I don’t talk about my daughter much around here. Partly for her privacy I think, and partly because she is the most innocent participant in our trauma, and we haven’t figured out exactly how this is changing her. Our house has been in such an uproar, she keeps her head down and flies under the radar. She’ll be fifteen soon. I can’t imagine what that means for her. For me it means equal amounts anxiety and wonder, very much like when she was a toddler.
During the kids early years I worked at their Montessori preschool. It wasn’t a writing job, per se, but I turned it into a mostly writing job, because that’s what I have done with almost every job or task I’ve ever had. Most of the writing I was doing during those years was about her in some way. True it was mostly marketing and parent communications for our school, but she was my touchstone for everything I knew about how Montessori education works. She was always in the back of my mind whenever I wrote for the school. I remember writing a marketing piece that claimed “all young children have a rich inner life that adults are rarely privileged to share.” I still believe that, but not because toddlers keep them hidden, but because as parents we aren’t very good at observing our children. We have preconceived notions or insider information of how they should grow, when they should reach certain milestones, what is “age appropriate”. However, we rarely have or take the time to really watch them. We don’t take the time to discover how she should grow, or when she should reach certain milestones, or what is age appropriate for her. The simple process of observation opens a window into your young child’s inner life and brings you unexpected insights and delights.
I feel the same way about the teenage years. Teenagers also have a hidden inner life. It is hidden from us not because they haven’t honed their expressive language skills like our toddlers, but because they are so busy figuring out their place in the world, their role, that they don’t often articulate their experiences or feelings. And we are often not in the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind when they do. I’m interested in their secret life. Not their secrets, but the internal work they are doing to create the adult that they will become. Toddlers are easy, they are open and transparent, just non-verbal. Teenagers are a bigger puzzle, but I believe the same lessons apply. If you want to see their inner world you have to observe them. You have to take a step back from telling them and teaching them and showing them to just watch them. It is much more difficult to do this with teens than with our 18 month olds, but still just as important.
I feel lucky that one of the ways I can do that with my daughter is through her dance. She selected Irish dance when she was almost 10 and she loved it from the moment she put on her first pair of ghillies. At the time I was just happy that she had found a place to focus her abundance of kinetic energy, but I also saw that it sparked her soul. Like most dance studios, parents are not allowed to watch practices. This is a standard rule that helps students focus on their teacher and avoids inserting the parent/child relationship into the class. For me it was hard. I loved to see what she was doing, what she was learning. Really, I loved to see the joy on her face when she danced. She didn’t have an exceptional gift or talent for it, but she had a dancer’s heart and was happiest when she was practicing or performing. I remember her 1st recital just 5 months after she started, she hadn’t even earned her hard shoes yet, but there she was on stage bursting with joy, enthusiasm, dance. I had never seen her perform an entire dance before that night and it was ethereal.
Irish dancers have a lot of opportunity to dance in their communities, especially in March. Over the years she has gone to preschools, museums, elementary schools, nursing homes and retirement communities to share her love of dance. She has danced with her friends on the local news and at weddings. In fifth grade she gave a solo performance to her entire grade level. And I was privileged to watch all these performances. Oh, the things I discovered by watching her dance. She was fearless. She was poised. She was nervous, but it never showed. She always radiated when she danced, glowed. These were the pre-teen years, but as she stuck with it and got better, I realized that watching her dance was a window into that secret place of her teenage years as well.
I saw her confidence bloom then shrink at school, but on the dance floor she knew where she stood. She judged herself honestly against others and those internal rankings were born out by competition dancing. I finally saw that her girly side was real, a part of her not an act she felt she had to put on, and she loved the costumes and the makeup and the sparkles. But not as much as she loved the dance. She loved competing, she loved winning, she loved questioning the judges’ decisions and trying to figure out why they placed one dancer above another clearly better dancer. She loved complaining about a bad score, both hers and others, and she delighted in celebrating her friend’s triumphs. She looked at herself fairly, she learned from her mistakes, she corrected, corrected, corrected until she got to where she wanted to be. And through it all the one unifying thread was it was hers.
When she entered middle school, she lost a little of her confidence, a little of her bubbliness. This new harsh world was harder to navigate and she retreated into herself to a great degree. This showed up in her dance as well. Whereas in 5th grade if she and her dance friends finished a performance and the children who watched tried to imitate the steps, the dancers would all encourage and work with these children, joining them and showing them. By 8th grade she and her friends were just watching them, afraid to be the first one to do anything different from the rest. After a while our 8th grade dancers would make their way over to where the 2nd graders were trying to dance and show them the steps. After just a little reluctance, there were smiles, laughs and high fives all around. She was back to who she was. Who knows what high school will bring. But I will be there again on St. Patrick ’s Day watching her.
The teen years are hard, the vulnerability is excruciating, but I find if I watch her dance, I can see who she is deep down inside, who she is struggling to bring to the surface. I see the hyper girly, hyper kinetic girl who is determined to get better and better. I see the uncertain almost woman who is determined to reach that last highest level in her chosen activity. She struggles to take off her masks and shed her fears on the dance floor. She works to find the confidence to believe that who she is will be good enough. I see her struggles and determination and I am in awe. And the anxiety lightens ever so slightly.