The Dance Begins

Dana: I am a believer in allowing children a lot of free play time throughout childhood. But as far as organized activities go, I did make it a point to offer up a variety of options. Here’s how it went for my three daughters:

Girl Scouts: They all tried this, starting at the earliest level (I think it was called Daisies?) I recall all three children feeling pretty neutral about this and sticking with it until dance began to take up a fair amount of time, which perhaps was before my youngest reached the cookie sale stage.

Sports:  Between the three of them, the girls tried various sports. None of them lasted more than one season(and sometimes not even that long). Brittni found Tee-ball to be chaotic, Jill was stressed out on the soccer field (she was only five,  but it seemed everyone started playing at five!) and Bethany got a stomach ache every Saturday morning before basketball practice until I told her coach she was quitting.

Then there was dance. No one wanted to quit dance. Over the years, we must’ve gone through 100 pairs of ballet shoes collectively, and a zillion hours of instruction and many, many dance shows. There were close friendships and tears, blisters and heartache, drama and glory. There was discipline and structure and artistry and joy and summers spent dancing near and far.

During Brittni’s very first rehearsal at about four years old, she would not get on the stage. She’d practiced a dance all year long with her peers but never before on a stage. Once she sat out the first round though, watching the other girls up there, she was ready to try out the stage for the next number. And from a seat in the audience, I saw the look in her eyes when she successfully performed the dance. She was hooked. Dance would become her drug. Her obsession. From that day on, I would be living with an addict. I was both happy for her and scared at the same time. And that, I would later learn, was a very appropriate response.

 

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The Heart of a Sensitive Child

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Daughter:  One of my biggest fears going into motherhood is that I might find myself helpless against the world’s determination to shape and reshape my daughters’ views of themselves. That I might have to stand by and watch as they are told who they are and who they should be, and that it won’t line up with their own truths.

I know this is largely unavoidable. Doesn’t it happen to all of us? Life seems to be a process of knowing, forgetting, and then relearning what sits at our cores. Perhaps that process of forgetting and then remembering ourselves is all part of the game. But it’s a relentless game and some, I think, are especially prone to getting caught up in its depths. I hope that my girls can be a little hardier a little less yielding – than I was. I hope that somehow I can help them dig their heels in and stand their ground against the confusing whirlwind of molds to fit and cast descriptions to fill.

I was never inauthentic per say, but I certainly paid attention and what I saw and heard taught me that perhaps I was wrong about a few things. The funny thing is though, I think the earliest version of me – the four and five and six year old version – knew much more than I gave her credit for.

I knew back then that free time was my favorite thing and that home was my favorite place. I knew that loose comfy leggings were the obvious clothing choice because dresses and skirts and constrictive jeans did not lend themselves to free, spontaneous cartwheels. I knew that my body was perfect because it let me run and play and dance and climb trees.

I knew that daydreaming was not only acceptable, but a wonderful creative escape that fully deserved my time and attention. I knew that there was nothing more beautiful than a well-illustrated children’s book. I knew that I loved to make art and that someday I would be an artist. I knew I didn’t like to sit still unless I was reading or making art.

I knew that I didn’t like church because I had to sit still…and listen to stories I did not understand and because it made me angry that women could not be priests. I knew that girls were just as strong and smart and worthy as boys and I knew that it was okay for boys to wear pink or play with dolls or cry.

I knew that being myself was more important than being accepted; despite hating to attract attention to myself, I flat out refused to follow the trends of my peers for fear that this would make me “fake”. I knew that bottling up my frustration, excitement, anger, sadness, joy, and fear was not worth it.  Well to be clear, I did not consciously “know” this, but rather I did not yet know how to not wear my heart on my sleeve.

I knew that it was wrong when an adult at school yelled at a student who was just confused and distracted and scared. I knew that it was wrong when a teacher exasperatedly took a book away from a little boy who was “not ready for that level of reading”. I knew that it was wrong when another teacher grabbed me by the hood of my jacket and yanked me backward when I was rushing down the hall at the end of the school day in my eagerness to get home where I could feel safe and free. I knew a lot of things that happened at school were wrong. And I think those early school years were when I started to forget some of the important things I had known.

I started to let the world around me teach me new lessons. I learned that it wasn’t okay to be shy and reserved. I learned that comfortable clothes were not always the right clothes and that daydreaming was not a wonderful creative pastime, but rather a recipe for getting in trouble at school.

I learned that, after kindergarten, art was only worthy of forty minutes out of the seven-hour school day one day per week. I learned that sitting still was a very good thing that teachers praised. I learned that boys and girls were separate and that if I was friends with a boy I would be teased by my classmates.

As I got a little older, I learned that my body was supposed to look a certain way and I learned how to hide what I was feeling. I learned that being accepted was at least as important as being myself, if not more so.

I had gathered a whole new body of knowledge that I found rather difficult to live with. If only I’d had thicker skin, had been more oblivious to the subtleties around me… Had I been somehow immune to the new and peculiar life lessons I was learning, I surely could have saved my unsuspecting family – and myself – the strain of endless meltdowns, physical illnesses, anxiety disorders, and other futile embodiments of a child caught off guard by a world she didn’t easily fit into.

As I’m sure many a like-minded, soul-searcher can attest to, it is no small task to sift through the layers upon layers of oneself in order to find what is real and worth keeping and what is not. As I sift, I am seeing more and more that the la

yers worth keeping – the real layers – are the ones that have been here all along. And I want more than anything to watch my daughters grow and dream and thrive with a level of trust in themselves that will allow them to hold onto what they know.   I want their own truths to be so solid, so illuminating, that the rest just falls away.

School Fever

Daughter:  Some of my most potent memories of  kindergarten are of seemingly insignificant moments that, to me, felt larger than life, such as when my teacher would have to say my name who- knows -how- many times before she got my attention. That was always so embarrassing.

I remember one morning at circle time, I was fixated on the material of the sneakers I was wearing. They were new & white and I was tracing designs over the smooth leather with my finger when I heard my name.  I knew as soon as I looked up that the teacher had been saying my name for a while because my entire class was staring at me, some of them stifling giggles.

“Are those new sneakers?”, the teacher asked me. I turned every shade of red
and fought back tears as I nodded my head. “It’s your turn”, she said, looking
both concerned and a little amused. I don’t remember what it was that we were
taking turns doing, probably because my distress over being the subject of
everyone’s mild amusement in that moment made me too numb to fully register
whatever followed.

That was not the first or the last time something like that happened in school. It was bad enough each time it happened though that I started to figure out in my later years of elementary school how to avoid such clumsy calamities. If I focused hard enough, I usually didn’t miss anything important. The thing is though, this took a huge amount of effort, as my instincts were to drift into my own world, which I found to be much more interesting than most things we were doing in school.

Nevertheless, I got better at making myself pay attention. I used everything I had to focus and I started to be praised for it. I became the “good listener”. I could tell that the teachers liked me because I didn’t cause trouble or noise or extra work for them. So I kept using all of my energy to pay attention. I kept being quiet and still and “good” because the praise felt nice. I could see and hear how the teachers got angry with the kids who were not quiet and still and good and I did not want that to be me.

Soon enough I started acting out at home. I was like an erupting volcano who had spent all her energy pretending to be a stoic mountain all day. I would cry and yell and lash out at my family.  And I felt incredibly guilty about this. I did not understand how I could be so well-praised at school and so monstrous at home. How could I be labeled as “sweet” and “respectful” and “quiet” at school while at home I was becoming entirely the opposite?

I didn’t know that the school version of myself was sucking me dry. I simply did not have it in me to be a stoic mountain for more than seven hours each day – seven hours of desks, text books, rules, lines, people, and generally way more structure than is natural for a free-spirited child who craves space, creativity, nature, and movement.

In second grade I discovered the beauty of staying home sick. I really was sick a few times and I swear the joy of not getting on that bus and going to school was worth any fever, sinus infection, or sore throat I had to pay for it. So some days, when I woke up and knew I couldn’t possibly manage to be the perfect school-version of myself that day, I would put on a semi-believable sick act; I’d do the classic holding the thermometer under the lamp; I’d fake-shiver as if I had the chills; I’d sneakily plug in my mom’s heating pad and hold it to my forehead for a few minutes so when my mom checked my head with her hand, she would say, “Oh…I guess you do feel a little clammy”.

I used every trick I could think of and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. On days that it did, I was the happiest girl alive – delving into art projects and books while simultaneously trying to act sick. I could sense that my parents were leery on those days. They weren’t sure what to think and that certainly added a pang of shame to my joy. But the bliss of not having to be who I felt like I had to be at school was just too good to give up. On those days, I was not monstrous at home. I was just me. I was happy and pleasant and not like an erupting volcano. And it was easy to just be me. It was a relief – for both me and my family – which is probably why my parents let it happen sometimes even if they suspected I wasn’t truly sick. We all needed a break now and then from volcano-Brittni and this is how we got it I suppose.

Then one day in school we were color-coding our multiplication tables. I had just finished sharpening all of my colored pencils when the boy at the desk next to me grabbed them from me and broke all the tips off with his hand. He gave them back to me laughing and, as I started to ask him why he did that, my teacher walked up to my desk and said in his deep stern voice, “Brittni, you’ve missed too much school to be fooling around. You need to focus on catching up on your work.”

It took all my strength not to cry as I crouched over my worksheet and started filling in my multiplication table with my now flat-tipped colored pencils. I was angry at the boy who broke my pencils and I was angry at my teacher for blaming me for the commotion, but mostly I was angry at myself for not focusing harder. For letting it happen. For not standing up for myself. And I felt trapped because I knew there would be no more “sick days” for me that year.

 

 

The Path of Most Resistance

Mother: Despite my being ignorant to the fact that it was the school bus that my daughter  was afraid of, even 20160516_175414more than school itself,  she did eventually adjust enough to make it through her Kindergarten year. In all honesty though, I think that she did not adjust to riding the bus as much as she accepted her miserable  fate..oh the guilt. It breaks my heart even now, two decades later, to think of putting her little tear-stained face on the bus. And for what? All in all, Kindergarten sucked more life out of her than it gave.

***

Summer flew by, filled with free play and fun, reading and swimming, family and cookouts. The jaws of the school bus came around again, this time gobbling up my little girl for the an entire seven hour day. I would come to detest those back-to-school commercials that portrayed the gleeful mom, happily shopping for her kids,  knowing they would be “out of her hair” soon.  For some of us, back-to-school was something to dread. And in those early years I could not shake the nagging feeling that our current setup was just a matter of inertia.  My kids were reading, learning, and exploring the world outside of school, with joy.  What in would they gain by joining the masses in a building that seemed to drain the joy from them? Could anything  be less natural a way to learn and grow than what our society deems mandatory?  What about freedom? What about play and creativity? And peace and authenticity? What about their brief childhood

But school is  the norm. School is what we do to kids.  School is what kids do. And therefore I was scared to face how wrong it felt  to me for us.  I was almost scared to think it, let alone speak it. 

What if I became a dissident?

What if I didn’t? 

I taught Kindergarten long ago, before I became a parent.  It was hard. I recall being under significant pressure to get all the kids “up to speed” and ready for first grade. There were twenty-five of them. Part of me just wanted to set them free.  I wanted to let them stay outside, or play indoors all day if they wanted, or go home, or take more than twenty minutes to eat their lunches. I wanted to let them climb in my lap at circle time and skip nap time – or extend nap time if they were tired. But I was a professional with an assigned agenda, not their mother.  I felt conflicted and overwhelmed.

At that time, I worked with some fabulous people who made teaching their career and have family members and friends who did as well.  Getting done what must get done in a school year while simultaneously nurturing a child’s sense is a tall order.  I feel strongly that we should value the teachers who do this well.  They spend over a thousand hours with our children in a given year! This is important.  If a child feels safe -safe to learn, safe to be curious, safe to be herself- at a school, in a classroom, with a teacher, then wow, this is the season for open heavens, rejoice! If your child loves and embraces being at school? Thank your lucky stars.

***

To “celebrate”  Brittni’s first day of first grade, (I was trying very hard to put a positive spin on this, and to focus on the success! She went! She arrived back home!) I  had the bad idea that our family would go out to dinner.  What was I thinking? Oh to be able to go back in time and let the older, wiser me make some past decisions. I think this is why I don’t often get nostalgic- In so many instances, I want a redo. This day is one of them.

We all piled into the car and drove the fifteen minutes to the restaurant. The next scene involves Brittni hugging a telephone pole outside the car, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, wanting to go back home.

Why someone did not call the cops at this obvious sign of a kidnapping, I have no idea. But at that point I really thought we could not allow her to dictate the family’s evening plans, and so we waited it out, doing our best to soothe her tantrum, and assure her that dinner really could be pleasant and peaceful.

All of us a little less hungry at this point, but no longer making a scene on Main Street, we got through that meal quietly, deflated.

And here is what I now know, and what Brittni articulated many years later: School took every single ounce of her energy and then some- to pay attention, to follow the rules, to tune out the noise and focus on the teacher,  to be around many people, all day long as an introvert, to squelch the desire for quiet, for art, for more movement- to be a good girl.  

And she was being a good girl at school!  The teachers were happy with how diligent she was doing her work.  She was easy, quiet, smart. 

Then she came home and lost it.  And I wondered what had happened to my child. What was school doing to her? And why couldn’t I fix it?

And when she calmed down, she would sit at the kitchen table doing her homework, glancing out the window and asking aloud one day, “Is anyone really free?”

School may have been sucking the life out of her, but it was giving her some very big questions.