On the Cusp of Inhibition
The 20-minute drive to Willcox Middle School from my temporary home begins just before sunrise. I watch the sky go from black to grey to blue to pink, orange, yellow. I am fixating on the sky when I notice the long gray ribbon undulating moving across it. Birds? Yes, birds! I see another ribbon then another, and another. Sandhill cranes!
The sandhill cranes winter by the thousands at the Willcox Playa, traveling from Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Canada and northeastern Siberia. At sunrise they set off for nearby fields to feed. I look for them every morning—thin, gray, moving ribbons in the sky. Their formations are elegant and varied. Not strict Vs, but looser and shifting—sometimes a single rippling line, sometimes two curved lines that join at a cusp.
How inherently beautiful their flying is. How lucky I am, as a human, to witness. Their formations are purposeful, no doubt, but they’re not dancing for my sake. They probably don’t even know I’m watching. And even if they did, I don’t think they’d care.
The Willcox Middle School sits directly adjacent to the high school just south of I-10. It is a series of squat red brick buildings separated by concrete. There is a barely a tree on the grounds, which makes everything feel parched and frozen. In early December, the morning is frigid. I can see my breath.
I have five classes, four 6th grade science classes and one 7th grade art class full of kids who, I’m told ahead of time, don’t really want to be there. Linda Rothschiller teaches all five classes. She’s a small-framed woman with a big supply of hospitality. She greets me in the parking lot every day, escorts me to my classroom, and each day gifts me something—a croissant, a fruit smoothie, chocolate bar, hard candy.
My room is an art room at the far end of the campus. There is no heat and the floor is cold concrete. I keep my jacket on.
Willcox schools adopted a 4-day school week this year, which limits the time I have with the students. I decide to focus on movement basics with them and pull in some of their science content on natural disasters by week’s end. The sixth graders are eager to arrive and eager to participate. They do the warm-up with me easily, happily following along, laughing and enjoying themselves. They readily make movements to go with their names and are joyous about rolling and sliding on the floor and genuinely enthusiastic about making shapes with partners. Yay, I think. This is going to be fun.
And then the 7th graders come. They’re less eager. To put it mildly. Most of them are too cool to move. Too embarrassed, too shy, too full of a certain kind of attitude that doesn’t allow for rolling shoulders and hips and certainly not rolling on the floor.
A month or so ago, at Double Adobe Elementary, I marveled at the developmental differences between kindergartners and first and second graders. Kindergarteners cannot make a shoulder-to-shoulder line, much less three of them in a row, without adult assistance. Nor can they make varied shapes and poses with their bodies on their own—they need to copy an adult. But by first grade they can line up in formation relatively quickly, find their own poses and hold them, and even memorize steps to a dance. In less than a year they gain spatial awareness, physical motor skills, and muscle memory.
Here I marvel at the developmental differences between 6th and 7th graders. But it’s not a progressive development. It’s more like a regression. The 7th graders have not forgotten how to move, they simply refuse to. Arms fold on the chest. Legs cross. Heads turn down. Eyes avert. Faces wince.
I know better than to make them do the same activities as 6th graders, so I opt for a basic warm up and then go for simply teaching them social dances I know. Salsa? Merengue? Samba? The Charleston? I start with Samba Reggae, which is relatively fresh in my mind and has some easy steps. Of the 30 students in this particular 7th grade class (!), I end up with about 12 who are willing to move. Half of these are cool girls who probably have taken dance class before. The other half are dorky boys. Hallelujah for dorks. All the rest sit out, too cool for school.
I manage to teach a short combination of samba reggae and the willing seem to enjoy it, though it can’t be all that easy with the too-coolers in the back laughing. I commend their effort and promise them that later in life all the cool people become losers and all the dorks become cool. Their teacher backs me up. It’s true, is it not?
Against the apathy of the 7th graders, I put more attention on the 6th graders. I notice how they come into the room with enthusiasm, how they pay attention to me, listening for directions. I watch them spin and slide. During one class, I lose myself for a moment watching a girl in pink slacks awkwardly spin herself around in an arabesque. It’s not necessarily a move filled with grace, but it overflows with effort and earnestness.
That’s it. Earnestness. The 6th graders have it. They go for it. They don’t hold back. There is no filter, there is no shame.
So what is it that happens between 6th and 7th grade? Why does the body close up and the mind take over? Why do we become so self-conscious? And why do so many stay that way forever?
I should add that while I’m willing to roll on the floor now as adult, I wasn’t exempt from the self-consciousness as a teenager. I remember my mortification when the apprentice dance company I was part of came to perform at my high school. I was 14. I didn’t want to perform. But I had to. I hated every minute of it. And I was a girl who loved dancing. But I was embarrassed in front of my peers.
Is there some evolutionary purpose for this adolescent body shut down? How does it benefit us to no longer be willing to dance, be silly, run, jump, play? Or is this purely an acculturated response?
Surely hormones have something to do with it. The biology of attraction. It’s suddenly important to appear sensible and presentable, the body thinks, in order to attract a mate. If we do the steps—or the jump or turn or slide—wrong, we risk appearing undesirable. Rationally, this doesn’t make all that much sense to me. Personally, I’m 100 times more drawn to someone who’s willing to slide across the floor than the one cowering in the corner. But I suppose the biology of attraction isn’t all that rational.
But if sex is the reason, why are teenagers so afraid to move their pelvises? When I introduce the crumping step (a quick bootie thrusting move), not one of the students is willing to do it. Again, is it the fear of doing it wrong? Or is it the overall discomfort with being seen as a sexual being, even if some part of the brain wants that? Or is it that our bodies are undergoing a massive change and have become utterly unfamiliar, even frightening, to us?
Or is it less about the body and more about the brain? During adolescence our thoughts become more sophisticated (believe it or not). We gain a greater capacity to reason and more control and coordination over our thoughts. That might explain why we’re more self-conscious. Instead of instinctively running or sliding or spinning across the floor, we now stop to think about it first, which allows plenty of time for the censors to turn on.
Those censors, of course, have everything to do with how we’ll be perceived by others. Friends are very important for adolescents. And which friends we have tends to influence what we’ll do or won’t do, be that studying drinking, smoking pot, or dancing. And because we’re so desperate to belong, most of us will pretend we like being drunk or pretend we don’t like dancing just to be accepted.
We want to join the flock. It’s safer to fly that way.
So maybe that’s the secret. If all the 7th graders danced, in one big flock, then no single one of them would have to worry about standing out.
I wish it were true. But people and birds are different. Sadly. Beyond just the flying thing, birds don’t care if they’re being watched. They don’t worry what others will think of them. They just do their thing.
This week the birds and 6th graders teach me about abandon. They dance like no one is watching.
Each day with them, my heart aches more for the unfortunate truth of that. One afternoon, as I watch the 6th graders move so freely, I think, “This is it. They’re right on the cusp.” I even cry a little.
Watching the 7th graders, self-conscious and too cool and missing out, I wonder, “Will they ever get it back?”
I hear often from people older 65 that the self-consciousness eventually drops away. We stop caring so much about what we look like, what we wear, what we say. We return to that child-like sense of earnestness.
I’m so glad to hear that. But does that mean we might spend the 50 years in between 14 and 65 missing out on joy because we’re too afraid what others will think?
Please say it isn’t so.
Lest we run that risk, here’s some advice given by my friend Jen Hoefle a few weeks ago. She was sending well wishes for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Don’t forget the pelvic circle!” she said, moving her hips in a giant circle to demonstrate. “Cooking, setting the table, talking, pouring wine. It’s all more fun with a pelvic circle.”
Try it. Right now. Don’t worry, no one is watching. And even if they are, why not take a risk?
Do it for your 6th-grade self. For your 65-year-old self. For the birds. For Santa. For joy.