Autonomy, Freedom, and Inevitable Rebellion
I think that it was Spider-Man who said: with great power comes great responsibility. This is also true for autonomy. With more autonomy comes a greater responsibility and also, perhaps, a greater degree of self-control.
We have a new system for our son, now that he is nearly fourteen, and again living with us rather than staying at a boarding school: at the beginning of each week he is given a sum of money, and he has to budget for himself. Transport, ballet classes and any lunch, drinks or snacks all have to be paid for from this weekly amount. Our unexpected circumstances have led to a new opportunity - he can learn an important life-skill, And hopefully avoid the mistakes that not having these skills might bring when he is older.
It means of course that he can embrace the dark side. Fast food has been forbidden all his life, and he let it slip the other day that he got a portion of French fries after a class. We have also discovered that he is quite partial to a chocolate brownie now and again as a source of post-ballet carbohydrate. Years of ballet means that taking water with him at all times is habitual - so, we are yet to discover him swigging from a coke can (or anything else, for that matter) - but only time will tell.
I suppose that this is a normal stage of parenting. There comes a point when surveillance - like some neurosis powered helicopter - has to stop. We just have to trust that we reasoned and persuaded enough, so that left to their own devices they won't freak out entirely and submerge themselves in a life of excess. Is there any research to suggest that children who are kept on a tighter leash become more hedonistic and irresponsible in adult life? Or is all the evidence wrapped up in the much quoted marshmallow test - delayed gratification as the secret to adult success. I suspect that if my children are anything like their parents then their ability to delay gratification is not very good.
Apparently thoughts of rebellion are an important developmental stage beginning at the age of eight. It occurs to children for the first time as eight-year-olds that they can cut loose and become free-spirited and independent. I don't mean to brag about how precocious my children are, but evidence would suggest that both of mine had this thought five years early - at the age of three. Both skipped over the ‘terrible two’s’, and became almost uncontrollable a year later. They really seemed to understand that they were individuals who didn't need to tow the line any more - a quality that we have nurtured in both ever since. In fact, such is the anarchic nature of their upbringing, I considered our son’s desire to attend a traditional boarding school based on an archaic and patriarchal model to be an early act of rebellion - we failed as parents by not putting enough rules in place, and his rebellion was to go to ballet school. I'm thankful that this phase has now passed. Now that he has patriarchy out of his system, he can move on to more valuable forms of rebellion.
And with this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, he announced where he had taken himself for lunch in a particularly swanky restaurant. Well actually, as he assured us, he didn't go into the restaurant, but had lunch in a the deli and café which the restaurant owns next door. How much was this beautifully presented tomato and mozzarella ciabatta? We tried not to gasp, and swallowed our potential exclamations when he told us. A deal is a deal. He had budgeted for it, and it fitted into his weekly planning, so it would have been remiss to make him experience any form of shame. In fact, I did the opposite. I congratulated him on his adventurous choice and his ability to handle money. His teenage rebellion is taking an interesting and unexpected shape.
Looking for Dilly Dankle
When my son was at Ballet School, one teacher would often remark that the children were not at 'Dilly Dankle's School of Dance, now.' At the time, this comment confused him. Who was Dilly Dankle? And what was so bad about her school of dance? A couple of weeks ago he tried out a ballet class at another institution. Lo and behold, the teacher said something like, 'this isn't Dilly's school for ballet, you know'. Is this just coincidence? Or have both of these teachers got some sort of deep seated prejudice against a real person - Dilly - who used to teach them dance. Perhaps they both bear the psychological scars inflicted on them by the cruel and unforgiving Dilly Dankle - a woman whose ambition for her students far exceeded her skill of teaching classical ballet.
However, I suspect that the main thing Dilly Dankle represents in the minds of these teachers is their own snobbery and prejudice. Dilly is the face of an eternal, and internal, sworn enemy. She embodies these teachers' beliefs that you do not cast your pearls before swine. Because, as we all know, ballet teachers are not born equal - some are more equal than others. Heaven forbid that you should find yourself teaching ballet to people who actually want to do it for fun; young people who just want to test the water, or who enjoy the discipline, or who benefit from the camaraderie, or who just love ballet. These teachers consider themselves the elite, and woe betide the student who forgets this. These teachers want their pupils to always gratefully acknowledge that they are not being taught by Dilly Dankle, because Dilly Dankle is just too humdrum. And the fear lurking in the hearts of these teachers is the idea that they might actually be Dilly Dankle after all; ordinary and mediocre.
I could paint a different picture of Dilly Dankle. Miss Dankle's school of dance is an inclusive and open environment in which everyone is encouraged to achieve according to their own individual talents. The teaching is rigorous and precise while still happening in an environment which is nurturing. Some young dancers are trepidatious around Miss. Dankle, certainly, but only because they know that she sees everything and settling for second best when you are capable of better is, for her, a failure. She wants her children to perform at their best. The Dilly Dankle school of ballet is a transient place. While some students stay for many years, some are simply passing through. Dilly's teaching is committed to all. While you are in her classes, you are given the same level of attention as everyone else. Dilly is passionate about dance, and has been for thirty years. When old pupils return, she greets them with openness and warmth, regardless of whether they are still dancing or not. She is happy to have the children of former pupils also pass through the ranks of her school. The fact that she teaches in such a small town doesn't bother her. Dilly's philosophy decrees that everyone deserves the best teaching that they can get. And even if Dilly's students have never even seen a ballet, live, in front of their eyes in a theatre, Dilly is happy so search out clips of brilliant dancers on YouTube and send out links to her students. Whenever a performance is being beamed to the local cinema, Dilly is happy to organise tickets.
The condescension is misplaced, and the elitism is bogus. There is no evidence to suggest that teaching at a school with more 'prestigious' reputation than another makes you a better teacher. The derision of the mythical Dilly Dankle is revealing. It betrays a fundamental fear that deep down we are all just ordinary and mediocre, even though there is no shame whatsoever in being ordinary. Ironically, the one person in this story who is far from mediocre and not at all ordinary; who shows resolution and self-knowledge is Dilly herself. She remains blissfully unbothered by these comments; she is far too busy teaching ballet.
From A to B
It's like I've gone from one extreme to another. This announcement was made by our son over dinner recently. It is an accurate observation, and it is true for all of us. After months of chaos - of feeling that we, as a family, were somehow completely lost armed only with a malfunctioning GPS - we are now slowly getting used to the new landscape.
We used to say goodbye to him at the beginning of the week and then we would next see him again on a Saturday morning. Now he is with us during the whole week, and we have all needed time to adjust. I've written a great deal about what it is like to reluctantly send your child to boarding school - now I can write about what it is like when they return home. There are the obvious changes - the amount of food that is eaten; the frequency of laundry that is done; the number of sibling arguments; a messier house. Now, I always seem to be loading or unloading either the dishwasher or the washing machine. Having him around is extremely time consuming. Perhaps, I'm beginning to realise that boarding school wasn't such a bad idea after all.
That flippant comment sits awkwardly on the page: Boarding school was a terrible idea.
I often felt that ballet school meant giving him up to a strange type of incarceration. He was stuck within the confines of the school grounds, and he often didn't have the time and space to even make phone calls. Every second of his day had an allotted activity. I wrote at the time how I was worried about him not developing a healthy relationship to boredom. Now he is back in his own environment and at the same he enjoys a new sense of freedom. He travels around independently, getting himself to ballet classes, or around to friends' houses. His time management skills have been acquired with a hastened necessity. I'm impressed, not only by how well he is coping with this autonomy, but also by how much he seems to be enjoying it.
We now know that he frequently also felt a lack of nurture at the school. The children bond through common adversity: they survive in a restless hyper-vigilant state; knowing that criticism, challenges, cruelty may well arise soon; uncertain of where it might come from. Keeping themselves protected while in turn consoling their friends is the way the Ballet School pendulum swings. This restlessness used to still be alive in his body when he returned at the weekend - a subdued anxiety; his exhausted nervous system waiting to go back on red alert. Now, we are always on tap to provide reassurance and honesty. He is no longer surrounded by people who are essentially strangers, and instead he hopefully feels that he once again has the support of family life. His pendulum can gently rock, rather than dramatically swing. Now that the difficult events of his departure are fading, a new person is emerging: focused, resolute and full of fun again. Only now do we understand the struggle he was enduring at the time. Now he often expresses his joy of life and the fun is again present. Now, we have realised that it had all but disappeared over the last few years. His confidence is returning, and in more ways than one, our son is back.
Some habits have returned like old friends. While he generally makes his own way to classes, there is one class that is difficult to reach on public transport. So, I am back to being the taxi driver. It feels familiar - waiting for him to come out while all the other dancers come and go. I enjoy being back here - sitting in a car, listening to the radio, expecting him to emerge. I too feel like I have come home.
He has come a very long way in a very short time. The whole family has. The space between point A and point B was tempestuous and unstable - it was stressful beyond belief. But now that we have moved from one extreme to another, for all of us, it feels really really good.
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Dear Ballet Dads and Ballet Mums everywhere,
Today, I am asking you to look your ballet-dancing child in the eye and ask yourself two questions:
If these questions do not in some way resonate with you, there is no urgency to read on; but if these questions either rankle or provoke something like regret, or shame, then please keep reading ...
I been feeling bruised and exhausted. I got into a fight. Several months ago, we discovered that our son was being bullied by a ballet teacher - on three separate occasions. Two ballet teachers, actually. Then a third teacher pitched in a few weeks later. So, we decided to make an enquiry, and this enquiry turned into a bit of a fight. Despite their tendency to become emotional, I remained reasonable; despite their need to attack, I remained polite. Trust me: they might be dancers, but they fight dirty. The nails might be manicured and the teeth whitened; but they really believe in biting and scratching. During the course of our 'exchanges', we discovered other things that had been happening at the school, and I decided to get involved in these things too and widen my complaint, even though they didn't directly involve our son. I'd recently read again the government document on keeping children safe in education, and it said that the safeguarding of all children was the responsibility of all of us. With this in mind, I decided to fight - not only for our son, but for all the children at the school. Perhaps this was well-intentioned, but foolish. Hindsight makes wisdom obvious. In hindsight, it might have been better for all, if I had just removed him from the school without trying to initiate a cultural shift. This idealism was my fatal flaw - the reason why I stuck in out in the ring for so many rounds. It was a complete waste of energy - but this only becomes brutally obvious in retrospect. Who am I to take on a culture that I now know to be this entrenched?
I have discovered that ballet teachers are not used to being challenged. They dwell in a rareified world that we mere mortals do not understand. They are the gods on Olympus who demand our reverence and respect. And like the gods on Olympus, they are flawed without necessarily realising it. Their actions impact on us mortals while they just pass by largely believing themselves to remain unaffected. If idealism is my fatal flaw, then imperviousness is theirs. My complaint was met by disbelief, anger, reproach and inflexible defiance. Over the last few months, I have been shouted at, lied to, dismissed, and called stupid - all by ballet teachers and their management. Their aggression has been so relentless that I imagined that I was having some sort of psychotic episode in which I was imagining things. That could be the only explanation as so many members of the school were telling me that I was wrong. I felt lost down the rabbit hole, or confused through the looking glass. I questioned myself and my motives. While pouring over hours and hours of paper work, I have wondered whether our son's best interests are at the centre of my activity, or whether I had trapped myself in narcissistic hyper-activity. It was like being trapped in a labyrinth of my own making - trapped in my own head. At one point, I was so confused I insisted that our son's grandmother read a document I had prepared. With characteristic bluntness, she told me it was rubbish, and I was to completely rewrite it. So, I did.
Someone else told me that there are times when we have to back down for the sake of our children. I think that this person was trying to advise me to not get too involved. Her words echoed in my mind as I was writing my second letter, and my third, and even my fourth. I even asked my son a couple of times, and also his mother: is it time to stop this? Shall we forget that it ever happened? Do you want us to just continue as normal? They didn't. They wanted the people involved to be held accountable, and so did I. So even though I was depleted and frankly bored by it all after several months, I kept going.
Somehow, the thing that was no longer in focus - trapped in this mental maze of madness with yet another insult was being flung my way - was that we are dealing with children. They are developing, growing and changing daily. The world doesn't make sense to them; and the cruelty of adults only makes their world-view more confusing, or nihilistic or damaged.
The children at my son's school are young and arguably more vulnerable than their peers who do not inhabit the ballet world. Adults, even young ones, have a developed sense of right and wrong. They will speak and tell you if they suspect that damage is being done, and today's sensibilities mean that their sense of what is harmful in terms of comments about ethnicity, sexuality and gender is thankfully highly tuned. Children, my son's age, cocooned in a world of ballet, need help with this navigation. The fact that a teacher might be doing something wrong sends their moral compass spinning. Their disorientation is real. For this reason, the sensibility of the teachers needs to be even more acute. Adults are not supposed to harm children - or at least this is the received opinion unless adults are harming children all the time, and than this behaviour becomes normal. Now, I think that you have a sense of the nature of the wall against which I have been banging my head.
The cost to us has been great. Tears from all of us have been shed. We have all lost sleep. I have felt bruised, battered, and beaten and I've been ready to throw in the towel. But I have continued to fight, doubtful that it will benefit my own child, but foolishly determined to precipitate a cultural shift.
And this is why I am writing to you, ballet mums and ballet dads from all over the world. I know that I have readers in the US, China and Japan, and I know that this blog is surprisingly popular in Russia.
I am writing because I have had to fight this alone. It would have been much easier if another parent had helped - either by simply being in my corner; or by fighting alongside me. The way these schools work means that this is impossible: we are encouraged to see each other as rivals; it is subtly suggested that other children will thrive at the cost of ours; we have watched our children's classmates leave and we have said nothing - too relieved that it is not our child being cast aside. Our most primitive fear of abandonment is being used against us. If we could have found a way of working together; we would have been strong. It didn't even occur to me to ask for help.
Is all this worth it? Really? Has ballet not already cost you enough? If, like us, you have watched your own child's confidence deplete, or your own child burst into tears at unlikely moments, or if, like us, you have witnessed your own child's love of dance diminish, why have you done nothing? How can you be so certain, that when your children are adults that they won't be full of rage because you knew about the abuse, but you still did nothing? What will make it all worth it? Seeing them dance on a main European stage? Reading their first newspaper interview? Seeing them contort on the front of a magazine? Hearing about how they spend their first professional pay cheque? I hope that those things compensate for the feelings of shame and regret that you weren't there when they needed you most. I hope that you sleep better at night than I do at the moment. I wake at five every morning in a panic; even though I know that although I've may have been foolish, I've done the right thing.
My son has had many terrific ballet teachers, rigorous, exact and demanding, but also full of humour and understanding. I fear, however, that these people are rare. I believe it to be generally the case that in ballet, the punishment is too harsh for the crime. The teachers are not meaning to punish the children; they are somehow trying to conceal their own impotence and helplessness. The talented teachers know nothing of this experience. They are a completely different breed.
So, this letter to you is a call to arms. The threat of being kicked out is an empty one. You will always find better teaching elsewhere for your child. I am asking you to remind yourself of what being a parent means: someone who is a bit of a nuisance, someone who is always demanding better, for the sake of their own child, and all the children, and someone who protects their child from harm. We needed to have meetings. We needed to create forums. We needed to fight ... together.
In many ways, the ballet world appears stuck. As time moved on, it got left behind. But for the sake of our children, we need to drag it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. In a small, and perhaps almost imperceptible way, I have started a long fight. And tonight when I look my child in the eye, I will feel no shame, nor regret. I fought for him, and for all children because cruelty towards children is vile. Cruelty in the name of art is viler. And the normalisation of cruelty is vilest of all.
It is now that I need your help. It is time for us to all help ourselves
With kind regards,
A Ballet Dad
The Easter And May-Day Bank Holidays - Part One
Beginning with the End
We've had a good run of holidays - first Easter and May Day. But, the final week of the Easter holiday caused me some anxiety, but not on behalf of our son. I now cease to worry about how he might cope when he is back at school - he seems to be taking everything in his stride and he even appears to be thriving. The almost broken child of eighteen months ago is such a distant memory that he struggles now to remember how home-sick he was. This time, I am much more concerned about myself. Having him back for three weeks has been rejuvenating for all of us and the temporary nature of his presence did not loom over us, like it normally might at a weekend, knowing that he was soon going to be gone.
During this time, we became a family once again - all four of us interacting. He is growing up, and some subtle changes were beginning to be noticeable: his humour has become a bit more adult - it is even drier than before, and he is also beginning to play around with the odd double-entendre. He is also more robust and self-confident. Our children have become inseparable from one another. Starved of each other's company during term time, they become eager to pack in all the fun that they have missed; constantly inventing, laughing, sometimes screaming when the joke has been taken too far. Once again, as a family, we felt whole.
It was only during his last week of the holiday, when his sister was back at school that the realisation struck me: we would gain a breathing space in which we'd look forward to the May bank holiday when he would again be home for four long days, and then that would be it - we'd lose him. Ballet was going to ruin it all once again. The sense of loss that I sometimes experience is immense. I can hardly breathe. It seems to be especially acute when he has been home for an extended period of time. Sometimes I imagine an alternative reality in which we exist in a parallel universe:
We would be living together all the time. Our son would go to a local school, and sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every day doing his homework. We'd have to ask his younger sister to not distract him. He would be involved in after school activities which might require him being taken there or being picked up. We'd all eat together, and catch up on the each other's daily news in person, live - not relying on Skype or email. There would be a welcome banality to our lives.
However some things would also be missing - unknown to us. Weekends would not have the same sense of occasion; they would be less sacred. We would not have learned how to value the precious time that we have together. The children would understand that familiarity breeds contempt, rather than absence making the heart grow fonder. Perhaps I wouldn't be as meticulous with my diary - making sure that nothing intrudes on those rare random week days that he is at home. If possible, we try and turn these days into events: we go to galleries; eat at his favourite restaurant; explore places that we have never been to before. It's special when his sister can join us and she is also not at school, or when their mum is not working; but it's just as special when there are the two of us. I do not take the time I have with my family for granted. These are the things that I never would have learned had he not gone away to boarding school. It hurts me to say it, but I am grateful for this initially unwanted experience of our son's ballet training.
It's probable that if we didn't have to suffer the pain of absence, that we wouldn't also understand the intense joy of being together - and it is this thought that I cling onto now that he is gone, and the long summer term stretches ahead. Our family landscape is one of peaks and troughs - preferable always to a flat plain with a clear view of the horizon.
Frankenstein - The Royal Ballet Company - Liam Scarlett
It seems like a strange choice for a ballet - why should a gothic horror story lend itself to a classical form of dance? The nature of the production makes this question resonate even more urgently; it is a production in which the skill of the performers transcends the somewhat stagnant staging.
The first act is unsatisfying. The effect of the huge sets is incredulity - action confined to small spaces . This presents a somewhat old-fashioned mode for story-telling. The drama is heightened to a point where the dancers must resort to histrionics - acting that is punctuated by flicks and gasps as if we were watching a silent movie or exaggerated amateur dramatics. The baby abandoned by the death of his mother results in a clichéd clawing of hands and banging of fists - expressionism familiar to us from such films as Nosferatu. This style of acting has not aged well. I remained unmoved, and a little despairing that this is the art-form which demands so much attention in my family life. It feels foolish to be investing any amount of time, effort or money in something so unsophisticated.
There is little doubt that this production has been well resourced. The attention to detail in the set and costume is worthy, but ultimately ineffective. Theatre - even dance theatre - has had to move beyond these literal representations of historical period, because compared to screen, an audience at the theatre will always feel somewhat disappointed and short-changed. So the wooden panelling, and brass rails in the lecture theatre might make for a convincing interior, but the machine that sparks life into the body of the monster is woeful: a discarded prop from the time when the Tardis was steam-punk. Thomas Whitehead throws himself into the role of the austere and aloof professor with skilful nonchalance. He establishes an authority which has some grounding in believability and authenticity - such a role might easily lend itself to becoming a pantomime villain.
Also in the first act, I fail to see how this use of a female corps de ballet can be justified in the 21st century. They are either assistants of the professor seemingly being groped by the male students, or prostitutes in a tavern obviously being groped by the male students, but also allowed to do a little bit of groping of their own. These two scenes require rigorous dramaturgical examination. Their contribution to the story is tenuous, apart from delaying our introduction to the monster.
The remaining two acts offer something different. There is a relief in moving from claustrophobic interiors to a an icy exterior. We also return to the world that ballet presents most effectively: courtly life. Act two gives us a birthday party, and act three depicts a wedding - we are once again in the environ of some of our best-loved narrative ballets from Nutcracker to La Fille Mal Gardé: the spectacle of society's dance rituals. The game of blind man's buff during the party scene is tantalising. There is a lovely jeopardy in watching a dancer dance when blind-folded - even if it is a trick - and even more so when one of the participants of the game is a hideously deformed monster. Steven McRae makes for a terrific monster - full of the tragedy of cosmic abandonment, an elegant human spirit contained in a deformed exterior. The twelve year old, Guillem Cabrera Espinach is breath-taking. A charismatic and beguiling performance from one so young, precociously capable of embodying a role completely. Their pas de deux is perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The wedding dance in Act Three has something Senecan about it. The ghosts of those murdered reappear, but like Macbeth or Richard III, only Frankenstein can see them. Bonelli cuts a heroic figure, but this is the first time we experience any sympathy for his Frankenstein. He is given insufficient characterisation which is a shame because period costume suits him. He wears it well.
The ending is problematic. In having Frankenstein kill himself we are left with the impression of a victim succumbing to weakness, rather than a hero with the courage to endure the tragic consequences of one misguided action. This Frankenstein is already yielding to suffering too early in the narrative. This, for me, is the central flaw in the story-telling.
The novel is epic. It sprawls across the wastelands of the Arctic as the creator and his prodigy - both abandoned by civilisation and trying to make sense of their existence. Staging Frankenstein as a ballet risks resulting in something over-contained. With the loss of the landscape, the vastness of the loneliness is also sacrificed. As moving as Steven McRae might be as this strange forsaken creature, the story becomes trivialised, glimpsed only through the point of view of a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed household.
One question remains about this production: did nobody consider the role of the women? All the women in the story are victims - needlessly suffering at the hands of men and unable to fight back. Offering the women no way out of their plight is by default condoning their condition. This is what lingers after seeing the production. Our most important and creative ballet company seems to be endorsing the oppression of its own women - an anachronism in sentiment as well as staging. We end where we began - this is a surprising choice of material for a new ballet.
I've been travelling for work. I had been away for about a week, and still had about five days to go when I received an email from our son:
Daddy. It is like I am living in a parallel universe in which you don't exist, but you are still in my head somewhere.
I went into panic, a paralysis - I was unable to process this simple sentence, and the explosive nature of its content. My initial reaction was one of distress at the notion that he was somehow suffering; in pain that I had been gone for so long. I felt sick and my inclination was to pack my bag and return home. Then, I calmed down a little, my ego became less inflamed and I saw this sentence for what it really is: an effective strategy for managing separation - he has developed a way of coping.
Some of you might recall how it was in the beginning. Our separation seem irreconcilable to me only eighteen months ago: the over-riding experience of having a child at boarding school was, at first, my agony at our son living away from his home during the week. This severance was terrible for me. Even when it became more comfortable for him, I still felt abandoned; a type of emotional cauterisation. I was numbed - unable to face up to the experience of the pain. Each week, this sensation would gradually decrease as Friday approached, but it would return again on Monday morning after I had dropped him off. Unlike our son, I was unable to shift into a parallel universe in which he didn't exist but was in my head somewhere, anyway. Had I been able to make this leap of faith, perhaps I would not have caused myself wallow so much. As an 'enmeshed' parent, I was stuck - unable to reconcile the feelings that I was having with the idea that the situation might be something that our son desired. I was unable to separate my own needs and feelings from his. I imagine that this is a typical parental mistake, and the result was confusion and living my life in a terrible muddle.
His idea of shifting into a parallel universe is helpful. When it comes to an emotional intelligence our son displays some promising traits. The construct of another universe allows me to live and acknowledge two separate truths: I am a caring dad who is deeply loves his my children, but I am also physically absent from one of them most of the time, and unable to look after him in the way I had imagined I would. The rhythm of the week has been exhausting for me. Without a parallel universe, I was involved an enervating three stage spiral:
- Bonding with our son at the weekend
- An extreme sense of loss on Monday mornings
- My mood lightening as Friday approaches
At its worse, this weekly cycle left me with little energy to do anything else, but I can now replace it with two simple transitions - one shift into a parallel universe at the beginning of the week and one jump again at the end. I will develop a futuristic ability to quantum leap.
I've commented on the Zen nature of our son's world-view before now. His awakened heart often exposes my foolishness - my inflated sense of self and my ego-driven ways. If he were a judgemental type, he would find me ridiculous. In Buddhism, there is a notion of something called Boddhichitta - a practice which involves acknowledging that we are all in some way connected. Or, as our son expresses it so simply, shifting into a parallel universe - one that involves a recognition of the presence and the absence simultaneously. It is possible that in the event that he does not become a dancer, he will instead explore the world of science - quantum mechanics, in which particles exist in two states at the same time. Or perhaps his sanguine acceptance of the world will lead him to a very different environment, and he'll become a Buddhist monk.
Attitudes to learning
I originally wrote this blog at 30,000 feet - on a plane. A couple of days later when I tried to find it to edit it, it was gone! It was a good blog. Rather than be consumed with fury and the unfairness of life, I decided to see this as an opportunity to rethink the original. I have re-written it. Ironically, rage, fury and the unfairness of life is one of the things that the blog touches on.
Our daughter is finding school a little difficult. I adore her, and her anxiety about school is a serious cause for concern. She is witty, engaging, challenging and fun. She has a highly pragmatic view of the world, and often makes suggestions about how to circumvent a problem with astonishing perception. She is a genius at Minecraft and a terrific swimmer. She is a child full of surprises and vitality.
Primary schools have changed a great deal owing to the harsh Gove-ean philosophy underpinning everything. The issue that we are having with her, I do not recall having with our son. The problem is that the class is ranked, and she is painfully aware of the place she is positioned in the class - not far off the bottom. She is bright, thoughtful and affectionate. She writes quite well, and she enjoys being told stories; but her times-tables are slow, and her spelling is mainly miss, occasionally hit. The rigid assessment criteria determine her as someone who is below the median of the class. This unnecessary and fascistic structure does not take into account her passion, creativity or natural love of learning. I see little point in learning stuff by rote, so I am not going to force a six year old to chant her times-tables as if they were some meaningless spell or incantation. I have sat and done maths with her. She has a good grasp of the concepts and what the various functions mean; she just doesn't see the benefit of learning anything parrot fashion. This does not prevent her being joyful when she discovers something new. Her excitement to learn make her a pleasure to work with. And I agree with her about the parroting of maths ... for the time being. Sometimes she rages. The perceived injustice makes her furious. At the root of this injustice is the way her expectation does not match reality. In her mind, she deserves a place at the top table with the children who are reading novels and doing all their times-tables at calculator speed. The fact that she is somewhere near the bottom means that the whole world must be wrong. Her class teacher is talented and kind. He has inherited a way of working which is brutal and dehumanising, and he is doing his very best in helping her to mind the gap between subjective and objective world view.
Our son has a completely different attitude. Even though his environment is highly competitive, he is not interested in where he might rank above or below the other dancers. He sees his progress as something personal and private. It is something for him to assess under the skilful gaze of his ballet teacher. He is a zen ballet student - he observes himself as he is working, and his assessment is without judgement. His faith in his own process protects him from this perilous gap between expectation and reality. Whatever he can't do today may be done in a couple of months, or years, as long as he just proceeds, taking the right steps now. The path may be long, but he is an assured traveller without regard for how far ahead or behind anyone else might be. Despite any physical ability, or limitation, this is the perfect temperament for a vocational training in classical ballet. Come what may, it might even be the key to his survival.
I can sympathise with our daughter. I think that of the two attitudes to learning, I am more similar to her. She might even have her impatience and preponderance to rage from me and my side of the family. Throughout my schooling and even at university, the gap between expectation and reality was difficult to navigate. In fact, often it was a chasm rather than a gap; one that I've fallen into many times. When I consider any of the slight de-railings that I have experienced in my life; at root lies the discrepancy between what I expect and what is really the case. It has taken me a long time to learn not to fall or even jump, and now, finally, in middle age, I consider myself more accepting, more yielding and kinder; and I still sometimes tumble down into the chasm. It is now my task with the help of our son, to gently show his sister another way - to help her manage her expectation and not trap herself in overwhelming feelings of frustration and rage. And while I am trying to teach her, I am, of course, also trying to learn this myself. We'll start on the times-tables another day.
The Real Cost of Ballet
You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying...
Lydia Grant in Fame
I wrote about taboos in my last blog, so I thought that I would just keep going with this one too ...
The car just had to be fixed, again. It was starting reliably from cold, but then failing to restart an hour or so later. Just before Christmas I spent about two hundred quid on it because the hot air blower had broken - there was no way to defrost the windscreen. This time it was the temperature gauge - which, I am told, controls the choke. The symbolic implication is not lost on me: inefficient hot air and an inability to gauge the temperature. Perhaps, it is time I face up to things.
There has been an elephant in the room for a long while. You may have noticed an issue that I very occasionally skirt around, but am too scared to mention outright: the real cost of ballet. Eighteen months ago I left a prestigious but relatively badly paid job to become self-employed and hawk myself out as a consultant. Ironically, while I have sacrificed a sense of financial security, and a degree of self esteem, I make the same amount of money as before but with considerably less effort. Now I just go into a place, do my job and leave; before I was dealing with political issues, staff issues, and matters of personality. I have been set free. My days are spent fulfilling a new intrinsic sense of purpose: I write, I swim, I walk the dog, I work, I procrastinate, I notice the life that is going on around me. There are also days in which I work; I 'consult'. I am simultaneously more at ease and more on edge. I know what I am doing there is a risky plan. My main source of anxiety is whether I will have the courage to see it through. Doing all this at this time of my life was foolish. Giving up the security of my poorly paid job was stupid, because the huge nagging fear at the back of my mind all the time is the literal cost of ballet. The sword of Damocles will eventually descend and crush my skull, and it will be in the form of a ballet-school invoice.
Our son and I am involved in a sort of financial trade-off. I have decided to take some time to invest in my own quite risky venture at the same time as we are investing in another risky venture - the professional ballet career of a twelve year old. I am now nearly at the end of my second year of paying for his tuition, so it is only now that I really understand the financial implications. By now, I could have bought two new small cars. I wouldn't be involved in the false and futile economy of patching up my twenty-year-old pile of rust; we'd be driving around in something that still purrs when it drives and still smells of the factory polish. Once a year, I take my car to the Albanians down the road, it comes back smelling of cleaning product, but let's face it, even with their 'gold' service, it still looks crap. Every night I go to bed dreaming of the car I would drive - how as a family we are sailing through the British country-side in something sleek, smooth and silent. And every morning I wake up to the harsh reality of a stumpy clunky hatchback which is slowly being replaced entirely, part by part.
But, it is not all about the money. We are involved in another trade off. We are reaping value from the investment in the moment. We have a son who is fulfilled and positive - he has a belief in something greater than himself, and understands the importance of keeping his dream alive. He is playful, curious and focused. He is learning that effort brings its own reward. He climbed into an institution as I climbed out of one; he, too, is learning to deal with some quite complex situations and surprising personalities. He is growing in strength and independence, and learning the value of being resolute and single minded. If, for whatever reason, it all ends tomorrow, it will not have been a waste of time, effort or money. He is carving out an experience for himself that is unique.
My real concern is for my daughter. I dread the day that she says to me:
It's okay, dad. You can pay me my money in two instalments - the first when I turn eighteen, and the second when I graduate.
This conversation occurs every night in my nightmares ... just at the point when I see my brand new car disappear into the sunset.
Another Blog About Bodies
I've discussed bodies before, and this blog once again involves talking about the human body - especially my human body. There is no gentle lead-up. I begin from the outset. If this is something that offends or disgusts you, I suggest that you skip this blog - the next one might be less graphic.
I had been swimming, and I was in the changing room. In the mirror I caught sight of a naked body standing there. There was nothing remarkable about this body. It was a man's body - that is all. I was very surprised when I shut the locker door to see that my own head belonged to this unfamiliar nude figure. Last time I had bothered to look; this wasn't what my own body looked like.
This is not so surprising to me. When I was growing up, we never really made any reference to the fact that we were corporeal beings. Bathroom doors remained locked at all times. Beach holidays meant the boys changing under towels and the girls changing underneath this toilet-tent-like garment with an elasticated neck. Both methods involved contortion and wriggling and fear that someone might be looking at us long enough to catch something pink flop out unexpectedly. There was a cognitive dissonance in how we thought about our bodies - we never acknowledged the fact that being inside them was the only place we could inhabit; there was little mention of flesh or function. Even the word 'fart' was forbidden. In fact, I don't think anyone ever passed wind throughout my entire childhood - and I am certain that no one ever 'farted'.
Changing rooms have never been happy places for me. At school, I would physically shrink behind the locker doors and get out of there as soon as possible. Nothing traumatic ever happened - as far as I can remember. I was never the victim of any changing room cruelty. We had one PE teacher who would insist on us parading into the large communal showers, and would stand there until he could guarantee that all the boys had gone through. I don't think his motives were suspicious; he also took us for maths and he probably didn't want the smell of adolescent body odour during a double lesson. Even now, I feel a bit sick whenever I go into the changing rooms. Beyond the ordeal of going to an all boys' school, the stress involved is simply all about getting naked in front of strangers.
Times have changed. My own children both know how to unlock the bathroom door from the outside. The idea of the bathroom being a sacred or private place is unknown to them. I could be in the shower, or sitting on the loo, and if one of them wants something then they see it as perfectly normal to just unlock the door and come in. The implication of this is that there is nowhere in the house where I can get some piece and quiet. So, if I choose to extend my visit to the bathroom because I want to read a newspaper article, or I'm mid way through a game of scrabble on my iPad; I have to scream at them when I hear them approaching the door as if my life depended on it. They are slowly beginning to realise - the bathroom is a place I go to when I just want to be alone.
I take both our children swimming weekly. The freedom which they display in taking their clothes off in a public space startles me. Even before I have unpacked their swimming kit from the rucksack, they are both naked. It must seem strange to them that their father always huddles behind a locker door to get changed and also always showers in one of the few cubicles with a door; they choose the open plan ones so that they can entertain each other doing whatever it is that they do - I honestly don't know as I'm far too stressed to notice, but they seem to involve a lot of splashing and noise and it earns disapproving looks from others using the changing rooms.
For our son, getting changed in a public space is a completely natural activity. At school he has to change in or out of ballet clothes at least four times a day. My feelings of shame or embarrassment are something foreign to him. He just wouldn't have time to indulge them. Also, during ballet classes, his body is under non-stop scrutiny: lines, shapes and timings are commented on constantly. When I was his age I would have crumbled under such a microscope of relentless physical dissection. Even now - especially now, as I focus on the beginning of middle-age decline - I wouldn't survive comments about how I look or the way I move. And yet our son seems entirely comfortable with this culture of physical exhibitionism and continual assessment. He has an ease with his body of which I am envious. Already I have learned much from him. While I am not nearly at his level of physical comfort and kinetic precision, I am happier living in my God-given body and taking up my rightful amount of space than I have ever been. Even though feelings of shame and embarrassment still linger, it is not nearly as bad as it once was. I wish that in my awkward and cumbersome twenties our son had been around to lead by example and show me the way so clearly. But, that of course would have been impossible.