

An idea occurred to James, and he had his alternative to rock-paper-scissors. “If it’s so obvious to you, then put your money where your mouth is. It looks like they have about fifty names left to call. Whoever can predict the correct distinction level in the most people does not have to do the dishes.”

Jenny smiled at the idea. She obviously felt that she had the advantage in such a contest. “Ok,” she said, “you’re on.”

James knew that Jenny treasured her powers of personal perception. While James always thought the best of strangers—his “butterflies and gumdrops” perspective, as Jenny liked to call it—his sister claimed an ability to glimpse a person’s true self after very little contact. Just because she was right that one time, about Trevor Shifflett, Jenny considered herself wiser than her younger brother.

James and Trevor had been friends, or so he thought, back in the third grade during his mild obsession with Twinkies. Mom had refused to buy the cream-filled sponge cakes, so James had used his own allowance money to purchase them. When Trevor, the best athlete in the class, started sitting next to James at lunch, James would split his precious Twinkie two-pack with his new friend. Jenny had insisted that Trevor was only using James for his Twinkies, but James did not believe it. He thought the new friendship was based on a common love of soccer, and Trevor was going to come over and play as soon his dad had the time to take him.

When James started leaving his Twinkies at home, however, Trevor moved to another table. When he saw Trevor eating Matthew Johnson’s beloved pudding cup, James knew that Jenny had been right.

Jenny had never said “I told you so,” but from that point on, James had always detected an air of superiority in her eyes. Subsequent events had reinforced this attitude. Jenny had won many individual honors on the tennis court and the track, while James could only claim to be a middling soccer player on a mediocre team. Jenny had made an A in chemistry last year, while James had settled for a B.

This contest was an opportunity for James to demonstrate how he had grown and matured since succumbing to the Great Twinkie Scam. Not only would he stand up to his sister and avoid doing a hellacious load of dishes, but he could show Jenny that he now possessed mad discernment skills.

The next name called belonged to a slender Asian woman with smooth, shoulder-length black hair. She did not even crack a grin as she walked down the aisle. James sensed that this graduation was not a milestone for her, but only a first step on the road to an eventual doctorate and Nobel Prize.

“Highest,” said James.

“High,” said Jenny a moment later.

“With high distinction,” said the announcer with precise diction.

Jenny looked at her brother with a triumphant grin, as if she were sending a telepathic “butterflies and gumdrops” taunt. “You’re a racist,” she said.

“She looked very serious,” said James.

“She looked very Asian. Like you said, biomedical engineering is hard. Even Asians are going to falter sometimes.”

Both siblings guessed wrong on the next three names, but then another Asian woman stood up. She had decorated the top of her cap with a layer of glitter, and as she walked, the sparkling teeth in her broad smile complemented the decoration.

James remembered the woman in the paisley cap. Her graduation had needed no distinction at all to be a huge accomplishment for both herself and her family. Then again, that graduate had been Caucasian.

“High,” said Jenny, going with what was becoming her typical Asian prediction.

James weighed the factors and made a decision. “None,” he said. They both waited for Professor Schminter to speak, but as the camera flashed on the woman’s special moment, it became clear that she would receive no additional glory.

“Lucky guess,” said Jenny, trying to goad her brother into revealing his reasoning.

James refused to take the bait and kept his eyes toward the stage. His days of giving away Twinkies were over. With the score tied and the competitive juices flowing in each of the twins, a melting pot of young men and women, their robes the same deep shade of red but their skin a multitude of colors, processed down the aisle. Each time a graduate rose, James made a reflexive, split-second judgment based on appearance and demeanor. He then crafted a story about the person that supported his initial reaction.

A lovely young Indian woman rose from her seat. James imagined her parents urging her towards a perfect GPA, but the persistent attention of her male classmates—interest that she never received from the narrow-minded, immature boys in high school—ate into her study time.

“Regular,” said James.

“Highest,” said Jenny.

“With highest distinction,” said the announcer. Jenny flashed another satisfied smirk as she held up two fingers for James to see.

An African-American woman stood. She walked toward the stage with a poise and confidence that surpassed any of the other graduates James had seen to this point. She probably sat on the front row in every class and assumed leadership roles in her extensive slate of extracurricular activities.

“High,” said James.

“Regular,” said Jenny.

“With high distinction,” said the announcer. James felt his sister’s surprised eyes look at him, but his concentration had already focused on the next graduate.

After numerous wrong guesses from each sibling, James pulled ahead on another decorated cap prediction. Jenny finally picked up on the connection. When another graduate stood, her cap covered with stars and bows, both James and Jenny scored a point. Jenny tied the score with a random guess about an average-looking Anglo-Saxon male.

The next woman who stood up made James momentarily forget about the contest. Her face could have been in a fashion magazine and her long, honey-blond hair flowed down the back of her robe. She walked with perfect posture and her high heels accentuated her long, slender calves.

“Blond,” said Jenny. “I’m going with regular.”

James knew at once that bias had clouded his sister’s judgment. This goddess now could have been a model or could have gone to college for an easy degree and a rich husband, but she had chosen biomedical engineering. She wanted to prove to the world that she had brain power behind her angelic face.

“High,” said James.

“With highest distinction,” said the announcer.

“Impressive,” said Jenny, acknowledging her mistake. James’s instinct had been right, but he had not gone far enough.

As the announcer approached the end of the alphabet, James was up by a single point. The next graduate had an acne-ridden face and a scrawny body. His cap sat atop an oily shock of bowl-cut hair.

Those who could not socialize, studied, reasoned James. It was only a question of whether he would go with high or highest distinction.

“High,” said James.

“Regular,” said Jenny.”

“With distinction,” said the professor at the podium.

“Tie game,” said Jenny, no longer cocky.

Two graduates remained to be called. Tobias Yellen had the pale skin of a bookworm, but to the siblings’ surprise, he had garnered no honors from his extra study time.

Professor Schminter announced the name of Stephanie Zimballa, the final candidate in this year’s pool of biomedical engineering students. The graduate was of Hispanic origin, not fat but slightly overweight. As she heard her name called, she stood up and her smile lit up the amphitheater. In the front row of the lower level, Stephanie’s families raised their right fists in celebration but did not shout or in any way vocalize their joy.

Stephanie had decorated her cap for the occasion, but she had chosen a unique, square version of the black and white yin yang. Her design suggested a depth and distinction here that the other cap decorators lacked.

As James debated his decision, his mind flashed to Gary, the middle-aged man who toiled in the kitchen of the fast food restaurant where James worked. For the first three months of his employment, James had watched Gary juice lemons, chop cabbage and perform other mindless andmundane tasks. The thought of Gary’s plight motivated James to work harder at school so he would not share a similar fate.

Then James returned from a week of family vacation. During a break, as James sat in the kitchen and ate waffle fries, Gary asked him where he had gone the previous week, and a conversation began. James learned that the taciturn kitchen maestro had a led a rich and full life. Gary had visited all fifty states, all of the major national parks, had a wife, three children, two grandchildren, fourteen aunts and uncles, and hundreds of cousins. Gary, as it turned out, was the most interesting person that James had ever met.

In that moment, James realized that he had been deceiving himself now and ever since the third grade when he lost his Twinkies. Jenny had gotten it right with Trevor, and some of the fiction he had created today may have been accurate, but it was almost impossible to really know another human being. Even the apparent correlation between cap decorating and lack of distinction could have been more statistical anomaly than scientific fact.

Though he now understood that discernment was useless in the present situation, James still desperately wanted to win this contest. He thought about the dining room table that would soon be laden with bowls, platters and gravy boats that would all need to be rinsed and wiped before going into the dishwasher. He visualized the pots and pans with their dried-on, crusty residue, stacked in the sink, yearning to be scrubbed. Jenny was right: whoever did the dishes tonight would be standing at the sink for close to an hour.

More than the dishes, though, James wanted to defeat his sister and regain the full and equal respect of the one person he truly did know. Jenny loved him and was his best friend, but there had been an imbalance in their relationship since the third grade. This was his chance to restore harmony.

James had to make a decision about Stephanie Zimballa. He knew he was blindly guessing, but his mind could not help but grasp at some kind of pattern to assist him. He selected a distinction level he had not heard in a while.

“High,” said James.

“None,” said Jenny, sticking with the decorated cap connection.

“With distinction,” said the Dr. Schminter into the microphone.

As the dean of the college of engineering took over the podium from the mellifluous female professor, James and Jenny looked at each other.

“So after all that, we tied,” said James.

“Well done, little brother,” said Jenny. “That cap decorating thing was a good call.”

“Thanks,” said James. While he had not won, he thought he had accomplished his goal.

“We could still do rock-paper-scissors, three out of five,” said Jenny.

“We’re not doing rock-paper-scissors. You always beat me at rock-paper-scissors.”

“Only because you’re so predictable, bro. So what do you want to do? Flip a coin?”

James pondered the offer. The solution seemed fair, but he thought that this time, it might be best for there not to be a winner. “I think we should split up the duties, just this one time. One of us can rinse all the dishes and silverware, and the other one can do the big pots and pans. But come Thanksgiving, you’re still doing them all.”


Tom W. Miller holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin and now lives in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. ‎When not writing or having to earn a living, he enjoys tennis, biking and family adventures.  His stories have appeared in various literary magazines including The Writing Disorder, Red Fez and more‎.


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