In all the books I read about ballet, books that specifically reinforce the fact that ballet cannot be learned from a book— not just the technique, but maybe even more importantly, the etiquette— I always hear that when it comes to a ballet mistress, cruelty is a specific quality found in a good teacher. And I kind of thought that was a joke. Or I thought that because I am an adult, no one ever in the world would take my ballet education seriously enough to be cruel. But I guess I should step back a minute. Far back.
Since the fifth grade patrol picnic, when I figured I could lead a group of girls through the swamp, strategically knowing the places we could step to keep out of the muck (because I was raised on a swamp and explored them with my brother, because I was a Girl Scout, because I was tough, because I devoured Nancy Drew books, because I was a wild thing, because), I have had to learn how to fail, always alone, and always publicly. Because I didn't know the steps, I fell chest high in the swamp, ruining my white Levis cutoffs and Atlanta Braves t-shirt. No one followed me, and there were no paper towels at the picnic, just toilet paper and napkins (you can imagine how wonderfully I cleaned up). No one sat with me on the bus back, and when I told my fifth grade teacher what happened when we got back to the school (because of course he didn't go), he laughed and called me Swamp Thing, which stuck for a few weeks, until it just didn't anymore.
The thing is, I have yet to find the one thing I am naturally good at. You know, the God-given gift. I’ve looked for it for forever, thrown myself, whole-heartedly, into lots of things. And so far, my excitement and tenacity, my absolute desire and hard work, greatly outweigh my ability, until I can give enough time and attention to overcome the deficit.
And because my desire outweighs my ability, I have a difficult time seeing outside of myself when it comes to my desires, which used to lead to big-time embarrassment, when I was a kid, but now I think it has made me polarizing. This translates to the fact that I do something truly ridiculous at least once a year, and my sarcasm, my ability to brush off and keep moving, has always pushed me through (even when I fall from my stilettos while reading Orwell out loud, in front of a class of 30 freshman, and say oh noooo! in a Smurf voice, as I hit the ground, and walk around for a week with a limp and a bruise that stretched from hip to knee, I'm good). But that behavior doesn’t seem so excusable anymore.
And in a ballet class, especially since I've begun the intermediate class (dancing with women who have danced since they were small) after my own short, eleven month stint of dancing, there are a lot of standards that are not familiar to me. My ability to very publicly fail has served me well in my study of ballet, if only because after profound ridicule, the kind that separates me from the everyone else, I take it in. I consider my own faults that led to it, and I try, two-three hours everyday until the next class, to make up for my deficiencies. But that takes time.
For the last three years, whenever I fail at something— it could be making friends, publishing a story, getting a job, learning something new— Tim tells me that Michael Jordan didn't make his high school basketball team. And for some reason, that fact always makes me feel better. Every time, and for anything. Even right now, it makes me feel like failure, and standing alone, is pretty okay. When I was a kid, and the same kind of things would happen—I had a hard time making friends, I didn’t get picked for a competition team—my dad would tell me it’d be okay when I was older, because as long as I found one good person in the world who I could be friends with, then nothing else matters as much after that. And that kind of makes me want to cry because it is one of those things I always believed, and it turned out to be true.