Perhaps naively, there was one thing about a full-time vocational Ballet School that I had not anticipated - the constant competition. I might have realised that this is inevitable for children engaging in a training which is both vocational and practical. There are ongoing assessments, and selections throughout the year. Various projects require that some children are selected while others are not. Opportunities arise for the dancers to work with both professional and student choreographers. I imagine that selection is based on ability, performance skills and most importantly casting - does the face fit? Or whatever the dancers' equivalent might be.
At the beginning, I secretly wanted him to be selected for everything possible and worried if he wasn't. There are stories of American parents needing to be restrained from abusing the coaches and children at weekly sports events. I was in danger of becoming the ballet-parent equivalent - screaming if the shapes weren't defined enough, the limbs extended enough, or if my child wasn't picked for the team. A restraining order loomed. I probably shouldn't joke. These parents exist. I've met them. And, to be honest, they have a point. We live in the twenty-first century in which 'parity of student experience' is the mantra. If their child is being given that opportunity, then why isn't mine? This is certainly valid in some contexts, but - excuse me sounding like a fusty old Tory- life just doesn't work like that.
Then after two terms, my attitude changed. It had to. Aspiration was exhausting me. I celebrated his successes, but my focus shifted for the occasions when he wasn't selected for something, or was disappointed. Instead of raging against the machine and dissecting the reasons why; I changed my approach. I had been treating the decisions of strangers as if they were moral judgments; potential salvation or damnation as dished out by people I hardly knew and whose criteria was a mystery. As a parent, something different is required of me - to support him when he is disappointed, and reassure him that he is still loved. This requires some discipline. The ferocious raging parent consumed by ambition for my child needs to be forced to shut-up; anyway, it is the result of a misguided and damaged ego. Instead, I tell him the truth. Disappointment might feel painful, and the world is harsh and unjust, but the earth still turns, and our love for him is constant. And, if tomorrow he doesn't wake up feeling a little better, then he will next week, or next month. The world is harsh and unjust, but we'll try and have some fun along the way, and perhaps somehow make a difference. And when the disappointment seems more cavernous than a bottomless void ... well, that's why ice-cream was invented.
This is another gift that ballet school has given us. Perhaps eleven is young to be dealing with this constant conveyor belt of pre-packed disenchantment, but managing and containing this experience is undoubtedly one of the most important skills for any of us to learn; with or without the ice cream.
The Golden Rule
We have taught our children the Golden Rule: if someone's criticism does not empower you, it has not been said for your benefit. Question why this person has offered criticism - it probably reveals more about them then it does about you. It's their problem, not yours. This has been useful in armouring them against hurtful comments from adults, children, friends, relatives and - occasionally over the years - ballet teachers.
Our son joined a particular early morning ballet class, a few years ago. Getting him there at that time on a weekend morning almost killed me. It was also taxing on his sister, and a certain degree of chastisement was often required to motivate her to get dressed at this time in the morning when she didn't need to go to school. The danger of teaching children the Golden Rule is that they become immune to ineffective parental chastisement. Bribery, threats, bargaining and coercing were all met with a look and a sigh. She knew and I knew. No words needed, and she remained resistant to my attempts; they exposed more about my desperation than they did about her lack of cooperation. Despite this, we were never late, but, initially, we were also never early. I discovered, to my horror, after a couple of weeks that all the other children were arriving to class a whole half-hour earlier than the start time. A competitive parent lurks not so deeply inside me. If the other parents were getting there thirty minutes ahead, I was going to get there forty minutes ahead of time. Like shoppers on a pilgrimage to the January sales, we were going to arrive even before the doors had opened. We would display our ballet-devoted virtue by having to wait at dawn in the street, our exhaled breath visible in the cold. This is what we did - for nearly two years. Equipped with the Golden Rule, our daughter could effortlessly dismiss any rebukes with a sigh and a look, and I eventually gave up trying to get her into the car as dawn was breaking. It was easier to just leave her at home.
This episode taught me humility. After two years, I finally struck up conversation with another parent explaining how we had successfully endured these early mornings for such a long time. She replied that they had all been getting up at 5.30am in order to make the 7.00am train. Their story also involved a younger sister. My face fell. I had been defeated. We had been leaving at 8.30am. We only live fifteen minutes away.
There was an occasion several years ago when we were offered the chance to watch our children perform. The tickets were free, but limited. I have quite a large family, and lots of friends - all interested in ballet and free tickets. However, we could only apply for a certain number; which we did. And we received our full allocation. Imagine my horror to discover that other parents had received twice the number that we had. Their audacity had paid off; disregarding the guidelines, they had put in for twice the amount and been given them. I was disgusted - not only by the thought of my dejected family complaining over Christmas lunch - but by the fact that I had been beaten. This injustice made me rage. A spectrum of utterances were being prepared in my mind ranging from the abusive to the morally sanctimonious; including the abusive and sanctimonious: "How can society ever hope to function, if people demand more than their fair share, you self-centred cretins!" I was a stamping Rumpelstiltskin. I took a breath to scream my contempt at these people, ready to do considerable and unforgettable damage in the process. My words were going to burn. Then I remembered the Golden Rule. This was going to empower nobody. It was going to reveal more about me, than about them. My bitterness, envy and scorn would be visible for all to see - my cover blown. I said nothing.
I got the number of tickets I wanted anyway. I figured that as the tickets were free, a good number would be returned. We simply requested the number we wanted on the day of performance and the tickets were handed over. I felt smug. I too will break the rules - as long as it's not the Golden One.
Next time the blog will resemble the extra content that you find on a DVD - a DVD Extra.