Memoir: The First Summer
I have a down comforter that is a light bluish-gray with a delicate pattern of fern-like leaves in a slightly darker tone. It is getting clumpy the way that down-stuffed items get (probably when you are bad at laundry like me). I love it. It's made for a twin size bed, so I don't get to snuggle under much any more but pull it out for the kids' beds from time to time. I can tell that it was probably expensive, but I didn't pay a dime. I claimed it from the mountain of orphaned items left behind at the Sigma house following a Summer of working as a counselor for the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Summer Intensive.
It doesn't take much for me to get back to that house in my mind. It had that lots-of-mattresses dorm kind of smell. Because it is a sorority house with one fancy section of white carpet and couches you should probably call divans and a large crystal chandelier hanging in the center of a spiral staircase, it also had the smell of an old lady's house-- just a hint of cats or urine. The dining room had carpeted floor and floor to ceiling windows with long curtains; the curtains and carpet retained food smells, so even though Kermit, the mostly blind cook, was excellent at his job and fed us quality meals, I feel like the room smelled of stale tater-tots. The house was two buildings spatched together with hallways and staircases, and I remember it taking me a while to completely learn my way around. We used an intercom system and walkie-talkies to communicate.
“We” were the dorm staff charged with looking after about 200 kids in Seattle for the Summer to dance and learn at the beautiful Pacific Northwest Ballet School (PNBS). I had danced as a student in the Summer Course for 2 Summers. Being selected for the Summer required that you first attend an audition, and the school held these 20 or so auditions all over the country. By the time the final group was checking in to the dorms, they could feel very proud knowing that thousands of girls and boys had tried for a spot. Participating as a counselor on the wrong side of the check-in table left me feeling everything but proud. Only about a month had passed since I was the one in a black leotard and pink tights, and my ankle had barely recovered from the sprain I suffered in my last class. My back was still miserably painful and would remain so for several years from the career-ending injury doled out to me 7 months prior.
I was thankful, though. I was thankful to the very people who had observed and allowed my dreams of being a dancer to vaporize. I'm really not sure why exactly they had hired me to be a dorm counselor. There is a part of me that theorizes that they were trying to keep me close and relatively happy so that I would not try to sue them. After all, I had been injured in a stage accident. Mostly, over the years, I have chosen to believe that they just really liked me for being the happy-go-lucky, responsible girl that I was. I'm sure they knew I would do a great job at whatever job I was given, and that's what I did. Regardless of their reasoning, I was thrilled to have the position even though it was mind-bendingly difficult for me. I was just glad that I didn't have to move back to my parent's house in Texas but was able to stay in Seattle with my friends and boyfriend. It would have just hurt way too much to lose ballet and my whole life in Seattle in one fell swoop.
A few days before the students arrived, the counselors all moved into the house to clean, organize and learn the ropes. We also needed time to get to know one another and gel as a team. There were 5 girls: 3 current University of Washington students and 2 former dancers, myself included.
These were the early days of me trying to figure out how the heck I was supposed to act. In every new situation, with every new person I met, I had a choice to make: Do I talk about dancing or not? How am I supposed to present myself? It felt dishonest, incomplete to not introduce myself as a ballet dancer. But because I was very suddenly no longer a dancer, it also felt dishonest to try to identify as one. The only way to feel like I was being myself, something very important to me, was to share the whole story, to be that weird person who actually accurately answers the question “How are you?” Seated around the long rectangular table in the dining room, meeting each other for the first time, I wrestled with how to introduce myself as I waited for my turn.
Looking back, I can see that the wrestling was there, but at the time I didn't see this issue of “who do I say am” as clearly as I see it now. Back then, it just felt like I had to tell the truth about what had happened to me because I wanted people to know I was a dancer, but it felt icky at the same time. It felt like an over-share. I felt like people didn't really care or want to know. Being a dancer was such a special, unique part of who I was. In fact, I saw it as THE special thing about me. My dancer status had been my go-to ice-breaker, ego-booster, core identity since I was a young teenager. Being stripped of it left me floundering.
“My name is Jessica Meador, and I was a dancer at PNB until just a few weeks ago. I'm really excited to be a counselor because I definitely know what the kids will be going through, and getting this job is what allowed me to stay a part of the whole PNB world even though I'm not dancing anymore. I was injured during the Nutcracker, and apparently I'm not going to be dancing professionally like I had planned. So, I may lose it at some point. It's really weird to be doing this behind-the-scenes kind of job when what I really wanted and was JUST doing was being on the other side of it all. So. Yeah. I'm Jessica”
Of course, I don't remember if that is exactly what I said, but I'm sure it is very close. I absolutely remember saying the words, “I may lose it at some point.” Dave, the Residence Director, my new boss, very kindly made some transitional comment on my behalf like “Yeah, this will be a change for you, but I'm sure the kids will be glad to have your help. Glad to have you on the team! Next we have...” I still like that Dave. He's a good guy. Everyone else at the table had looks on their faces that said everything from “Oh, poor thing” to “Damn... she crazy.”
I did lose it a few times. I don't remember ever doing it around others, though. I just recall crying in my little counselor dorm room and journaling. Usually, my tears would be set off by something hard happening to one of the students. A boy broke his foot or ankle, I don't recall exactly what, during the first week or two of the five week course. I cried a lot for him, but I can see now that it was just a way to crack open my heart and let me cry for me. I remember the girls who were scared and lonely and intimidated. I don't think I cried for them, but I do remember being really, really full of compassion for them. Like a mother feels for her kids, actually. The other difficult emotional response I kept to myself in my little attic room was shame. I was ashamed that I had failed. I was embarrassed that I had (been) dropped out of the ranks. I remember how little respect I received from the older dancers, the ones hoping to be given the very spot I had just left within PNBS. They would have treated me very, very differently if I had been in the studio in my leotard and tights. I would have been assigned value. But as a non-dancing human, I didn't carry too much weight in the world I had occupied for the last three years.
The other time that I cried was walking out of the studio into the main hallway of the PNB building. I was keeping it all in, but it came spluttering out when Mr. Halby, one of my favorite former teachers, asked how I was. I had tried taking a class, an “Open” class offered for regular people not enrolled in the school, for grown-ups, for has-beens and wannabe's. Back when I was a student in the school, it had been fun to take Open class. It was over-achieving- taking an extra class for fun or more exercise or just to be able to wear black tights in the studio instead of the pink that were required in our regular classes. But, those black tights weren't much comfort to me that day. I was hurting; it was a total body, heart, and mind kind of pain. I was sore and out of shape. I'm sure my ankle was still healing, and I had to be careful with it. I hadn't been in that room, that huge, grand studio with the beautiful floors, windows, and large mirrors, or heard the piano accompaniment, or placed my hand on the smooth, wooden barre, or settled into the familiar routine of stretching and warming-up since the day I had sprained my ankle and crumpled to the floor and cry/yelled to Mr. Halby “Hasn't enough shit happened to me yet?!” I quit the class and walked out halfway through because the memories were too close, too real, and the pain in my back was a terrible reminder of all that had happened. The sight of myself in the mirror was a message about everything that was lost.
“I just can't do it. It hurts way too much.” I said to Halby. “Well, it's too soon, dear. You haven't had enough time to heal,” he replied. “Yeah,” I said, but what I thought was, “NONE OF YOU PEOPLE GET IT! I'm not just injured; I am ruined. I don't just mean that my back or my fucking ankle hurts. I mean that it hurts my soul. It hurts my whole ME to be in that room and try to be someone I love and don't get to be ever again.” It still hurts that way. I have only taken a good ballet class about 10 times in the last 12 years, and that's probably a generous estimate. I both long for and loathe the studio the way I did on that day that I rushed out.
I tried to fill my days with fun. I tried to make new friends with my fellow counselors and succeeded. It is easy to be friends with me. We had a great time eating whatever we wanted from the kitchen like berries galore and ice cream bars. We jello-wrestled in a baby pool just because we could. We spent our days on the sunny lawn in the pool while (I tried not to think about) the dancers were in class. At night, we would find fresh ways to tease the night guard. We would watch movies on the big screen TV. I behaved like this was all fabulous, and it was. It was a great distraction for me, but it was a pretty messed-up way to spend my first non-dancing Summer of my life.
One of the other counselors, Jessie, was my favorite. We had a blast together and were constantly laughing. One day while we were joking around she said, “I'm so glad you turned out to be so fun. I thought you were going to be so weird! That first day when you talked about being a dancer I was like, 'ok, she's a crazy ballerina. Probably going to be weird having her around...' But, it turns out you are cool!” At the time, I took this statement really well. I took it to mean just what she intended, that I was cool and fun to be around. I was glad to hear that! I have always prided myself on being a fun friend, and I was very happy that I still had that going for me after losing so much else. But, now I see another angle, another message that I absorbed, “You being a dancer is weird for me and inaccessible. You struggling through the greatest loss of your life is unpalatable.” Whether I processed it that way at the time, I don't know. But, I do remember that it slightly rubbed me the wrong way I as I mulled that moment over later that night alone in my bed. Sadly, her comments confirmed my suspicions and fear that what happened to me was not a big deal to anyone but me, and that the quicker I could become something different, the better.
Photo source: Wikimedia