When I was six, my mother enrolled me in my first dance class. I enjoyed it, I had fun, I got to wear cute little sailor costumes and get up on stage and tunelessly tap my feet.
The teacher always arranged us in two rows, and this being the early 80s before everyone had to get equal play, she arranged us not by height but by talent. The precocious dancers with the big smiles and the good rhythm were front and center, and those who tripped on their shoelaces or danced with the angry pounding feet of someone trying to stomp out the last burning embers of an old campfire found themselves perpetually in the back.
My dad has a lot of pictures of half of my body hidden behind the other girls.
Had I been desperate to improve my lot in life as a dancer, I imagine my parents might have encouraged me to spend more time honing my craft. I have learned in life that training trumps talent almost every time. However, I didn’t mind the back row, and they didn’t mind, so they let me be in between dance classes to pursue what really floated my boat: palaeontology.
I read every book I could get my hands on, gaping in horrified intrigue at the artist’s rendition of a Tyrannosaurus gorging on a defeated looking hadrosaur. It was riveting. I spent my allowance in the craft store and would rush home every day to put together my little wooden skeleton models. I had them all.
It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be interested in science or that my time would be better spent improving my jazz technique than reconstructing extinct fossils. At night, we’d gather around the TV and watch Nova, or Cosmos- the original Carl Sagan version.
My mother, who is herself very Victorian and feminine, never made me or my sister feel like we weren’t girly enough, even when I was plastering the walls with Garbage Pail Kid stickers and cackling at the, ahem, crude humor. We were who we were, and in my case, that was a sci-fi loving anti-fashion science geek.
I worry sometimes, raising a daughter, that things are different now and there’s more pressure to conform along certain stereotypical lines. I don’t ever recall seeing shirts like this for sale when I was a kid:
I saw this shirt in Children’s Place, shortly before it got pulled, and promptly went next door to Peek where I found that amazing Jane Goodall children’s shirt I posted earlier this year. These messages we send to kids matter. They do.
Shortly before that T-shirt incident my daughter said to me, “I guess I’m just not good at math mom,” in response to a poor score on a math test she didn’t feel like studying for. Needless to say that didn’t fly; she may not care for it, it may not come naturally to her, but I wanted her to know she could overcome that. And with the help of a good tutor, she did. “I never,” I said, “ever, want you to think you’re not smart.”
She’s always been an artistic kid, and while I encouraged her to pursue those confidence building theater experiences I wanted her to know it didn’t have to be the only thing that defined her. You can be an actor and a writer and a mathematician and a dancer and an athlete. You can be in the front row of any show you want and are willing to work for.
I can only hope that in the face of many conflicting messages, she will remember this.
We’ve been watching Cosmos as a family the last month or so, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is amazing and the show just makes me happy. My son plopped down instantly to get his science fix, and a few moments later after realizing we weren’t going to be watching American Idol, my daughter sat beside him. A day later, they were discussing time travel in the car on the way to school and my nerdy heart soared. “When’s the next episode coming out?” they asked breathlessly.
That afternoon, my daughter took a break from recording and re-recording herself singing “Let It Go” over and over, sitting at the table earnestly scribbling away on a piece of paper. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Writing a fan letter,” she said. “Can you help me mail it?”
I paused. I wrote my first fan letter when I was eight. I remember it well. Ricky Schroeder. I even sent him a Polaroid selfie, 80s style. He never wrote back and I was devastated.
So who was it going to be for my daughter? Harry Styles? She and her friends were just getting into One Direction and I wondered if she was about to ask me to subscribe to TeenBop or Tiger Beat. Maybe I’d luck out and find out she was thanking Idina Menzel for belting out such a catchy power ballad. “It’s not to Justin Beiber, is it?” I asked nervously.
She scowled. “Eeew Mom. Come on.” She handed me to letter. It began, “Dear Doctor DeGrasse Tyson: I really love your show.”
The kid’s gonna be all right.