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The Best and The Brightest

Published on Mar 31, 2023.

The first person I remember calling me that out loud was my high school janitor.

It was towards the end of senior year, a couple hours after school had let out, and I was on my way home when I realized I’d lost my retainer, again. This little contraption of hard plastic and metal wires was supposed to keep my teeth straight after my braces came off. But I wasn’t freaking out because I cared about my teeth. I was freaking out because of what it meant.

We didn’t have dental insurance when I was growing up. I didn’t even know that was a thing. I thought everyone went to dentists like the one we did, under the 7 line track in Queens, with a hallway for a waiting room and a receptionist who only took cash. I thought all kids with crowded teeth got the extra ones extract the way I did, with a clamp and a yank and only a small shot of novocaine. Because more shots of painkiller cost extra, and when the dentist told me that and asked if I wanted another one, I didn’t want my mom to spend money we barely had, so I said no. How bad could it be?

I was 10 or 11 when that tooth came out, with a blinding flash of pain. The next thing I knew, my mom was suddenly there, yelling at the dentist for leaving the decision about extra novocaine to a child. She marched me out of there, gauze stuffed into the gaping hold at the roof of my mouth. No more fly-by-night dentists for me, she promised.

So a few years later, when the time came around to straighten my crooked teeth, we took a tour of orthodontists in town. There were a couple very nice ones, with clean bright offices, and then there was the expensive one with the video games and the TVs above the dentist chairs. This is where the rich kids went, and of course I wanted to go there too. With the memory still fresh of rumbling train tracks and shrieks of pain, how could my mom say no?

That orthodontist cost my parents money that we didn’t have. The braces came on a payment plan, and by the time they came off and the retainer came around, they’d paid several thousands of dollars. But at least the end of the payments was in sight.

Then I lost the retainer for the first time. I don’t remember how I lost it, but I know the replacement cost $300. And now here I was, racing back to high school, with an empty case in my pocket and no idea where my retainer could be – again. I was frantic. The last thing we could afford was another retainer.

My Honda Accord screeched into the student parking lot, and I jetted to my locker. Not there. I rummaged through my bag again. Not there. I looked all over the floor, traced my steps back to the exit. Not there.

Then I saw something that gave me hope. A big gray trashcan on wheels outside a classroom. The telltale sign of a janitor nearby. Maybe, I thought, maybe he’d found it.

In the four years of high school, I must have seen the janitors dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But I still didn’t know their names. I didn’t even know how many of them there were. All I knew was that after school let out, when the mad halls were finally quiet, they came out with their trash cans on wheels, to clean up the mess from the rooms that we left behind.

Maybe I’d dropped my retainer on the ground or kicked it in a corner, I thought. I knew they were pretty good about not throwing things away that looked like lost items. I’d heard from a few people who had reclaimed all sorts of knick-knacks from them.

I went into the classroom, and the janitor was there, in his gray overalls. He was humming a tune I didn’t recognize, in true whistle-while-you-work fashion. I interrupted him from vacuuming the floor and I told him what had happened. By this point, I was starting to panic. He probably noticed the strain in my voice, the desperation in my please, when I asked him if he’d seen anything that looked like a hard piece of plastic with wires coming out of it. Under pressure, a retainer is a difficult thing to describe.

After letting me finish my babbling, he carefully set down the vacuum cleaner against the wall, looked me in the eye, and told me we’d find whatever this thing was. Here he was, a grown many in his 40s, with short, slightly graying hair, of unplaceable ancestry. Maybe he was Hispanic, maybe he was Filipino, maybe just a descendant of dark-skinned Italians. I didn’t know why he decided to help me. I didn’t bother to ask. I still didn’t even know his name.

He asked me which classrooms I had my classes in. We were in the science hall, and my AP Physics class was a couple doors down, so we started there.

In most of my classes, I sat in the back right corner. I guess I’d ended up there by alphabetical order early on in school, and then it just stuck. It’s funny, now that I think about it, that even in later grades when we could pick our own seats, most kids still sat by the alphabetical arrangement that had been imposed on us early on in our life.

As we scoured the physics room, checking corners and under desks, my eyes drifted up to a cabinet on the left side. Up on its door was a piece of paper. After every test, Dr. Chen, our physics teacher, would put up a list of the top scores, across both AP classes. Getting on there was everyone’s not-so-secret fantasy. There was something neat about all the other kids knowing how smart you were, even the kids from the other class who you might not even see.

There my name was, 2nd from the top. We’d just done a whole unit on special relativity. While not on the official curriculum, we were in that part of the year after the AP test in early May but before graduation in late June. We’d already all taken the AP tests – most of us got 4’s and 5’s, which meant we’d be able to count our high school physics towards our college credits. So now we could study whatever we wanted, and Dr. Chen wanted us to see the beauty of Einstein in action.

We derived Einstein’s law of special relativity – his famous e=mc^2 equation – from Maxwell’s three laws of thermodynamics. c represents the speed of light, and the way it emerges from the calculations, all the terms cancelling out in a swirling series of steps, is one of the most elegant proofs about our natural world that I have ever seen. The idea that you could just sit in a room with a piece of paper and a pencil, and play with a bunch of symbols according to just a few rules, and then divine the actual secrets of the universe – actually prove the oneness of matter and energy – that still blows my mind. It felt the like the fastest way to get at the truth of the world, to cut away all the bullshit and see what really is, what really must be, and I wanted to do nothing more than spend my life studying it.

While I fantasized about becoming a physicist, the janitor finished searching the room. Nothing turned up. Off we went to the next classroom – AP Calculus.

Again I started in the far right corner. Again there was nothing there. It struck me that we probably had less than a month of school left, and this would be one of the last times I’d be in this room.

If in physics class people were shy to admit their ambitions to be on the wall, here in math our competitive nature was completely out in the open. Mr. Cornell (no relation to the university, though I’m sure many students wished he did when they asked him for a recommendation) liked to make math even more competitive than it already was. In his class, it wasn’t just about finding the right answer. It was about getting to it first.

On especially hard problems, he’d play a game. The first person to answer the question correctly – say, the derivative of a nasty-looking function, or its integral – got a chance at a prize. He’d put a tiny basketball hoop up on the whiteboard, with suction cups. The kid who was the first to answer the hard question right got the ball and a chance to make the basket. Make it, and you got a prize. I don’t remember what the prizes were – maybe some chocolate, or something like that – but the prize was never really the point. It was about beating all the other kids to the answer, and then having all eyes on you as you – not them – got to take a shot at math classroom fame.

A couple weeks ago, I’d answered a particularly hairy question, integrating over a weird sort of curve. I’d already won a few prizes over the year, so Mr. Cornell made me take a particularly tough shot. He put me in the far back corner of the room (usually we got to shoot from our desks), and he put the basket on the far edge of the board. There really was very little chance to make it, but I took a shot anyway and somehow, I don’t really know how, it went in.

Mr. Cornell lost it. He jumped, spun around, and whooped. Then he turned to me, raised both hands in the air and bowed several times, like a disciple to a guru. No one had ever seen him do that before. I stood there, not knowing exactly what to do, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught a couple of the other kids looking at me, their eyes burning with jealousy.

Unfortunately, in our search for the retainer, the math room came up empty, except for the memories. The search was starting to look pretty futile. We’d exhausted most of the classes I had in the later half of the day. Still, we finished a sweep of the others – AP English and AP History and AP Computer Science and AP Government – but still found nothing. I was starting to lose hope. I was already wondering what I’d tell my mom when I got home, and I’d almost forgotten about the janitor, who’d taken half an hour from his day to rummage through the rooms with me. But he hadn’t forgotten me.

“Maybe it got thrown out,” he said with a smile. I didn’t know what there was to smile about. “And if it did, we can still find it. They don’t pick up the trash until the morning. Let’s go.”

He started moving to the back of the school, where he kept the dumpsters. Trash from the rooms would make its way there, bags tied up one by one and collected. I was hoping he didn’t expect me to go diving into the dumpsters – the retainer meant a lot to me, but not that much. Still I followed him anyway. He hadn’t really left me with much of an option.

We went all the way to the back annex of the school, where two large dumpsters were both half full with bags. Large black bags from the cafeteria and small white ones from the classrooms. He started pulling the white bags out and throwing them on the floor. Did he expect me to start tearing them open and go through other kids’ trash? He didn’t say a word.

With a pile of 20 or so bags on the ground between us, he got down on his knees, put on a pair of gloves from his back pocket, and started opening the bags. I didn’t even ask him if he had a second pair of gloves. I wonder now, years later, if he did and he was just waiting for me to ask. But I didn’t ask and he didn’t say. I just stood there, over him, watching as a man I barely knew dug through trash to find something that I had lost.

He shook each bag out and sorted the paper from the heavier stuff that it might be in. A dozen bags or so in, there was a familiar clatter of plastic hitting the ground. He’d found it.

“There it is!” I came to life, reaching down and picking up my retainer. A few bits of tissue were stuck to it, but nothing a good disinfecting rinse couldn’t cure. Better than going home and telling my parents they had to cough up another $300 to the dreaded orthodontist.

“Oh my god. Thank you, thank you sir! You don’t know what this means to me.” I extended my hand, as he got up off the ground and took off his gloves. He took my hand in his, a little smile on his face and a peculiar look in his eyes. We shook hands, a boy thanking a man. And then I asked, because I’d been wondering the whole time and I had to know: “Why did you help me look for it? You didn’t have to do it. Why’d you do it?”

He was quiet for a long moment as he wiped his hands on his pants. “I’ve seen your picture on the hall, by the entrance of the school. You’re the salutatorian, aren’t you?” I nodded. “They’ve written about you there. They said you got a perfect score on the SAT, that you were the first one to do that in our school’s history. Is that right?” Again I nodded. I’d never seen anyone stop to read that clipping about me from the school newspaper, but then again, I wasn’t the one that was here after everyone left, day after day, cleaning the window at the front of the case. He probably looked at my picture every day and he probably had read that article at least a few times. This whole time, I realized, he knew who I was.

“You’re one of our best and brightest,” he said, with a touch of pride. “People like you go on to change things. And when you get up there in the world, I just hope you don’t forget to make things better. I hope you don’t forget where you come from and people like me.” He paused and looked away. “Please remember to make things better.”

With that, he got back down to clean the mess strewn about. He put on his gloves and he didn’t look at me again. I turned around and walked away. As I got back to my car, I realized I still didn’t know his name.

“The Best and the Brightest.” That’s what they call people like me. We’re a special lot, plucked up young, given extra attention, put on the fast track to success.

We’re the winners of a game that everyone plays, from the time they’re old enough to read. Supposedly, it’s because there’s something better about us, something special. Something other people don’t have.

We believe we live in a world of fairness. Where the people of at the top deserve what they have. How the elite, who run this world through the wide-ranging consequences of their decisions, are our best and our brightest. That we are safe and guided by their benevolent rule.

That idea is a terrible lie. It is a wool draped over the eyes of a world that wants so badly to believe it that they eat it up. We believe this lie, because we are brainwashed into it from our most formative years. We live this lie, depending on it to improve our lives. And we pass on this lie as truth to our children, for the cycle to repeat all over again.

I know it’s a lie, because I’m on of the winners. I did the things they asked me to do, and I did them well. I went to the best schools, I worked at top companies, I got the jobs and the pay that everyone wants.

But in the process I discovered that my entire life has been built on lies. Slowly but surely, I turned my back on all the reasons I’d been given for why this world is the way it is, why there are winners like me and losers like them.

And, in the end, I realized I stand with them. The angry and the dispossessed. The left-behind and the traditional. Not the urbane professionals that I was groomed to be. Not the network of elites, who live in a few dozen cities with the same soulless lives, who worry about the {same useless things}. Not the corporate milieu.

I am part of the maddening crowd. The ones they make fun of in the cities where I’ve liked, like New York and London and San Francisco. The people “out there,” the people too stupid to know better, stupid enough to believe in a god or stupid enough to care about honor and country. I stand with them.

They are not just in the heartland of America. They are in the heartland of every country. In my travels, I met them in the villages of India, the farms of America, the small towns of Europe. They are people who live the way people have for centuries. With small hopes and big hearts, with a belief that there is something more than the materialist chase after prestige and money.

I don’t look like them. I don’t talk like them. I didn’t grow up like them. But when I meet them, when I break away from the liberal elite bubble for which I was groomed, I feel a kinship that I never do in my own circles. They show me a side of humanity I’d never seen in the crowd of people obsessed with fancy schools and fancy jobs. They show me something unmistakably human.

Mine is a story of disillusion. Of getting lost before being found. It’s a story of learning how to see, by forgetting how to look. It is the story of a scion of the elite, bred to reach the highest peaks of the modern world, who went looking instead for the truth.

I want to explain what I saw and what it made me realize. I want to give voice to the dispossessed, because their primal screams – the ones upturning the established order all over the world – are only going to get louder. It might not be immediate, there may be an ebb before a flow, but the anger of the dispossessed has not finished reshaping the fate of history.

Because they are right. In the accusations they levy against the world’s ruling class, and the contrived, rigged games we play to protect our power – they are right. There are no best among us, nor brightest.