It’s quite the counterpoint to yoga, at least my kind of yoga. In yoga, they say, listen to your body. Relax! We have faith that consistent practice will take us further than forcing. Ballet doesn’t care if you feel good. Ballet forces itself upon you.
If someone in my ballet class does not watch my teacher demonstrate a move, she will say, “I said, watch. You can’t watch if you’re trying to do it yourself.” She says, “If you get a cramp, don’t blame me.” After we practice turns across the studio, she tells us to run back and do it again. “Run! Run!” This is the first time I’ve been told to run since 9th grade gym. It was never a direction that sounded good to me. She even acts as if not starting glissades on the 7-8 count is a personal affront.
I’m not offended by any of this. It’s good for me to be a student, nervous and inept and slightly wounded. And it’s nice to have someone be impersonally brusque with me. It helps me keep my threshold for offense high. And I feel, a little bit, that I am paying her to be mean to me.
Learning a classical art is marked by discomfort, frustration, and the instilling of unnatural behaviors.
I remember learning to hold my violin, to hold my bow, in 4th grade. There’s nothing natural about the positioning. It works, though. Eventually, once your hands and arms and fingers had been taught, it all felt natural. There was no other way you would try it.
The first time I went to a writing workshop in Iowa City, I was terribly nervous. Every memory I had of sharing my writing with other writers ended with me curled up in a fetal position. I tripped and spilled my wine at the welcome reception. A couple of people got napkins and helped me clean it up. We got into talking about what we wanted our book jacket photos to look like, how we had all considered various pictures. Almost all my conversations were like that in Iowa City. It was “What do you write?” and “Where are you from?” and everything tumbled along merrily from there. Iowa City wasn’t just a safe place– it was another home I didn’t know I had. So natural.
Last Friday, as I was trying to get my students to settle into their reading, one of them said, “Ms Schurman, is it true alcohol can poison you?”
I decided that although they were behind in the book, the weekend couldn’t start until we had had a brief drug and alcohol discussion.
Adults hardly ever talk to teenagers honestly about that stuff, and I happen to be someone who has an easy time sharing. Yes, I drink, no, I don’t do drugs, and I never have. Not because I’m a good person. I’m just not into it. As often happens, we got into discussing the legalization of marijuana. I had to stop one line of reasoning. “I mean, Ms Schurman, it’s just a plant. It grows in the ground.”
“Hemlock is a plant, too,” one of the kids said. “And it’s poison.”
“Yep, that’s right,” I said. Natural poison.
This is the time of year I start fighting with my students about the word “help.”
“These teachers don’t help us!” the students cry, over and over. What they mean by this is that teachers won’t tell them where to find the answer, or that teachers won’t do their work for them.
“What’s your philosophy of teaching?” one of them asked me last week, in the middle of our “these teachers won’t help us” discussion.
“I guide you to teach yourself, to learn on your own,” I said. They didn’t like that much.
“No! It’s your job to teach us!”
A kid today came in my room and asked for the vocab words she’d missed getting yesterday. “They’re up there,”I said, gesturing to the folders that were labeled “Absent” and “Vocab.”
A minute later, she came back. “Are these them?”
“That says 2. You already did those, right?”
“Well, where are they? I can’t find them.”
“Where did you look?”
“In the absent folder.”
“Look again. What do the folders say?”
She was so irritated that she put her head down for the first ten minutes of class. Forcing sixteen-year-olds to use their own brains and solve their own problems is uncomfortable for all of us.
I’ll have a lot more conversations where kids will say, “I don’t get it. I don’t know what to do,” and I’ll say, “Read me the directions.” They read aloud, they say, “Oh,” and then they get going.
They are experts at pretending to be helpless, and although it’s easier for me to pretend that they are, too, I can’t do it. What’s natural is to scootch them further and further along. What’s natural for them is to try to convince me they are too young, too weak to grow up.