A few nights ago I finally had a chance to watch Pixar’s movie Inside Out. (Pico-review: I loved it.) One concept it uses (not a spoiler) is that some of our memories are “core memories” that anchor our personality, things that become central to the person we are; they are not immutable but they are very strong.
I assume we can all think of a few moments that stay with us through life, to which we turn back repeatedly either to recapture them or with the burning wish to redeem them. I can think of several, but there is one in particular that for four decades has been central to me. It’s the one that I think reflects the best that is in me, that represents the person I want to be, I try daily to choose to be. (So yeah, it’s a core memory that makes me look good, but rest assured that I have some that are not as proud. Another day’s tale.)
My mom had always tried to have my little sister and I participate in after-school activities: swimming and tennis lessons, kids’ day camps, etc.. We had been taking ballet classes in a program sponsored by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and I loved it, even though I was painfully shy. It was very difficult for me, like for a lot of bookish nerdy kids, to make conversation with strangers, let alone make friends, so various classes were generally a blur of me trying to follow along what others did without asking questions of other kids or otherwise attracting their attention.
When I was ten, we moved from my small beloved little home town to a slightly larger but more closed-in, more economically-depressed, more demographically uniform town. Hey, moving, just like the protagonist in Inside Out! The new town had a ballet class but one taught independently outside the sponsorship program. Instead of being divided by experience and age group, a large crowd of little girls (no boys in this one that I can recall, one or two in the previous one) milled around with little direction. Instead of getting directed warm-up exercises, we were left to our own devices until the instructor would decide to start the lesson. I was moving in a haze of disorientation.
This instructor was a bitter, stringy woman who clearly hated us all. Instead of the encouragements and gentle corrections by example I had been used to, she publicly mocked mistakes and humiliated the unlucky. Naturally, I tried very hard to stay unnoticed in the background.
It was only a handful of classes before I got myself in trouble.
One of the very youngest and tiniest girls, about four years old, didn’t know her left from her right. When she mimicked other girls, she therefore used the mirror-image. The instructor would mock her but never say what was going on, just deriding the girl. It had happened already at the previous class, but other girls had been more of a focus for mockery; however, that particular day, the little one was the choice target. To “correct” her, the instructor started wordlessly using a pen and writing Xs on the girl’s pretty pink ballet slipper. The little girl was in tears.
And something in me snapped.
I just couldn’t take this shit anymore. I knew exactly how mean the instructor would be if I spoke up. But I had to. I felt myself reaching across a vast gulf of time and holding hands with the adult I would be one day, drawing strength. No, this is not a metaphor, I really felt this way.
Then I spoke in a voice that didn’t even seem my own but my adult voice: “She doesn’t know her left from her right, she’s too small. It serves no purpose to mock her, she doesn’t understand.”
The instructor whirled on me, eyes narrowed. She gave me a tongue-lashing for being so haughty and fancy, what with my “Grands Ballets Canadiens” training (whoops, shouldn’t have even mentioned it when I signed up!) I pretty much ignored it because it really didn’t reach me where it hurts. When she had her back to me, I would signal to the littlest girl what foot to use. Eventually got caught. Got called ugly and stupid, “looking like a witch.”
Intent on revenge, the instructor then started us on long, excessive stretches, eyeing me and me alone. I stayed in for a good while but it became clear that she was punishing everyone to punish me so I finally stopped, gave a little bow and said “I give up, you can let them go now.” Mean Instructor cackled and said venomously, “Maybe you should have done warm-up exercises when it was time.” I calmly answered, “In the Grands Ballets Canadiens, we had directed warm-ups.” Zing!
She made me move back, and back, and back in the ranks, saying it was so she wouldn’t have to look at me because I was “so ugly.” (Yeah, I knew it was a self-image attack; I wasn’t unusually pretty but I certainly knew I was not a particularly ugly child.)
By then, I was a nervous wreck inside, but I made it through the class without crying in front of anyone. At the end I barely reach mom’s car and then lost it, of course. I told her the tale and then never managed to go back. Mom sighed a bit, the classes were paid through the rest of the month, but didn’t try to force me back.
It was a harrowing experience, but one of my proudest moments. I had decided to stand up for someone else, and I had behaved with strength of character. This was the person I wanted to be.
If this was Inside Out, I think the memory would have had the colours of all five inner voices, probably dominated by Anger’s red — and eventually Joy’s gold.