Monday, April 22, 2013
Four eleven-year-old girls stand on a sunny school playground. Three are in eleven-year-old bodies. One peers out from the decades-older body of their teacher. One girl, a happy healthy athletic bursting-with-happiness-and-energy long-limbed girl, does a cartwheel out of nowhere, for no particular reason beyond the invitation of the warm bright air and her own inner joy.
The three other girls watch and admire her form, and so she does another, also with perfect cartwheel form: First one hand on the ground, then the other, with legs going perfectly overhead, each landing in its turn, the torso perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Perfect 360 degree rotations. She ends each revolution with a victory stance, arms raised high, exuberant grin on her face.
The peeking-out girl says wow, that was amazing, I've never done a cartwheel.
One of the other girls laughs and says I can't do one either. She's about to show them her not-doing-a-cartwheel when the fourth girls spins out three in a row. Her audience watches in admiration. This is not someone who looks like she could do any cartwheels, let alone a beautifully executed series. Short of stature, short-limbed, solid, the best artist in the class with an artist's intense inner focus and no previously apparent athletic inclinations. She barely smiles at the applause and praise offered by her peers, but the blush pushing up from her collar reveals her pleasure.
The peeking-out girl asks how did you learn to do that. Thinking about her own short solid body that she could never coax into the light freedom of a cartwheel.
The reply from the artist: gymnastics, lessons from the time she was a much littler girl.
The peeking-out girl remembers a childhood where there was neither the money nor the parental energy for gymnastics or dance (she desperately wanted to be a ballerina) or piano even (let alone the harp she knew she was born to play). She recalls friends trying to show her the steps to a cartwheel, and her frustration at not being able to follow the simple instructions, and the shame voice saying stupid fat girl. She thinks she remembers being laughed at, although she's not so sure about that any more. She remembers the hot flush of humiliation, her fury at a body that would not bend to her mind's demands, her decision to never try again.
Do you want to see me try offers the girl who has said she's never done a cartwheel either. This girl is a soccer celebrity who plays whatever sport a season has to offer. A child of supreme confidence in herself despite a life where adults betray and disappoint her in heartbreaking ways. Without waiting for an answer from her audience, she spins herself awkwardly around, head down, her body moving in a twisted "u" shape, her limbs going every which way but where they should. She lands on her bottom, laughing, her face alight with joy.
Everyone claps for her, and laughs with her, and then the three in-time eleven-year-olds wander away, distracted by a kick-ball game. The peeking-out eleven-year-old, safely hidden behind the eyes of her sixty-year-old body, marvels at what she's just seen. Success by someone who wasn't a cool kid. Failure by someone who was. But failure that no one saw as failure. Failure seen as fun and not one bit of anything more.
She offers a question tentatively, inwardly, longingly. Maybe we could try again?
The sixty-year-old teacher stands watching her students frolic like wild things on a sunny spring playground, holding her own inner eleven-year-old close. You know it's too late for cartwheels in this body. But look, it's not too late to see that shame does not have to be a part of that loss. It's not too late to understand that not doing cartwheels never ever meant there was something wrong. It's not too late to finally realize that you are as wonderful, talented, and beautiful as any of the girls you watch every day with envy and yearning.
Together, they form a picture of a freckle-faced girl with braids and strong sturdy limbs, banged up knees and bare feet, doing a perfect hand, hand, foot, foot, perpendicular rotation in the long faded sunlight of a North Idaho summer. It didn't happen, but it might have, and they applaud the girl together. A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel.