Exit Stage Left Part 1
Before I begin the story of why we took our son out of Ballet School, I need you to understand the type of organisation we are dealing with: controlling, borderline psychotic. Of course I didn't understand this at the time our story starts. Here are three brief sketches to explain:
In September every year, the parents are invited to attend a meeting at which the management team discuss various issues. I only experienced three of these. Two of the them were full of simmering anger - expressed in the mutest way. For the first, I was a new parent at the school, so a little overwhelmed. The anger seemed to have been caused by a very large number of students being asked to leave. We were promised a more open and communicative style of management from then on - a promise we will return to at a later date. The next meeting was also perplexing. I was still a relatively new parent; our son was now going into his second year. The summer term had been tough - feel free to go back and read some of the blog posts. Our child had complained about being kept inside in the summer term, and how ridiculous he found the threat that if any child had a sun-tan, they would not be allowed to dance in the final year performances. One of the house -parents had told me during the term that the hardest part of the job was keeping the children in when it was sunny. During this meeting, a mother asked why the children were kept in during the previous term. She had concerns for the health of her child. Dancers needing supplementary vitamin D is something frequently discussed. What we next witnessed was remarkable. The four members of the management team grouped together. They became tense; their upper bodies armoured, and they chorused that no child is ever kept in on a sunny day. This was an unfounded allegation from the concerned mother. One of the staff members tried joking about giving their own children vitamin supplements as a matter of course.
There were nearly four hundred people in the room. Most of them would have known that their child was kept in the dorm on sunny days. Most of them would have heard about the sanctions, should a child dare to become sun-tanned. No-one spoke. Not one of us defended the woman who had spoken. There was a collective sense of shame. Afterwards I went up to the mother who to confirm the story of our children being kept in. Understandably, she didn't want to talk to me. She needed my support at the time; in public, not in private. She was now in a hurry to leave.
2. Chats with Staff
I am clearing out my son’s stuff from his dorm room to take home. He has not been deregistered from school yet, and we are still hoping that he might return. However, the school are dragging their feet in considering our case, and we have had enough of his clothes and other belongings being in two places. He needs to have his stuff back. A member of staff is helping. This person has not been at the school long and their abrupt departure has been recently announced. I don't share anything about what has happened to us; by this point in the story, I have become paranoid about what I say and to whom. Out of the blue, the staff member helping me says: I don't have to stay at any place where I am being bullied and harassed. I stop what I am doing. We both know that a line has been crossed. I raise my eyebrow. The member of staff simply smiles awkwardly.
On my way out, carrying bags of our son's belongings, I see another member of staff; someone who has been there for years. We have been on first name terms for ages. She stops at the threshold as I am about to walk across the car park.
3. In the Bank
The School’s name is clearly visible on a piece of paper I am holding. I am in the bank. We are at the very end of the complaint process; it is clear that our son is not returning to school. The bank employee across the desk sees the heading on the paper, and comments by asking if our son goes to the school. Not any more, I reply. The woman asks what happened. I turn to our son to see if he wants to tell the story, or if I have permission to say something on his behalf. He just nods. He was bullied at school, I say. There is a moment while she registers what I have just said, and then I add, ... by three teachers. She gasps, and repeats what I have said turning to her colleague and emphasising, by teachers. This has become our normality We have completely forgotten how to be shocked by the fact that it is the teachers who behave in the way they do. Over two and a half years, we have become completely immune to this shock; the behaviour of these ballet teachers, and the management team has become something to be expected. Suddenly, I am jolted back into reality.
For parents, there are three rules of Ballet School:
It is quite a time before I began to fully understand the third rule of Ballet School. Looking back, I was naïve. At the beginning of our story, I had no idea of the energetic malice I was about to encounter from the people who, after all, are paid to look after children. This is the lesson that I still had to learn.
Next time: The telephone conversation which changes everything.
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A Change in Direction
Starting this week, a series of ten blog posts will offer an explanation. I am going to write about the events that led us to decide to remove our son from the ballet school he was attending. The story is shocking, and you may choose to not read the blog for a while. If this is what you choose, I completely understand.
The tone of the blog is about to change as it tells a different story. Up until now I have been telling a tale about a lack of understanding. This is a universal story, and is not only relevant to ballet. Any parent could find themselves completely alienated by their child’s dream: football, political lobbying, medicine, theatre, painting. Any passion may leave the parent thinking: what have we produced? Up until now, the blog has been about a father making a choice - to support a child even though the dad has no appreciation of the son’s chosen vocation. If I never watched another ballet in my life, I don't honestly think that I would even notice. It just doesn't move me. Up until now, I have made myself the brunt of all the jokes: a dad who is out of his depth; a dad whose vision of the world is wrong; a dad who misses his son more than he can describe; a dad who is permanently confused. I have portrayed myself as a grotesque clown in my own narrative. I wanted to make you laugh, and sometimes provoke your empathy.
Now this is about to change. The central figure is about to be recast. Mr Bean is about to turn into Erin Brockovich. There are only a few areas of life in which I feel really confident; one of them happens to be getting my point of view across. Ask me to put up a bookshelf and I will freeze with panic; ask me to help out with an employment dispute, and I know exactly what to do. I am the sort of father who will walk over hot coals for his children, I am also the sort of person who has a heightened need for justice. Life has taught me that you bide your time - you watch and wait - and you only get involved with disputes when you are certain that you will win.
There are two uncomfortable questions that I need to ask:
- What would you have done in my position?
- What are we going to do about this as a community? Our story is not unique. We are not the first people that this has happened to; and I know for a fact that we are not the last.
We have debated as a family whether I should tell this story. We are all aware of the possible implications, but we all still feel that the story needs to be told. The events in the story are shocking. I am not going to report anything that I do not have evidence for. If you choose to read this, you will be accompanying me and my family to some very dark places; and the conclusion of this story with astonish you. I have decided to call this sequence of blogs, Exit Stage Left.
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.