That’s my mama, working one-on-one with one of my former students in Knoxville, Tennessee. That picture was made in June of 2012, days before the small ballet school I founded closed its doors for good, and only a couple of months before I relocated to Vermont. Mom will be seventy-three in December. She still teaches ballet, and she is still helping young students find their way to the professional stage. She is respected like nobody’s bidness, as we say in the South. She has rigorous standards in the classroom and expects them to be met. If you can’t grasp this concept, she does not have much time for you. I know this about her firsthand, because from the time I was twelve and forward she was my primary ballet instructor. On more than one occasion she made me cry in class and wiped the floor with my butt; she often told me, I am your mom, but when we cross the threshold into the classroom I am your teacher. It felt unfair–I knew in my heart of hearts she was holding me to even higher standards than she did others in my class, because I was her kid. But I also knew better than to question this arrangement.
A few days ago I heard Garrison Keillor quoting Margaret Thatcher, likely in homage to her October 13 birth anniversary: “Power is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That particular quote jolted me out of my casual listening and brought me right into the moment. Whatever your opinion of Lady Thatcher, she was spot on in this sentiment. Same goes for respect; if you’ve got to stamp your foot and demand it, well…. I don’t live by quotes. But once in a while I hear one that seems perfect for the moment. I think folks respect my mom because she sticks to her guns and never compromises her standards. (And by the way, she is also a lady, even when she is wearing sweatpants and handling stinky ballerina feet.)
A ballet teacher blog post that is floating around social media caught my eye a couple of days ago; it appears to be going viral–at least, as viral as it is possible that a post about teaching ballet can be. Its author, a young woman named Erin Long-Robbins, was brave to say out loud what many of us in the ballet classroom think and have thought for a long time now. Like my mama, she appears also to hold her students to high standards. But what she has to say can so easily be expanded in scope to include so many other disciplines, and is really a much broader statement about the nature of entitlement.
Respect is not a birthright, nor power. Hard work, on the other hand, is available to us all.