To quote from Rodgers and Hamerstein's The King and I when Anna says, "It's a very ancient saying but true and honest thought, if you become a teacher by your pupils you'll be taught."
What does that have to do with me, Very few remember that I taught pre-school children to professionals for over thirty years.
Just this week one of my students made a mistake in the combination I had given; I realized that what she did was better than what I had given. My ego allows me to immediately change the combination to her version. You see I still have an open mind willing to adopt something I think is better. I often tell my students, "I would steal from the devil if I thought for one minute his movement was better, so I am happy to pass it on to my charges."
The following are stories from my days of teaching the young - the very young, also stories that I think you would enjoy.
Janice and Her Unseen Friend
Whenever Janice was in class, I knew where Charlemagne, her invisible pet chicken, was located. I was told by Janice's mother that her daughter had had an invisible friend all of her life. Far be it from me to play psychologist, so I accepted Charlemagne's presence. One day I knew the chicken was on the chair next to the piano; one of the pupils was about to sit on the chair, and suddenly Janice let out a scream that could be heard in the next town. It scared the other little girl who began to cry, "What did I do?" Tears streaming down her face. "You almost sat on Charlemagne." Janice explained angrily. I knew it was now up to me to solve this impasse. Explaining an invisible chicken to a group of five-year-olds is not as hard as you might think, but another little girl blurted out that she liked to eat chicken. This sent Janice over the edge. I took her in my arms and used this opportunity to say, "Sweetheart, she is not going to eat Charlemagne, but I have a great idea. If you would leave him at home then no harm could come to Charlemagne." Peace returned to the class and I never saw Charlemagne again.
Speak - Very - Slowly
Hyper is the only word that could describe Susan. She had bright red hair, big brown eyes and was less than three feet tall. The first lesson with her I knew I was in trouble. She talked so fast that I couldn't understand her and at the same time her eye were blinking at a rate of a racecar. Immediately I knew I could not teach this perpetual motion machine to dance until I could calm her down. Everyday I would come face to face with her and say, "Susan! When - you - talk - to - me - you - are - to - speak - very - slowly - and - very - distinct - ly." I also mouthed every word and would not let her speak unless she tried her best. As the weeks progressed I saw an improvement. After six months I had total success. Then one day her hand went up and I said, "Yes, Susan what do you want?" Very calmly she said, "I want to make sissy." As a teacher of the very young, you learn early that you don't question this request, so I said, "Okay sweetheart, but come right back." She didn't disappoint me and returned without delay. About ten minutes later Susan's hand went up again. "Yes, dear what do you want?" As if six months had not passed, Susan reverted to the eyes blinking and speaking so fast I couldn't understand her. I thought my theory had failed. I went up to her with my finger just inches away from her face and said, "Susan I have told you a thousand time that when you - talk - to - me - you - are - to - speak - very - slowly - and - very - distinct - ly." Her beautiful brown eye opened wide and following my orders and said very slowly and distinctly, "I' got to s--t again." Without comment I pointed to the door.
Seth, just five years old, articulate, and intelligence enough to frighten me, pointed his finger at me and said, "I know what ballet is about." Surprised by his determination I asked, "Okay, Seth what is ballet about?" Now shaking his finger in my face he replied, "It is when you make the body more beautiful than the music." Recovering my composure. "Tomorrow, Seth you are teaching this class." Seth is now a doctor.
Elizabeth and Her Bottle
Exasperated from trying to keep my pre-school students from knocking each other down, I tried to explain to them that two objects could not occupy the same space at the same time. This concept seemed to be way over their heads, so I spent at least ten minutes to explain the theory. Satisfied that I had accomplished this task I proceeded with the class. A few minutes later little Elizabeth's hand shot up. "Yes, what is it Elizabeth? What's your problem?" With her forehead furrowed in deep thought she replied with a question. "What if you put a marble inside a bottle?" At this point I was ready to give up teaching. I think I heard she went on to get her PhD.
The Wagnerian Singer
Margaret could be best described as a five-year-old Wagnerian singer. She was almost as broad as she was tall. The thing I remember most was that her personality was also that of a real Diva. As I did in every class I would have each child dance the combination alone. That way I could tell if they knew what they were doing or just copying a neighbor. After Margaret's turn she turn and walked away saying, " That is close enough." I reprimanded, "That wasn't even close. Next week you'll do it perfectly." The week past and again it was Margaret's turn to show what she was to practice, and I expecting to see a great improvement. Disappointment must have shown on my face for it was not one bit better. When she finished she turn to me and said defiantly, "Was that better? Yes? Or No?" " Sorry Margaret, the answer is no." As she walked away she mumbled under breath, but loud enough for me to hear. "You make me sick."
Little Patti, My Teacher
I am over six feet tall, and when I stand in front of a group of twenty or more students just about three feet tall the experience I can be intimidating. In one class the children were standing in first position with their arms in repose. I was beginning to teach them port de bra, "Now bring your arms up and open them to the side." They did their best, but it wasn't what I wanted. "NO! NO! You look like an airplane." I went into detail on how their arms should look in second position. "The elbows are lower than the shoulders and the hands are lower than the elbow, and you bend the elbows just a tiny bit." Again they tried but I was still dissatisfied, "No! That's too much, now that's not enough." Little Patti came to my aid and she said with a big smile on her face, "It's like hugging a big tree." Now they were all doing just what I wanted. Since then I have used this image, no matter how old the members of the class.
I swear that while adults are sleeping little boys and girls meet on some mountaintop and plot against their teachers and parents. Most of the times, as the teacher, I have no problems in class, but let it be the day that the parents can watch, and then all hell breaks loose. As I have said before I am proud that many of my students can perform their simple dance by themselves. On parent's day I conducted the class as usual except for the last few minutes. At that time I get to show my teaching skills and my pupils show their moms and dads what they have learned. With the students sitting around my chair the students performed one at a time.
I notice one mother sinking in her chair with a look of horror on her face. I looked down at my pupils and saw her little boy was showing the girl next to him the difference between boys and girls. As the adult in charge I tried to handle this with all the aplomb I could muster. Without making more of this than I should, I turned to the boy and girl and said, "Would you please pay attention to your classmate as she is dancing." The little boy replaced his private parts, and in a stage whisper said, "I'll show you after class." The parent of all fought back their laughter and the boy's mother is probably still in therapy.
What Mother Heard
A mother, whose daughter had been with me for some time, told me this story. It seemed that her daughter had convinced her girlfriend to start taking dancing class. The mother was driving the two girls to class and overheard her daughter give this valuable advice. The old timer said, "Now when the teacher asked you to do one-two-three-hop you should do one-two-three-four-hop and he will turn bright red. Do you think that all the mistakes I see are done just to get to me?"
(First published April 2004)
Next: Sixty and Still Counting