Substitute Teacher as Student 

This post is a departure for me.  Not so much a medical reflection as it is a personal one.  

During March and April, I worked with my mentor on a project outside of school. He started his own dance company, which is beyond exciting, but he asked me to do the costumes.  ME.  

When he first brought it up, it seemed far away and not quite real.  But since it was a sincere offer, I agreed.  How could I not? We’re talking dream come true.  How often does something like this happen? Alright, let me rephrase that… How often does something like this happen to someone like me?  

All of a sudden, the plan was in motion. They rehearsed on Tuesday evenings at an amazing studio space in Manhattan.  I was invited to meet the dancers and take measurements.  We arrived at an unassuming industrial-looking building in a massive downpour.(I mean, THAT was a given.  It was either going to be snow, rain or locusts with my luck! LOL). After being buzzed in, we climbed a few flights of stairs and approached the plain studio door.  When it opened, it felt akin to going through the looking glass.  The hallway had been plain, narrow, basic. The doorway opened into a large room with high ceilings and a major spiral staircase in the center of the room. Words were painted on the walls, names I think.  A large flatscreen TV hung was playing a video of dancers, moving seamlessly across a stage.  The conversations of performers, making plans to rehearse again next week.  The tall front desk, two women smiling over at me.  There was so much to take in! It was overwhelming, to put it mildly.  

I felt like I was on a roller coaster of emotion.  Fear began to take over.  As M. checked in and picked up his materials, I spun slowly around trying to casually take in my surroundings.  This was arriving at a new job on the first day: everyone around you obviously knows what’s going on, but you are undeniably lost.  I steadied my breathing and tried to seem like I belonged there, among the dancers and creative types. I’ve designed and styled costumes for middle-schoolers enough times to be prepared for the “whatevers” that come along. But this was swimming in the deep end before you’ve learned how.  Or so I thought.  

M. smiled and led me to a large studio overlooking the street.  I could hear the sounds of traffic and rain through the heavy curtains over the windows.  They must be sound and light blocking, when they’re closed all the way.  Some of the dancers were already in the room.  Two young women, stretching and chatting. M. introduced me and then started to review the details of what would be covered that evening.  I left them to talk and started to make myself as small as possible, so as not to be in the way. That’s something I’m used to, especially with the kids.  I felt like I must have seemed nervous and awkward, but if I did no one let on.  When all five dancers arrived, M. formally introduced me.  As I interacted with them, things calmed down in my head a bit.  They’d come from school and jobs to dance. Obviously, working with M. is as worth it for them as it’s been for me.  

When my daughter started middle school, it took a lot of energy for me to pull back and not be an obvious presence in the school building.  The rules change when your kids get to a certain age.  At first, they’re thrilled to see you around during the day, on trips or serving on the PTA. Then, when the pre-teen and teen years start, all bets are off.  Suddenly, parents and guardians have to be acutely aware of embarrassing their child.  I never wanted that, but being involved is part of my DNA.  It just is.  When I was a child, I always helped out at my school.  Once my mom began to teach there, we all helped out even more.  Some days, it was just fun.  A bit of a power trip to have free reign.  LOL.  Ah the delusions of youth! But as a parent, I had to rein in my desire to oversee everything and take a backseat.  

I remember receiving the email that would ultimately lead me to that dance studio on a rainy night.  It asked for parent volunteers to assist the dance teacher.  Did anyone sew? Yes! Did I want to be creative? Yes! I was so excited about it that I answered immediately.  It was automatic.  I could volunteer without being obvious.  

I was one of about ten moms that showed up that first day.  M. needed people to take over costume maintenance and prep for the dance majors program.  It was a huge undertaking, as he hadn’t had help before.  Ever.  As the meeting went on, it became clear that it was too much of a commitment for some and not exactly what others had in mind.  So the group whittled down to two.  We became friendly and spent months taking an inventory of materials from years of concerts and performances.  There was a lot that needed to be thrown away, way beyond repair.  But we managed to clean and salvage quite a bit.  By the time the holiday show was upon us, things seemed better.  We did the same for the spring show.  Repeated the work the following year.  As shows approached, we’d speak with M. and get his vision for the dances. Then we’d spend weeks preparing.  But it wasn’t long before my coworker received good news that she was hired full-time for a job she’d really wanted.  But that changed things for me. 

The first show I did on my own was chaos. But as time went on, I started to really enjoy the solitude of creating and organizing.  M. and I developed a rapport. The more I spoke to him, the more I respected the work he did, that he does. And clearly, the more he trusted me. We’ve come to a place where I can come up with looks for certain pieces.  Some things change.  But we work well together.  It’s changed my life for the better.  

I’ve had two professional experiences that truly saved me.  The first happened not long after I had to give up my nursing job because of RSD.  My sister was teaching first grade at the time and said she wanted to introduce me to one of the families she worked with.  That introduction led me to my best friend.  At that time, Vivian designed special occasion gowns for girls.  Her shop was two blocks from my home.  I passed it every day and my daughter always admired the beautiful little dresses in the window.  My sister brought us together and we hit it off.  Slowly at first, we talked every now and then while waiting for our kids outside of the school.  One day, I mentioned how much I loved to sew.  The next thing I knew, I was in the shop sewing beads and trim on those beautiful gowns. Our kids became close friends and our families just meshed.  I can hardly remember not having them in our lives.  Anyway, after being stripped of my career, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t depressed.  Vivian gave me a new lease on life.  She believed in me, trusted me with her name and livelihood.  That stays with me to this day.  Though she changed paths and decided to close her shop, that experience is as fresh for me today as it was back then.  And I am grateful.  

My second saving moment was meeting M.  It was difficult for him to let go and trust us with his costumes, as it would be for anyone.  But once I let him know that I work hard and am extremely loyal, a bond was forged.  At the time, I was in pain and dealing with life after the spine and pump surgeries.  My life felt a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day.” One day blended into the next.  It was tough.  But things changed for the better.

In September, I’ll start my sixth year assisting M.  In that time, he’s encouraged me to have confidence in the work I do.  He also mentored me in becoming a NYC public school substitute teacher.  After my daughter graduated, M. and the principal asked me to go through the training and work at the school.  I did. If anyone had asked me twenty years ago if I would be a teacher in any capacity, I’d have laughed and responded “NO!” But I love working with the students, especially in this age group.  My mom taught eighth graders for her entire career and always said that people tend to write-off that age group.  I’ve never forgotten that and try hard to keep it in mind when I’m with them.  We all have something to learn.  All of us.  

My mentor believed in me, still does. When we talk about his future professional plans and he mentions my role, his trust comes across loud and clear.  He is a respected certified dance educator, choreographer and artist.  His reputation is important to me.  When our school’s dance program was featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary it was exciting.  The children wore costumes and used props that I made!  Watching it premiere on PBS was unlike anything else I’ve ever witnessed.  It reminded me that I’m a part of something bigger, something important.  And I get to do all of it because someone believed in me. I’ve had tons of support while on this journey.  My husband, daughter, mom and siblings have always boosted me up and said I should go after my dreams. Vivian and M. took big chances.  They took their names and told me to do something great with them.  It’s always intense when someone sees you slightly better than you can really see yourself. When their confidence is more than enough for both of you.  And at times, it simply has to be.  At least at the onset.  

It’s been the journey of a lifetime, discovering all of the things I’ve learned about myself over the last year.  I told my husband and daughter the other evening that it’s been like waking up from a half-sleep situation.  You know what’s happening around you, but can’t truly participate for fear of the unknown.  Fear of causing yourself additional pain.  Fear of falling, literally and figuratively.  

But all that’s happened is survival and thriving.  I’m not concerned with being protected from life at this point.  I’ve spent over twenty years playing things safe, worrying about the what-if’s.  Not anymore.  I’m planning on fully living my life, in color, from now on.  It might hurt, might terrify me.  That is a risk I’m willing to take.  The reward is incredible.

So now I’m preparing for our spring show.  It’s going to be a big one.  But I’m ready, I always have been. 

Peace and painlessness, 

Becky

 

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