that time someone called me a bitch
Five years into running my business, I was still teaching 15 classes per week at studios in the suburbs to supplement my income. I was lucky because even though I was busy, teaching dance still fell under “doing what I loved”. The first class of Fall 2013 was particularly memorable. I had a class of 13 students, all at a similar ability level except for one. We’ll call her Maggie. On the first day I met Maggie, she entered the room confidently, walked right up to me, shook my hand and said, “Miss Debbie, I’m Maggie! I’m not a good dancer but I’m really happy to be here!” I laughed and responded the way that adults respond, “Oh Maggie, I’m sure you’re not bad at dancing!” She grinned at me and found her spot in line. As we dove into our class it became clear that Maggie was indeed remarkably, joyfully, truly bad at dancing. Each time she struggled with a step she’d look up at me with genuine amusement and said, “See? I’m not a good dancer!”, as if it were a party trick she was proud to show me. I was struck by the overwhelming dissonance between her joyful facial expression and negative self-talk.
Part of me wanted to correct her by saying that she wasn’t bad at dancing, and the other part of me was impressed and inspired by how well this 8 year old girl was able to smile at her shortcomings. Mid-way through our first class together, her classmates had become visibly frustrated and impatient. They sighed and rolled their eyes at how long Maggie was taking to learn her step. Before I could intervene, Maggie quickly turned to them, smiled and said “don’t worry guys, I’m getting it!” I was nothing short of speechless over this child’s level of confidence. ‘Who is this girls’ mother?!’, I wondered. At the end of class, I went out to the hallway to introduce myself to her mom out of sheer curiosity. Before I got to her, Maggie ran up to her and they had an exchange that I came to look forward to every week: “Did you learn something new?!” “Yes!! I did!” They both jumped up and down like they’d won the lottery. This mom had taught her daughter to find so much joy in learning that it made absolutely no difference whether or not she was objectively good or bad. By week three I had found many ways to re-work my class structure so that everyone felt challenged at their own pace. I later learned that Maggie had a developmental disability that impacted her gross motor skills. I’m not sure if she knew this about herself or not, but regardless, she showed up to class with joy, optimism and fierce dedication to learning something new. She quickly became the bright spot of my week. That is, until week 12.
Up until last year, I taught upwards of 10 classes per week while attempting to grow a business. This meant I was often multi-tasking, taking calls en route and fielding emergency texts between classes. On one particularly bad day, I had made an error when updating information on our website. It was an error that caused several parents to show up to class when there was no class, ruining their day and disappointing their children. I spent my ride to the suburbs that day fielding call after call from angry parents. I put on my best director voice, apologized, offered refunds, promised it wouldn’t happen again. My final call of the day was from a parent with whom this had happened multiple times. She’d had it (rightfully so). The only thing I remember from that conversation was her calling me a bitch and saying “you’re horrible at your job”. She hung up on me as I was pulling up to the studio. I was late so I jumped out of the car, slammed the door and ran into the studio to teach Maggie’s class.
I started class like a champ but by the middle I was struggling. The word “bitch” repeated itself over and over again in my head. I started spacing out while trying to help Maggie with her step for the day and I did the worst thing a teacher can do - I showed visible frustration to my student. My face got terse and I audibly sighed, “no, try it again’. I cringed at my own angry tone. She looked up at me completely unphased and smiled “Don’t worry, Miss Debbie, I’ll get it!”. I felt my face get hot and tears on their way up. I asked the studio assistant to watch my class and closed myself off in a bathroom stall. What was wrong with me? How could I get so frustrated with my most joyful student? How is it possible that I managed to screw up the schedule for these parents MULTIPLE times?! Why haven’t I quit this job that I’m horrible at yet?! Even more importantly, why was this 8 year old more self actualized than me?!
I took many deep breaths, did my best to collect myself and returned to class, half a person. I got home that night feeling defeated. All of the times I’ve screwed up someone’s schedule felt like they were sitting on my chest, on top of an elephant.
I have adult ADHD which means I’m really great at having the energy of 4 human adults and really bad at writing the right date on things or knowing what time it is. Much of my life after the age of 15 has felt like a fight to constantly find ways to compensate. If I can brag for a moment, I’m pretty fantastic at constantly compensating. I have employed an impressive number of time management tools and techniques I learned in cognitive therapy. But at the end of the day, I’m Debra and I’m really bad at administrative work. Full stop.
If you’ve ever been bad at something before, you know that everytime you’re a little bit bad at it, every single time you’ve ever been bad at it floods your brain. There’s no way for me to screw up someone’s registration without thinking about inverting all my answers to math tests in high school or the time I drove all the way to Indiana when I thought I was driving to a dinner in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. So when it leads to someone you’ve never met calling you a bitch, it’s hard not to wonder if you’re better off not doing a job you clearly aren’t capable of doing well.
The following week I saw Maggie again and tried extra hard to show her I wasn’t a horrible person. It was incredible how unaffected she was by my frustration from the previous week. Her experience of being in dance class and knowing she wasn’t as good as the other students seemingly had no affect on her ability to enjoy the class. When you’re an adult working with kids it’s easy to cringe when they think they’re bad at something. It’s easy to find yourself immediately correcting them when they make seemingly self-derogatory statements. At a certain point, I stopped going out of my way to correct her language and started following her mom’s lead - joining her in laughter when she struggled and celebrating the excitement and newness of learning.
It’s hard not to wonder if a lifetime of people correcting us when we notice our own shortcomings means that by the time we’re adults trying to navigate our own career we end up crying in bathroom stalls when forced to come to terms with our insecurities. What’s clear to me is that when I stopped trying to be good at every aspect of my job, my job actually became enjoyable. I also made the right decision when choosing to hire a detail oriented administrator as my first employee. Even more importantly, I didn’t resent her. Had I been living under the assumption that I was supposed to be good at everything, she would have always been a threat to me. Instead, learning to run my business by wearing my own failures on my sleeve has given me the power to leave space for other people to excel around me. And learning to leave space for other people to excel around me began to shoulder the weight of the insecurities that had always followed me around. This allowed space for my actual strengths to find a home in my job. Not to mention, people hardly ever call me a bitch now! As for Maggie, I can only imagine she’s a bad-ass teenager now, allowing absolutely no one to break her spirit.