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