As a full time college professor and sometime editor, I see how easy it is to mess up the educational path a student or writer is on. Too harsh, too soft, too forceful, too ambiguous, and you can send someone on a journey that is not useful. The truth is, what we want to do is really in us already, and it takes that special touch to bring it out of the student, the poet, the fiction writer.
In the summer of 1976, I was fourteen years old and obsessed with the gymnast Nadia Comaneci. When I was on the blocks at a swim meet readying for the starter's gun, I would impersonate her performance start and end pose. Some of you can probably still see her in your mind, her limber-beyond-belief body, that almost crack of a back arch, her arms thrown up over her head, her smile wide for the crowd. At her perfect ten scores (the board reading 1.0 because the technology could not reflect a perfect score), the crowd went wild.
The crowd didn't go wild for me as I mimicked her, but they laughed a little (the summer before, I'd been into blessing the water before a swim and then crossing myself, though I have no Catholic at my core). I had never received a perfect ten in anything, much less gymnastics, but I'd loved everything about Nadia and her story. She was small and lean and tough. She hadn't been accepted by the greater Romanian team, her coach Bela Karolyi running her around to meets in his van, coaching her on his own. Nadia was cute but not unattainably so. She was a doable hero, and she was less than one month younger than I was, so I could see that in our short years, maybe just about anything was possible.
For all the Olympics I could remember of my childhood, I'd loved watching the Olympics with my father. We’ve just had a summer Olympics and I watched my sports of choice with ease at all times of the day. But things were tougher back in 1976. There was no Tivo or VCR to record anything for later viewing. We were at the mercy of NBC and time zones, but I think our expectations were lower. I remember us sitting in the den, waiting for the events to come on our Sony color TV. While in 1972, Olga Korbut had been mesmerizing to watch, she also elicited sympathetic pain as she bent in half on the balance beam, grimacing so intently, I'd had to turn away from the TV. Olga was a Russian and looked Russian in the ways I had grown up thinking of them. Except when she smiled, her pigtails crooked, she was grim and concentrated and likely was part of a Russian conspiracy of some kind. But in 1976, Nadia made us all feel as though we could fly and bounce and have fun.
My father--a non-athlete--would evaluate every sports performance, telling us what to look for and glorying in all the athletes' successes. For the entire time of the show, we were carried away in his excitement of how people could move. All this flying through the air and streaking through the water was a miracle (of course, in 1976, the German women were streaking through the water fueled by testosterone shots). I'm afraid that his admiration of athletes came at a price for my two sisters and me--he always wanted more and better and higher and faster from our performances--but to watch another with him was lovely and fun. When the Olympics were over, I was always a little sad, just as I was sad when The Wide World of Sports was over on Saturdays, as it meant there would be chores to do now that he wasn't focusing on downhill skiing or swimming or kayaking or soccer.
This past summer during the Beijing Olympics, I have had my father beside me as I've watched the track and field events, the swimming, the gymnastics, even the dressage. He would have loved Tivo, the way we can slide through the commercials, the way we can watch 24 hours of Olympics by sliding up through the hundreds of channels. He would have loved Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals. He would have been screaming during the relays, and then he would have analyzed that final butterfly stroke, the one that gave Michael the gold in the 100 fly. Maybe he would have turned to me and said, "This is what you have to do in the pool," even though at forty-six, I’m capable of about a half hour of laps and then I need a hot tub.
Now that I am older, I would have nodded, patted his hand, gone back to women's gymnastics instead of feeling the lump in my gut, knowing that we'd have to talk about my new butterfly stroke at the dinner table. Now, I go to the pool at my gym and jump in, no Nadia performance piece, no blessing the water even though this pool is a blessing. I put on my goggles. I push off the wall; I swim for the feel of it. For the way I feel like one fluid piece. Like Nadia, I am having fun in the movement of my body, the way I can slice through the water in one body stroke.
What I can see now at 46 is that I can learn from watching others, but to have someone ride you like a backpack is never a good teaching tool, at least not for me. A coach is beside you. A coach is a coach not a mental tape that says, "You've been doing it wrong. Try it right."
My father was younger than I am now, had no teaching experience, and no good parental role models. He wanted beauty and he loved us, and wanted the two things to go together. He had hope and desire and no way of fulfilling it himself. So he turned to us and told us what to do and how and when and why to do it.
He could have learned from a coach like Bela Karolyi. A coach picks you up, puts you on the mat, says, "Show them what you can do. You know everything. It's inside you already. Do it for yourself and they will watch."
And then you arch your back, lift your arms, smile, and do it.
Jessica will give away a copy of her newest book to one lucky commentor at the end of the day. You must provide an email addy and comment about her book or article to be entered.
Jessica Barksdale Inclan
Claire Edwards had just absolutely had it, again, for about the sixth time that day. She wanted to scream and shout and stomp her feet, but since that reaction was exactly what was bothering her in others, she could not do any of that. She didn’t want to roll around on the floor in tempera paint like Annie or pee in her pants like Thomas. She didn’t want to fall into instant and hysterical weeping and cling to pillow in the corner like Sam. Maybe she wanted to stand shocked still in the corner with the rest of them, but theoretically, she was in charge.
She was--Claire finally realized as she picked up the thrown barrel of blocks in order to get to Sam--the adult. She was the one paid for keeping things flowing educationally and psychologically for Annie, Thomas, Sam, and the twelve other children in her charge, all of whom were staring at her right now with wide, frightened eyes. Claire was in charge of “environment” and “attitude.” Claire was in charge of “educational outcomes.”
“Sam,” she said, her voice like the blanket that Sam was missing, the one that his mother insisted he go “cold turkey” with this very morning. “I promise you that when you get home, your mommy will give you your blankie. It’s just that it needs to stay at home for now. While you are at school.”
“I want my blankie!” Sam wailed. “I want it now!”
Annie rolled toward Claire, smearing primary colors everywhere. Thomas clutched his pants, whimpering.
The rest of them chimed in, crying in sympathy for this horrible scene, all of them suddenly wanted their blankies, their mommies, the toilet, an afternoon snack, their pets, anything but this classroom.
Claire knew that she shouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. Really, really, mustn’t do it, but she wanted to close her eyes, think of a spot, any spot on the planet. She wanted to focus on the Kelani Resort in Maui or the Mendocino Hotel in Mendocino. She wanted to think about the Tuilerie Gardens in Paris. Frankly, she would be happy at the Starbucks on the corner of Masonic and Fulton. Or the French Laundromat on Stanyan, the air thick with steam and soap. Anywhere but here.
The problem always was, of course, that she could go wherever she wanted to. Anywhere on the planet. Just like that. Just by thinking. By picturing a place, she could be there, and she had performed this trick for herself a hundred times or more since she discovered it when she was six. She could send herself anywhere, but coming back home wasn’t easy. Claire wasn’t sure why she just couldn’t bounce herself back home, but there really wasn’t a resident expert on this kind of thing. There was no Teleportation for Dummies at the local bookstore. There wasn’t anyone she could call up and ask, “Hey, can you tell me why I can’t get home the way I got here? You can’t? Oh, well, could you just explain to me why I can’t get even close?”
Sure, she could triangulate her way around, flinging herself from place to place until she ended up closer to home, but mostly she had to do it the old fashioned way: bike, car, bus, cab, boat, train, plane. Of course, when she decided on a whim to disappear, she hadn’t managed to pack a thing (not that she could take anything with her) and on one sad day when she failed a college exam in statistics, she’d ended up in Hawaii without a bikini or a credit card. She cringed when she thought of the phone call she’d had to make to her mother, though the two days’ wait for her passport at the Oahu Holiday Inn had actually been fun.
But who cared about that now? In less than a second, she could be away from all of this and drinking a Mai-Tai on the veranda of Kelani Inn—assuming, of course, the staff took pity on her credit cardless self. Annie, Thomas, and Sam would think they blinked too long and Claire had just stepped out of the classroom. The children would stop crying, surprised and then excited that they were left all alone, by themselves, no adult in sight. After a moment of exhilaration, they would start crying again, this time even harder. Chaos would ensue. All the children would throw paint, pee in their pants, and sob in the corners. They would be forever marked and ruined by this horrifying abandonment and become troubled, over-pierced drug-addicted teenagers who would look back on this class and all of their education as an abusive waste of time.
What was worse was that—if Claire wanted to—she could dive into their minds, see the patterns of shock and confusion and understanding. As quickly as she could travel to any place on the planet, she could get into the little stream of consciousness that flowed strong through Annie’s mind. What would Claire find there? Images of school and home, friends and pets and siblings? Or something worse, something scary and horrible, images Claire would never recover from. After hearing things meant for no one but the thinker, after seeing grief and despair and sexual positions and partners no one should know about, Claire stopped. She didn’t dip into anyone’s mind but her own, clamping down tight and holding on to her thoughts and her thoughts only.
Childhood was too fraught a place, full of dark forests with evil stepparents, confusing events no one explained, and nightmares that made sleeping with the light on crucial. She didn’t want to do that one last thing that would ruin everything for them. Claire knew how hard it was to overcome something from childhood. She had been trying to overcome her “gifts” since forever.
“Sam,” Claire said, picking him up and cradling him in her arms, knowing that if she were a male kindergarten teacher, she could never do this. “It’s okay. It will be all right.”
Claire looked out at her class, all of them staring at her, even Annie, who glanced up at her with a blue smeared face; even Thomas who stopped his incessant whimpering. “I promise you, it will all be okay.”
They stared at her. The big white clock on the wall moved its long black hands in clicking seconds. Claire stayed in the classroom, held Sam who stopped crying, too.
“Really?” Annie asked, and Claire nodded, wishing she were agreeing to what was true.
“Yes,” she said. “It will all be one hundred percent okay.”