By Diane Gudat
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was trying to muster enough strength to teach another full night at the studio. I had already put in almost three hours of dance-related work at home and was wondering, “Why do I continue to do this job?”
Then, through the studio door bounded 9-year-old Jenn (not her real name). Jenn is short for her age and has a sweet, round face. She is not a talented dancer, but she always remembers her French terms and is the first to throw her hand up when I ask her class a question. Jenn fidgets, wiggles, and loves to talk in line, jump across a pretend river, or walk an imaginary tightrope. And she responds much better to compliments than to corrections.
During the summer, Jenn’s mother sent an email to the studio, stating that Jenn’s 22-year-old brother had been in a catastrophic accident and that her daughter might not be able to return to class in the fall. The email, like most of the correspondence from this family, did not elaborate about the situation and was not written in a tone that invited questions. During the four years that I have been Jenn’s teacher I have never seen her brother; I do not remember ever seeing her mother, either. But I do remember how proud and excited Jenn was that her brother would be in the audience at recital last year. She is a “drop-and-run” child, and we are never sure who brings her. Her tuition comes in the mail.
During the first week of fall classes we were very happy to see Jenn return. While the girls in her ballet class were catching up in the lobby, one little girl bravely explained that her mother was not there that week because her grandmother was having health problems. Jenn piped in to say that her brother was sick, too—he had lost his legs and was on life support again. Strangely, she didn’t seem sad—it was like she was just naturally adding to the conversation. Obviously the abnormal has become commonplace in her young world.
In an attempt to do damage control, I quickly whisked the little ballerinas into their classroom and said, “Yes, Jenn, you certainly have had a rough summer. But let’s get class started and have some fun!” Jenn skipped past me to the barre. Her hair stuck out, her underwear peeked from beneath her pink tights, and she wasn’t wearing any shoes. I tried to compliment her more than usual.
A few weeks went by, and somehow Jenn was at every class. Another Tuesday rolled around, and as usual I greeted the dancers at the studio door. I smiled when I saw Jenn and said, “Miss Jenn, I’m glad you are here, but where are your ballet slippers?” As she skipped by me in her socks she said, “I know where they are. They are new! My dad couldn’t sew the strap things because he was in jail this weekend.”
I looked quickly at the parent who was sitting by the door to see if I had heard her correctly and the look on the woman’s face confirmed that I had. I went into the studio, took off my shoes so that I would match Jenn, and tried to teach the most entertaining ballet class I possibly could.
After class, as I returned to the lobby to greet the next group of students, Jenn flew by me on the way out the door, yelling over her shoulder, “Goodbye, Miss Diane!” Then she stopped, came back inside, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Thank you for class! It was really good! I love it here!” and bounced back out the door.
My experiences with Jenn have left me wondering how many other students at my studio might have similar hardships in their non-dance lives but cannot verbalize their struggles with her ease and innocence. Jenn makes me feel important and necessary—in fact, vital!
I hope that Jenn can remain at the studio. I hope that I can help her grow up happy and make her feel important. I will work hard for her compliments and try to remember that I teach so much more than dance steps.
Why do we do what we do? It’s obvious, isn’t it?