In 2006 I launched Knoxville Ballet School with the goal of bringing classical instruction in its purest form to a city of roughly a half million—unrelenting quality in that singular discipline, and nothing else, would be the thing to distinguish what I was peddling from what other schools in the area offered, where the curricula were varied and often included classical ballet instruction, but with quality scattered widely along a continuum. Ultimately my lofty standards spelled the end of the school, an outcome I might have avoided had I been willing to, what? Lower my standards? No, but certainly to think more open-mindedly about offering instruction in other forms or disciplines for interested patrons, or including retail as a piece of the overall business plan—you know, to diversify; to conceive a Plan B, if you will, or even an expanded version of Plan A that compensated for what it lacked in a business strategy with, well, a better business strategy. And shortly after I made the painful decision to close the school in 2012, and it became abundantly clear I’d need to leave Knoxville to survive, a wise person I know suggested I devise one…a Plan B, along with a Plan C, D, E, F, etc.
If you’ve lost your job in this hellish time, or suffered a pay cut or reduced working hours, maybe you find yourself in that sphere, where you’re thinking about the next chapter, possibly reinventing yourself. After I secured work teaching ballet in Vermont, I unwisely assumed I was all set—fearful about leaving behind my home state and my family and friends to be sure, but at least gainfully employed, with the anticipated support per the terms of my divorce settlement an important piece in a carefully calculated plan, one I stridently believed would work. I wasn’t looking too far out on the horizon, knowing there’d almost certainly be unexpected twists and bumps in the road ahead. But I felt I had a solid strategy, based on good numbers, that would see me through to an even better one in due course.
When the monthly support payments failed to materialize, I found myself looking for additional work to fill a gaping income void, and eventually found not one, but two extra jobs—Plans C and D. Working as an admin assistant for a small business startup in the mornings, teaching classical ballet in the afternoons and evenings, and in the hours that remained, selling magazine adverts via cold calls whilst occasionally contributing articles—I couldn’t have anticipated a landscape so tricky to navigate. Also didn’t anticipate the ballet school would let me go after two short years teaching there. (Time for Plan E.)
Ultimately, I rebranded myself as a writer, the other thing I can do reasonably well. I count these last five-plus years working first as a writer, and now copyeditor for a digital marketing agency among the most professionally fulfilling of my life, even if the pathway there was circuitous and fraught with peril, as a dear friend would say. But as another friend would say, there are no guarantees in life, a truth so painfully clear these last several months. The Chef and I have been talking about our future for several years, our carefully laid plans, we expected, culminating in a big and promising transition for the two of us eventually. But we couldn’t possibly have anticipated we’d find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and horrific economic downturn, just when we were about to rev our engines. I’ve been toying around with this notion, that each challenge life has lobbed at me for the last decade or so, maybe longer, has helped prepare me for the next chapter; I won’t speak for The Chef, but suspect he might agree.
I’ve reinvented myself maybe a time and a half within a decade. What would another incarnation look like should life throw me that kind of curveball again? I’m frankly not sure, but have long maintained that uncertainty is in part what makes life so interesting and full of promise.
Shortly after I opened Knoxville Ballet School, a young woman and her six-year-old daughter came into the school lobby one early summer morning asking about classes. We chatted briefly, I handed her a stack of materials to take home and read, and ultimately she enrolled her daughter in the summer session. The child was intelligent, inquisitive, had a lovely physique and musicality about her—in short, she had the ‘special sauce’ ballet teachers love to find in a kid.
On the first day of instruction I noticed she was shivering, had goosebumps all over her arms. Her mother explained the apartment they were renting had no air conditioning (no small inconvenience in the South) and the child was unaccustomed to the frigid air in the school. Ah. I promised I’d have her warmed up within a few minutes of class, and all would be well, which it was.
As time wore on, I learned more about the family. The woman’s husband was wrapping up his postgraduate work in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, and soon they’d take their leave of Knoxville and head to the Pacific Northwest for his new job. Turned out their apartment building was a relic of the 1950s with its own kind of charm, right on the same street as my house, the one I shared with my husband and son and a passel of dogs, in our grand old midtown neighborhood.
A little later I came down with a dreaded ‘summer’ cold, and then a whopping case of laryngitis. I posted a notice on the front door of the ballet school and then hunkered down at home to rest. The following day, that thoughtful mom and her little girl showed up on my doorstep with a gigantic pickle jar filled with homemade chicken soup, still warm, a loaf of freshly baked bread, and well wishes.
Later, as I retold this story to another of my ballet school moms, her face lit up and she said, full of admiration, Yes, they’re great—we’re friends with them! And oh, my, she really knows how to stretch a dollar.
That unsolicited observation never left me. I reflected on it again and again through the years, thought about how lucky my adult life had been up to that moment, how I never had to worry about adjusting the thermostat in our old home, or about saving pickle jars for leftovers, or really, about anything to do with frugality. And how three blocks down the street lived a young family of four crammed into a stuffy, aged apartment, not only stretching their dollars like crazy and somehow making ends meet, but sharing their spartan resources with a neighbor. I could only aspire to that kind of character and grit.
A few years later in my own stuffy little Vermont rental, scrutinizing my shrinking bank account and carefully planning out meals a week at a time, I realized I had become that person—maybe not with a heart quite so magnanimous, but at least finally possessing a reasonable aptitude for ‘stretching a dollar.’ And when I met The Chef, I found he had been busy stretching dollars himself, and impressively, for some time already: We were two peas in a pod.
But is hardship essential for personal growth? That’s the bigger question to me. By the time I started searching for a full-time position with any established company that needed a copywriter and would consider hiring a person who was basically living life on a backwards timeline, launching headlong after grad school into full-time parenting without thinking at all, really, about career development, I had grown utterly weary of the piecemeal approach to employment—a small check here, another one there, heavy wear and tear on my oldish car—and not much of a safety net one might enjoy in a salaried post working for a single someone, as opposed to providing gig-style labor for a lot of someones. So that burdensome lifestyle, call it hardship, pushed me across a threshold, motivated me to make a huge, scary change in my life. It made me grow in all kinds of wonderful and unanticipated ways.
A short time after that sweet mom showed up on my doorstep, I asked her for the soup recipe, which she scrawled on the back of a repurposed index card and left on my desk at the ballet school, along with her notes and observations. It’s stuck to our fridge right now, a little dog-eared and stained with soup splatter. I’ve made it scores of times over the last ten or so years—it certainly saw me through some lean months after I moved to Vermont. Turning off the air, saving pickle jars, making chicken soup without a single wasted ingredient—the pathway to post-pandemic reinvention and personal growth might look like that, or like something else, but however it looks, let it be full of hope and promise. How’s your Plan B shaping up? I’d love to hear your strategies.