Next to the school were wide-open playing fields that led on to the green, manicured lawns of the Finchley Memorial Hospital. It was in these playing fields that the annual school Sports Day was held.
Lily and her friends were there practising for track and field with their PE teacher Mr Harold. It was a warm, sunny day and not a cloud was in sight to taint the gleaming blue sky. The fields were abuzz with the hum of insect life.
Lily sniffed the air. It was warm and grassy with a hint of earthiness and she winced at the occasional whiff of wee-like odour coming from the elderflowers growing wild nearby. A gentle breeze kept the children pleasantly cool as they did their warm ups. There were a few dog walkers out that morning, perambulating along the footpaths that encircled the fields and in the distance a white husky lifted its hind leg to pee at one of the lamp posts alongside the footpaths. Some young mums were sitting out on the benches dotted round the edge with their prams and pushchairs, having a chat and enjoying the warm sunshine.
“RRRRIGHT! Gather round the start line please!” shouted Mr Harold, leaning rather perilously on one of his crutches trying to pick up his dropped hanky.
Mr Harold had unfortunately broken his leg playing football a month earlier, so training this lot for the hundred-metre race was proving a little tricky.
“Lily, Mia, Ijeoma, Tom and Harry, please arrange yourselves in a straight line,” he continued trying to sound strict but ultimately failing to do so.
Strict Mr Harold was most certainly not. In fact, he was one of the children’s favourite teachers. Medium-built, youngish, with dark hair and eyes and frequently attired in suits a size too large, he was today dressed more appropriately for his age in a tracksuit and t-shirt. The children adored Mr Harold as he never ever talked down to kids the way most adults and teachers did. To Mr Harold, they were equals and were treated as such.
“Oh mah gawd,” moaned Mia in a faked American accent, “I can’t possibly beat Tom in this - he’s way too fast!”
The other girls nodded, some giggling at the accent. Tom was indeed the fastest in their class. Small, wiry and brown as a berry, Tom was as nimble on the track as he was at maths and pretty much every subject taught.
“Well, you’re pretty fast yourself,” grinned Harry at Mia. “I’d say you have a chance.”
Harry was the class heartthrob due to his good looks and boyish charm. All the girls found him irresistibly charming, no more so than Lily who often found herself speechless in his presence for some inexplicable reason.
“I don’t know,” said Mia to Harry, “Tom’s fast and you’ve got stamina..”
“I think I’m gonna come last on Sports Day,” sighed Lily surveying her mates. “I’m definitely not fast compared with you guys!”
“Don’t worry Lily,” said Ijeoma kindly. “I’m not great at running either. At least you’re in the school play again this year. Bet Miss Quinn will select you to sing the solo again. You’ve got an amazing voice,” she added a little enviously.
“Yeah,” Tom chimed in, “you’re really good at music. My violin on the other hand...” Tom made the gesture of wringing one’s throat and the girls giggled at his silly portrayal of his violin skills.
“I wonder who’s going to top the SATs next year,” said Ijeoma, “it’s going to be so nerve-wrecking!”
“Bet Tom and Lily will ace them,” said Mia, “you guys are the brainiest.”
“It’s going to be awful for the rest of us,” she added with a sigh, “we’re going to fail.”
“Now, what’s all this talk about who’s going to win and who’s going to fail hmm?” said Mr Harold, hobbling closer to the huddle of children. “You shouldn’t be comparing yourselves with each other. You should only compare with yourself so that you can better yourself.”
“Yes, but Mr Harold, this is life innit?” chimed Harry, embellishing the last word with a hip hop hand gesture for effect. “There’s always a winner and always a loser.”
“Loser! Loser!” jibed Tom sticking a big ‘L’ up with his fingers and pulling a silly face. The children laughed. However Mr Harold continued rather seriously, “As I said, there’s no need to compare - there are no winners and there are no losers in life. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Beckoning them to come closer, Mr Harold positioned each of them along the starting line of the track, spaced an arm’s length apart and proceeded to give each of them a few quiet words of instruction.
“RRRIGHT!” he said, “100 metres, are ... you ... ready?”
The children looked towards him and nodded, each with one knee slightly bent, arms in position and ready to sprint. Lily felt her heart thumping a million miles an hour in anticipation of the start whistle.
“Ready.., steady.., GO!” exclaimed Mr Harold.
And they were off! Straightaway Tom was out in front like a shot, sprinting his way past Harry who seemed to be taking his time, even smoothing his fringe and flashing Mia a taunting smile as he overtook her. Lily chuckled - Harry could be so vain, but oh so funny!
By now the air was terribly hot and dry. Dust motes danced wildly in the sunshine, stirred by the movement of the children and whipped further by the occasional breeze. Lily looked to her right - she and Ijeoma were neck and neck, pounding away and kicking up small clouds of dry grass seeds as they ran. It was all very exciting!
A hundred metres..., eighty metres.., fifty metres.., the seconds that passed as the children clocked up the distance seemed like an eternity.
Lily glanced to her right again. Panting furiously, Ijeoma was coming up the track with determination. ‘Oh my goodness,’ thought Lily to herself, ‘look how quick she is! She’s literally right next to me - I can even hear her breathing!’ So pre- occupied with Ijeoma that she forgot to focus on her own running, Lily stumbled. Seizing the opportunity, Ijeoma forged ahead past her.
“LAST TWENTY METRES!” yelled Mr Harold from afar, wobbling dangerously on his crutches, whistle perched near his mouth at the ready.
Tom turned anxiously to look behind him, worried that he would be overtaken at the last lap. He could see Harry charging up behind him and barely a few centimetres behind was Mia, face screwed up and red in determination not to be beaten by Harry. It was going to be a very close race indeed!
Even with his muscles burning like fire, Tom daren’t slow down for even a bit for if he did, Harry would overtake and that would be game over for him! Unfortunately for Tom, occupied with these concerns, he neglected to notice a small hole in the ground coming up ahead. Just as he turned back to face forward, his foot dipped in the hollow and got caught. There was a thud and a brief utterance of a swear word as he found himself face down on the ground! Quick as a flash, Harry whipped past but not before Mia, seizing her chance, sprinted forth, cutting in front of Harry in a split second. Lily and Ijeoma followed closely behind, both gaining up in strides.
Then, just as the end of the track approached, something strange happened. The children began to sprint away from each other, away from the finish line itself!
Harry ran straight for the bench at the far right of the field whilst Tom, who had by now picked himself up in a scramble, raced towards the bin located ironically, close to their starting line. Lily dashed towards the lamp post and Ijeoma headed for the bollards in front of the Hospital.
By the time Mr Harold blew on his whistle signalling the end of the race, Mia was leaning against the abstract statue that stood in front of the Memorial Hospital and the others had stopped in front of their respective end points, all sweating and panting, breathless from the exertion.
“Great job guys!” clapped Mr Harold and waved them to come back. The children jogged back and crowded round him.
“That was a brilliant race!” said Mr Harold smiling broadly, “Now, can anyone tell me who won?”
The children looked at each other, unsure. Would that be Harry who had reached the bench first? Or was it Tom who ran the fastest? Perhaps Mia who ran the furthest? Or Lily whose lamp post was the nearest to the track’s finish line?
“Hmm,” said Lily at last, “I’m not sure. Harry reached the bench first but Tom ran the fastest...”
“Although,” Mia chimed in, “he didn’t reach his finish post first...”
“Wait, but what about Mia,” asked Ijeoma, “She ran the farthest, so shouldn’t she be the winner?”
“What just happened there Mr Harold?” asked Lily, puzzled, “Why did everyone run off to different places?”
“Yeah,” added Mia confusedly, “I don’t understand. I thought we were all supposed to head for the statue.”
“No,” piped Harry, “I thought Mr Harold said the finish line was the bench!”
“Well,” spoke Mr Harold grinning, “the finish line is actually all of those things - the lamp post, the bollards, the statue and so on - for each of you. What I did was tell each of you to head for it at the beginning of the race.”
“But why?” asked Ijeoma. This was ridiculous. Why would Mr Harold ask each of them to race towards a different finish point?
“Yeah,” agreed Mia, “now how on earth will we know who’s won?”
“A-HAH!” grinned Mr Harold teetering dangerously over them, “that’s the whole point!”
“I don’t understand,” replied Lily flabbergasted. “What kind of a race is this anyway?”
“It’s the Race of Life,” said Mr Harold sagaciously, looking very pleased with himself at the same time. With an exhausted oomph, he plonked himself on the bench.
“The Race of Life is exactly that,” he continued. “You shouldn’t compare yourself with other people. You see, you’re all running a race but your destinations are very different.”
He looked at Lily and continued, “So if you’re busy checking out the person next to you instead of paying attention to your own running, you may stumble.” Lily grinned sheepishly as she recalled looking at Ijeoma instead of concentrating on her own running earlier. Because of that, she had stumbled. Admittedly, there was some truth in that.
“Or,” ventured Mr Harold, pausing and looking at Tom with a twinkle in his eye, “if you’re always worrying and looking back, afraid that someone may overtake you, you may trip and fall.” Tom rubbed his face a little sorely and nodded reluctantly.
“The point is,” said Mr Harold looking round at the children, “don’t compare yourself with others. When you’re running a race, don’t focus on the people ahead of you, beside you or even behind you. You might get disheartened if you compare yourself with the people ahead of you or you could get distracted by the people running beside or behind you. Run your best at your own pace because your finish line is different to everyone else’s. The race you’ve just had represents life - and there is no winner or loser in life - because your finish line,” said Mr Harold pointing at Lily, “is different to his finish line,” he continued pointing at Harry, “...which in turn, is different to her finish line, see?” he concluded, pointing at Ijeoma.
“At school, it doesn’t matter if you’re not as good as someone else at something - say maths for example. You may be awful at maths but turn out to be a famous artist one day. You might not be good at science but you might grow up to be an amazing tennis player. You might decide you want to be a vet when you grow up, only to discover you’re actually great at shoe design!” grinned Mr Harold.
“Whatever it is you do,” he continued, “you should always try to beat your personal best, not others. Compare yourself with your previous performance, not someone else’s.”
The children nodded. It made sense. There they were comparing themselves earlier, wondering who was best at singing, who was better at music, who would get top marks in the exam when all along there was no need to - it didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter because there was no need to compare with each other. Everybody was different. Nobody was going to grow up to be exactly the same or do exactly the same things in life. So why would there be a need to excel in exactly the same thing as the next person? And what would be the point of comparing oneself with another?
“Or...,” said Mr Harold with a wink, getting up to go back to class, “you might have thought you’ve always wanted to be a pilot, only to find out that - turns out teaching is a lot more exciting than flying after all!”