Ballet, Curried Chicken and Mentoring

“Until you are liberated to trust your own inner direction, your experience will be limited by your beliefs. Once you are liberated to follow your own inner direction, your experience will shape your beliefs.” –Elia Wise from Letter to Earth

As a child, no one taught you how to climb a tree. You did not read a text-book before hand. You did not consult the GPS on your hand computer for the quickest route to the top. You did not check the weather first. You didn’t ask for permission. You didn’t pay for a workshop on how to climb trees, which trees are best for climbing, which will surely ruin your pants, which are most likely to contain a hornet’s nest. Perhaps you saw someone else climbing, or simply, you started to climb spurred on by nothing more, nothing less, than your own curiosity.

You felt the tree. Felt how the air changed where you stood beneath it. It represented another world and you were not wrong in that. You climbed. As you climbed, you discovered that the very act of climbing was the door itself, to that other world and the more you climbed, the better you got at it. You ventured off to explore other trees, other worlds. You played amidst leaves. You had fun. You invited others to join you in that heaven. There was no point. There was no test.

The practice of applying trial and error with a sense of play is how you learned as a child. Through this process, you developed your observational skills. You naturally got better at your task. But in our modern approach to education, we often neglect this way of learning. We tend instead to force a consumption of information, preferably as rapidly as possible. The sweetness is missed. It is difficult to digest a plate of raw cold facts. The information is not chewed or processed through experience. Then it gets pooped out on a test in messy chunks that are rather painful to pass.

Sorry. That’s kinda gross.

Students adopt what I call the laundry list approach to learning. They “learn” how to follow a list of things to do. Then they do it and receive a good grade for doing what they were told. For following the directions. The reward or punishment at the end reinforces this way of learning. Good boy, Tommy, good boy. Pat on the head. Sit. Treat.

We have to think of what it means to be ‘academic’ and ask ourselves if that is what we want for our kids. The word itself tastes dry, uninspired. An artist does not want her work to be called academic. Even academics don’t like that word. Often, as a teacher of dance, I find that young people take this academic, laundry list approach to learning an art. They want to be told what to do. They want a blue-print of how to get “there” but magic does not have a blue-print.

They have learned through years of education to not trust the observation/trial-and-error/play mode of learning through discovery. They have been taught to prize information above all else. Above experience. They do not trust entering into any new experience, such as dance, without a tour guide. They seek to know something before they do it. It’s absurd.

When they don’t receive the reward they feel they should, they drag their parents in for a conference. Now, in my day, the last thing I wanted was for my mother to show up to school because I knew she’d be on the teacher’s side. But oh, how times have changed. Often parents who have been indoctrinated into the laundry list approach themselves are on the kid’s side, insisting that their child be rewarded for an uninspired, academic performance. The conversation will go something like this:

Student: I deserve an A because I did what you said!

Teacher: Yes, you did what I said, but you are still a B.

Parent: Well, what else does she have to do for an A? Tell us. Just tell us!

The above conversation is repeated in a circular fashion about fifty times or so. Then the student/parent will ask about writing a paper for a higher grade. They assume that a paper is a cure-all.

On CNN recently, a very educated man spoke very educatedly about how we need to lengthen the school year. Did I mention that he was unquestionably very educated?

“That reminds me of a joke,” says Mr. Octopus.

“It would.”

“How do you know someone went to Harvard?”

“I don’t know. How?”

“Because they tell you.”

So the expert said that after a long summer break, the students forget a lot of the information they acquired during the school year. He emphasized this need for more information. Well damn. How much information dey need? I look ’round and see people gettin’ infomated by dey hand computas lef’ and right. Don’t even look up when deys crossin’ da street. So busy gettin’ infomated dey ’bout to get run ova! I was not convinced with his argument. I think we emphasize teaching too much. Teaching needs to be balanced with play in the area of the student’s choosing. They need time and space to follow their own direction. We all do.

They also need to incorporate the observational aspect of true learning. However, our students are so over-scheduled that they don’t have time to do this either. The esteemed African shaman, Malidoma Some, describes his own indigenous education with a mentor as consisting mostly of observation and practice, not through direct instruction. Similarly, a lot of what I learned about ballet came from simply watching others more advanced. Generally, before a teacher formally introduced a step in class, I already had some understanding of it in my own body from watching others and from goofing around in the studio between classes. I think this way of learning is probably true of most things, although I can’t be sure because I have a very narrow skill set. Ballet will do that to you. Seriously, I can do some steps and make curried chicken. That’s about it. Cyrille, thankfully, does the cooking. Recently he allowed me into the kitchen to chop garlic and make rice, so there’s hope.

In modern western education, we tend to emphasize the formal relationship of student-to-teacher as opposed to the mentoring approach found in a master and apprentice relationship. They are both important. In my own experience, teaching doesn’t really get interesting until the teacher becomes a mentor anyway. The teachers that had the biggest impact on me were also mentors. It’s intimate. Personal. The mentor and student feel valued by each other. Maybe that’s just me. This year, I had the great honor to mentor someone and it is one of the things I am most proud of in my life.

Ok, I guess that’s three things I can do: ballet, curried chicken and mentoring.

“And accessorizing,” adds Mr. Octopus.

“Yes! That’s right! I can accessorize! Yellow Fluevog mules and chunky necklaces are in this spring.”

“Thanks for the tip Jackie O. Got anything for Octopuses?”

“How about a rhinestone muzzle?’

“Oh, you shut up.”

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One response to “Ballet, Curried Chicken and Mentoring

  • Theresa Pope

    Two of my children are at the same arts high school that you have taught at, but in the theatre dept. Rather than sit through parent volunteer meetings (been there, done that) I volunteer as the schools flute teacher. I am deeply familiar with the concerns you express so well in this blog. If I have to sit through one more RICO review (and I know I will) I will be silently screaming the whole time. My daughter counsels me before each RICO review “don’t say anything, mom” cuz she knows I will do my best to be wryly subversive. While she is not a true believer either, she perfects her art during the review because she wants the ‘A’. She performs the enthusiastic student role admirably, but in private rips the process to shreds.
    There is so much to love about that school, especially where mentoring is concerned, when it happens because of a real connection between teacher and student. There is a former costume teacher from there that has made and continues to make an enormous difference in my sons life. The impact can be earth shattering and sustaining at the same time. We cannot have that impact with every student, but when we do, I think it resonates throughout the life of that student for a very long time.
    But things like RICO… Why is an arts school trying to fit it’s students into that very narrow box?

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