The dance lessons were a pitiful failure, primarily because of the wall-sized mirror opposite the barre. I was horrified to see my belly bulge in the leotard, and embarrassed of my home-cut, choppy short hair. Meanwhile, all my classmates were stick-thin and graceful with long, ponytailed ringlets. Or that's how I remember them, though I'm sure I wasn't the only awkward, slightly rounded dancer in the class. Anyway, my self-consciousness made it awfully hard to focus on turnout and grace and point and posture. I remember keenly how heavy my landings felt when I took my series of leaps diagonally across the floor.
The swim team was a bit better, though my belly bulged in my swimsuit, too. All my ribbons were red or yellow, never first-place blue. Also, during practice, there were huge black horseflies that buzzed menacingly around our wet bodies as we waited for our turn to dive in. I was sure my fat, juicy legs were the prime target for a bite. Much worse was the memorable swim meet in which I swam the backstroke in huge, slow circles, somehow not noticing that I'd passed over the lane dividers multiple times. Someone finally had to jump in and stop me, since my ears were below water level and I couldn't hear the crowd shouting for me to stop.
At least I have a pre-packaged "most embarrassing moment," right?
Piano lessons, though, were fun. I loved the music flowing out of my fingers, especially when there were lyrics to sing in my head (or out loud if I was home alone). My piano teachers were kind and patient, and I enjoyed the one-on-one attention and conversation. There were no mirrors, and no competitors. Just music and me.
Then came the day I was asked to play the piano during the offering for a service at our church. I was no prodigy, and I was aware of that, but the idea was exciting - and nerve-wracking. I practiced more than usual, which wasn't all that much (I was a typical suburban kid, remember?). I did get to the point where I wasn't making errors even when playing the chosen piece several times through. So, as the fateful Sunday approached, I felt more and more eager and honored.
That morning in the pew, I was shaking with emotions and nerves and the glory of it all. When we were singing the final hymn before my cue, my sweet daddy leaned over and unwittingly derailed me: "Remember: your performance reflects on the family." Then he patted me on the back and gave me a "go forth and conquer" nod.
Oh, man. I knew everyone would be looking at me as I played, and I wasn't thrilled about that particular detail. But it had never occurred to me that my performance had any effect on my dad, my mom, my sister. Suddenly the room felt huge, and the ceiling far-off, and my family's pew was the center of the universe.
I wobbled unsteadily up to the big piano and sat down. I don't remember much more, except for the uncountable errors I made, and the long hesitations between notes, and the difficulty in keeping my fingers steady on the keys. I could hardly focus my eyes on the sheet music, since my dad's large frame was in my peripheral vision. I was watching for him to slump in the pew, or run out of the sanctuary altogether.
The song (or what I did to it) ended, and since our church was traditional, the absence of applause was customary rather than an indictment. I didn't look at my dad's face as I returned to the pew. I didn't look at anything other than the floor.
I know my dad didn't mean to paralyze or handicap me. I know he was trying to encourage and inspire, not terrify. But I learned a lot from that day. I learned the danger of piling parental expectations on top of kids' already high expectations of themselves. The fear of embarrassing oneself is a heavy load. There's no reason to add the burden of preventing the embarrassment of a loved one.
There are times when a child needs motivation, and sometimes kids need to be pushed a little. The trouble arises when parents makes it seem as if a child's performance (or lack thereof) will reflect well (or poorly) on them.
Let's be honest: our culture is wired that way -- hence the "honor student" bumper stickers on parents' cars. Christmas letters are packed with news of kids' GPAs and society memberships and tournament wins and starring roles.
It's a tricky balancing act, this parenting gig. You want your children to celebrate their talents and their victories. You want them to know you're proud of them. But the talents and victories are theirs, not yours. The embarrassment and agony of defeat is theirs as well, and if you can avoid feeling embarrassed yourself, then you can be the one to encourage them through those feelings.
I'm still not comfortable in a leotard (or a swimsuit), and I haven't played piano in front of people in many years. This addiction to approval and acceptance is a hard thing to kick. I am glad, though, that I can absorb my own failures and missteps, and not worry about dragging anyone down along with me.
My slightly wrinkled, overweight reflection in the less-than-wall-sized mirror is mine and mine alone.