Relationships often form out of necessity and chance. My love for ballet was a complete accident and would have never developed if anything about my discovery of it had been different. There were and still are so many obstacles for me to overcome as a dancer, but it is easy to greet them with confidence after two years of watching myself grow after jumping over every hurdle. I needed ballet to push me to see those opportunities in a positive light. Until I started dancing, I thought school was doing something similar - showing me what I was capable of and asking me to push past it. After I experienced true joy in my work, I saw how poisonous my education had become.
I came into ballet through weird circumstances. I started in 2016 as an assistant to a dance teacher and when I took the job, I was just looking for a way to make a little bit of cash. However, my ambitious personality was intrigued by the high expectations of the technique. I started watching the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel and fell in love with the grace and athleticism of the art. It was a quick addiction after that.
Fast forward to 2018, I’ve been dancing for two years and am now in a pre-professional training program; I’ve progressed faster than I ever thought I would. I often wonder what motivated me to work so hard considering all the odds that were stacked against me. From the start, ballet and I did not get along. I came to dance when I was 15 and refused every stereotype thrown my way. In my mind, ballet and everyone involved in the art wanted to see me give up. Many people have asked me why I didn’t quit after everything dance put me through. The answer is simple - and what connects this to compulsory education - spite.
Every human is pushed by something different, but my motivation came from challenge. I was never, and still am not, good at ballet. I am physiologically disadvantaged for the technical style. External rotation of the hips is the most rudimentary idea in classical technique, and I have very little of it. Despite this inherent setback, I was determined to improve. It was as though someone had walked up to me and said “you’ll never be a decent dancer, so why even try?” Ballet felt like it was goading me to dare to prove it wrong. So I took this spiteful attitude and I used it to fuel my training. Eventually, my application expanded beyond dance.
I will admit, in some ways this was not productive. Junior year was not an easy year for me and I didn’t help myself by trying to be number one all the time. With that being said, spite was really my driving force for a good year and a half. After a teacher in Pennsylvania recommended a dieting book for me to read, I knew I had to be successful so I could meet her some day and show her how wrong she was. Ballet didn’t like me because I refused to fit into the box it thrived in. Similarly, the school system didn’t like me because I refused to sit down and shut up for four years.
Similarly to ballet, I came to Moreno Valley High School due to some strange circumstances. My family had to quickly pick up and move during the summer of 2013, so my parents were pressed to find a school district they were happy with. MVHS had been spoken of as the “number one school in New Mexico” and was supposed to be based on a progressive curriculum with an emphasis on communication. This seemed somewhat accurate my freshman year. I enjoyed school when I was in ninth grade; the administration was stable, the teachers understood our relationship to them, and the general atmosphere was positive and optimistic.
Things became steadily worse from there, however. We’ve had four or five directors since I enrolled, my teachers and I fight almost on a daily basis, and the feeling of the school is reckless and uninviting. Some people may claim that my last two complaints are just symptoms of being in the same place for four years, and, although I am sure my senioritis isn’t helping these situations, I can tell you that I have been feeling this way for a long time.
Since sophomore year, high school felt like an ocean. Those who could tread water and keep their heads above the waves for long enough got to graduate, and those who couldn’t drowned. I was never in danger of drowning, but when I got a C my freshman year, it felt like I had swallowed salt water. That semester has haunted me ever since, freshman English becoming a blight on my otherwise pristine transcript. The next year was fine, no C’s but nothing incredibly impressive either. It was also the year I got in my first big fight with my history teacher. My classmates and I were panicking; we were all taking our first advanced placement class and we could tell how far behind we were. The majority of us decided that our teachers methods were ineffective and needed to be addressed. As I mentioned previously, the class was an AP class, meaning the test at the end of the year could grant us college credit, so her instruction was a matter of our future. When I approached her to talk about the issues we were having, she refused to discuss anything regarding her curriculum and I, being an impetuous sophomore, immediately got upset. Quickly after our disagreement, I felt disheartened by the education system for the first of many times and, because of this event, my deep spite for academics began to develop. From then on, I decided that I would use my anger and frustration towards the injustice I was facing as a source of energy for my studies.
“Junior year matters” is what everyone told me, so I figured this was the perfect time to use my newfound aggression towards public school and live up to the challenge. That year, I took three advanced placement courses, registered for two rounds of SAT’s, two SAT Subject Tests, and two rounds of ACT’s. On top of this, I enrolled at a more formal ballet school and started dancing twice the amount I had previously been. I worked myself harder than ever before and reaped the benefits. By the end of the year, I had reached my goal of achieving a 4.0 GPA and I claimed it was all thanks to my need to “prove them wrong”.
However, spite cannot provide an endless drive, nor easy to live with. It is more difficult to find your motivation from pessimism and animosity than I had imagined. After years of being compared to my peers through test scores, class ranks, GPAs, community service hours, and many more methods of inaccurate measurement, I was crippled and exhausted of the high school rat race. Again, I became demoralized by my quick burnout. Spite was supposed to carry me to the podium, not drop me halfway to the finish line.
I grew to understand that spite, while somewhat helpful in the beginning, couldn’t sustain me forever. Even as I had progressed in ballet, my dedication no longer came from the spite I once held. In fact, I’m not sure it ever did. I had never needed any vengeful spirit to push me forward, as my own desire to grow stronger and work hard for the sake of doing so was enough. Once I understood this, I had a similar realization about academics: I was no longer passionate about learning, I was competitive about scoring. Twelve years of public education had taught me to compare myself to others to improve my own performance. It took me almost that long to realize how impossible it is to achieve anything when you’re forced into the shadows of others.
Although I knew public education had turned me into a shell of a teenager who survived off of high test scores, I also knew that I had to get my high school diploma. As much as I wanted to throw away three years of irrelevant work, it would have been too much of a detriment. I decided that I needed a new driving force, one that was not rooted in success above my peers. Since then, I’ve spent a long time nurturing my sense of passion and understanding, which have proven much more enduring.
Spite is fun, spite is scorching hot and fueled by a need to prove yourself. This year, I’ve seen my dedication and love for ballet grow as I have become a stronger and more capable dancer. I now understand why I thought spite would help me climb the ladder; I had confused my overwhelming love for ballet with scorn for those that had promised me I would fail. I desperately wanted this to be the case with school. I wanted to feel the fire for learning and education rekindle, but it was gone. There were no more coals to burn. I wondered if my fondness for learning was really a fondness for the praise that came with being the best.
There is a fine line between being vindictive and being challenging, one that I could not perceive when I started down this path. Ballet had never benefitted from my failure like the public education system had. If I had only realized sooner that I had been entrapped in a lie. The lie that traditional school was my only option, the lie that I should be grateful for the opportunities school and only school could offer me, the lie that I was stranded.
Suddenly, I saw why so many students were bored and tired of traditional education - they had never been exposed to the full range of their options.
Ballet and school presented me the same options: do well and get stronger or refuse the work and risk losing your passion. However, I’ve only ever had a passion for one. Both respective fields are so difficult to “do well” in, and I would never had worked hard in either of them without the incentives they both offered. The difference is, ballet offered me happiness, purpose, and passion while school offered me fear and ultimatums. Unfortunately for the public education system, students are opening their eyes. The false threats against our future are falling more and more on deaf ears as we continue to educate ourselves on the disadvantages of traditional academics.
Now we are seeing a surge in common sense and logic being used against public school. Just because students are young doesn’t mean they don’t understand the basic laws of give and take. Why would a fourteen year old who hates math dedicate his precious, minimal free time to studying it? The return on investment is nominal, if anything. Sure, his grade in the class may improve, but his quality of life would most likely not benefit. Education is dangerous because it encourages us to hold meaningless measurements above things such as happiness, experiences, and individuality. By reinforcing this idea of progress in terms of assessment, schools are setting an alarming precedent for how students will evaluate their own lives as they mature.
Education is not pointless, it’s just misguided. When the current education system was implemented, conformity meant success. It’s been years since we truly reformed our schools and the world has not stopped to let them catch up. We don’t need 500 copies of the same individual who’s taken the same classes and knows all of the same information as everyone else around them. We’re lacking in specialization and we’re lacking in decision making, two qualities that our modern world demands.
Students have to be presented with a choice and a chance. They need to choose what they want to put their energy into and they need a chance to prove they’ll work hard and stick to their decision. Compulsory education has boiled down to the idea that students have to learn the same curriculum regardless of their future plans because everyone needs a “foundation”. Why start them on the path of “jack of all trades, master of none” from the beginning? Why not ask them about their interests and allow them to design a course of study that reflects that? Why not take a risk and see what happens?
This is what ballet has brought me to understand. It is far too easy to confuse passion with fear. For a long time, I have been afraid of failure. I was afraid that a less than 4.0 GPA would spell out defeat, that the C on my transcript from freshman year was unforgivable. Whatever your “ballet” is, whether it be writing or yoga or meditation, whatever drives you to be the best person you can be, be grateful for it. Many people will never have the opportunity to enjoy their one true passion; many other people will find what they love, only to have it shut down by the notion that it won’t make them “successful”.
The education system is brutal and becomes more competitive every year, but we have an obligation to encourage our students to approach risk with a sense of confidence, especially if that risk could impact the quality of their future. As students are asked to avoid unknowns and mistakes at all costs, what we are actually telling them is that success should come immediately and that failure at first means failure forever. We are telling them that if they are not good at something as soon as they start it, that they shouldn’t waste their time on it. These ideas are fabrications and serve to simplify educational curriculum. It is those who refuse to conform that will leave an impact, as they understand that the world would be a dull place if we all listened to what everyone told us.
The competition, the repetitive courses, and the lack of autonomy that schools structures are based on strip young people of their natural curiosity and receptiveness to new ideas. If we want students who can think for themselves, who can analyze a problem and use their creative output to derive a solution, we should start by letting them make their own decisions and live with them. If we are not free to make mistakes, we are not free at all. We need to stop supporting such apprehension towards failure, especially within the first years of life.
Two years ago, someone told me I was ridiculous for thinking I could have any future in ballet with the late start I was getting. I was scared, I was worried that I was starting down a path that I would regret. I wondered if spending my free time at ballet lessons everyday would be worth it. Two years ago, I was faced with a potential mistake but I continued nonetheless. Two years later, my name is listed under the principal dancers in my final production and I am going to study at a professional ballet school in Canada. I hope you think about that the next time anyone tells you that your passion isn’t worth your time.