They’ve made a list, you’re checking it twice. A final confirmation of who has been naughty and who has ‘done the study’. The CAO* offers are out and students are contemplating accepting or rejecting college courses as diverse as Applied OMG in Trinity and Interactive Rose Studies in Tralee IT.
Of course the CAO offer system is all different now. Offers are sent out by ‘compewther’. In my day you got your offer along with a smack in the head from a duster. And you were glad of it. This is a big week for anyone who has been Certified As Having Left. There is a little thrill on realising that the State is telling you: We Know Who You Are And You Belong.
I would like to say to all of those bright young things: Cherish this moment. The state is offering you something nice. Forget, for the moment, that for a huge part of your subsequent lives the State will be sending you offers that won’t be half as sweet. Offers which say things like: “We’d like to offer you the opportunity to pay for services you already thought you were paying for through your taxes.” “We’d like to offer you the opportunity to buy a TV license to watch programmes such as ‘Celebrities Go Dull’ and ‘Craig Doyle’s Teeth'”.
The CAO is a big presence in many lives. A mysterious nexus through which is filtered the hopes and ambitions of thousands. And it facilitates that most pernicious of human traits: competitiveness.
Of course animals are competitive too. Stags clash antlers in the forest over who gets to be stuck in a rut. Hyenas compete for wildebeest morsels. But in the animal kingdom, competitiveness is a matter of life and death and each bout is over quickly and forgotten. A jilted stag is not sent cuttings from the local paper showing how well the winner is doing. A hungry hyena will eventually get fed. They won’t be forced to watch their rival driving around in a Lexus.
We compete with each other from an early age. Siblings vie for attention. The arrival of a new baby can cause a toddler to try and compete at being a baby. Younger children who pass through the same school as their forbears may hear the dreaded “Why can’t you be more like your brother. He was a good boy”
While CAO points are a public measure of worth and achievement, competitiveness in the world of work is a more subtle affair. Wages, for example are tiptoed around. No one likes a nob so (most) people are coy about what they are earn. Anyone who’s ever been through a performance review process will recognise the way competitiveness is encouraged by grading you against your peers. But it’s still not something that is talked about too openly. (Though every peer group has one member who somehow knows what everyone is on.)
You can’t suppress a human instinct completely though. It may just bubble up in a different environment. Like in Tag Rugby.
If you ever want to see the explosion of latent dog-eat-dog instincts, which have been suppressed for fear of attracting who-does-that-langer-think-he-is attention, watch a Tag Rugby match. It’s a sport which is ostensibly a fun way to play rugby in a no-contact, mixed-gender way and it’s quite a social occasion. Most people treat it that way. But in every game there will be at least one person who is pouring that week’s dose of repressed competitiveness out in a stream of invective against the referee, the opposition or the poor unfortunate on their own team who dropped the ball. As they troop off the pitch, teammates are heard to mutter to each other “Tracey scares me a little.”
The odd thing about competing is that quite often, your rival has no idea they are your rival. Everyone has at least one bête noir – a figure from the present, or indeed surprisingly far in the past that we are constantly measuring ourselves against. Often illogically. This person may be an enemy or a friend. For some reason as each sling and arrow of outrageous fortune heads your way, their face pops into your head with the thought. “Oh I bet he’s loving this”
And then at some cathartic point years later you may meet them again and in a moment of truth they’ll say. “You know, I really envied you”. And you’ll say “Splutter..cough…what the…but if you …then what was I obsessing about all these years?”
Competitiveness is not always a bad thing. There will be times when we’ll need to clash antlers or snarl at someone to get our share of the bloodied carcass of a wildebeest.
For the rest of the time though, I’m just going to compete with myself.
And we’ve had a chat and decided to call it a draw.
* CAO – Central Applications Office – A government body that manages admissions to third level educational institutions.