Often teachers who uphold high standards face students who have no standards. In too many instances students receive inflated grades because standards of excellence vary from year to year, class to class. Add to this disparity, along with the ensuing confusion, the fact that we are smack in the middle of the age of entitlement and its bedfellow, zero accountability, and the classroom can become a treacherous place. When I face students who don’t understand why all their “hard work” doesn’t instantly add up to A’s, I first despair; then I offer this:
I spent several of my formative years in a ballet class designed to groom professional dancers, but even at the tender age of nine, I could tell that with all the hard work in the world, I was not going to be one of those professionals. Yes, I had the grace, the musical sensibilities, but I did not have an instep that started under my knee and an extension that tipped the clouds. Our teacher, Mme. T., was a beautiful, if severe, Russian woman whose days of dance glory had long since passed, but her keen eye and exacting standards dominated the room. She would start us at the barre and would glare at us with her stern, icy blue eyes as she marched around the class in ballet slippers with small wooden heels that clicked ominously with her every step. I remember the terror I would feel as she approached. We were to pull up, to stretch, to point fiercely, to turn out as far as we could. She would sometimes bend down to adjust a curled foot, but she always carried a polished wooden stick that she would use to tap us in whichever areas needed to be reminded to tuck in, straighten up, point hard, and turn out.
After the barre exercises, grueling for their stillness, we would line up to jeté, pirouette, chaîné, pas de bourré across the floor. The class pianist would rev-up, and we each would glide across the floor with as much fleet-footed grace and speed as we could muster. Then would come selection time for the center-of-the-floor exercises. Mme. T. would use her stick to point to us and indicate the spots where we were each to stand for this portion of the class. Invariably, I would make the back row, left corner.
Now, you might ask, did my mother call to complain about the humiliation I must have suffered at being placed in the back of the room for every class? Or did I cry and feel dispirited because I was not making the kind of progress that would put me into the same league as the pre-professionals? Or did I ever say to myself, “This is just too hard, so I am not even going to try!”? Or when I finally realized that I should not continue the classes because they would require too much after-school time for a student not on the professional track, did I say, “Well, since I can’t do it, I hate dance! NEVER AGAIN!”? And most important, did I EVER blame Mme T. for upholding standards that I clearly could not meet no matter how hard I tried?
The answer? A resounding NO!
Being in a room with excellence, where nearly unreachable standards were the norm, was a gift. I always knew where I stood, yes, in the back of the room. And I always knew that even if I could not achieve greatness, greatness existed. For me, that was the truest comfort. To this day, I have taught all my classes with this thought in mind: genuine, hard work not empty praise and pandering (whether to students or parents) yields success and self-esteem.
These days the only alumni contributions I make are to that ballet school’s scholarship fund; the only cultural contributions I make are to support dance performances in my city; and, most important, one of the only exercises I still love? Dance classes, of course!