nine years old with nothing to prove

Growing up my family lived next door to a man named Mr. Data, a retiree with a green thumb and a patient ear.  Every day during warm months, I would come home from school and run to the backyard to tell Mr. Data all about my 7 year old friend drama while he fertilized his plants and (no doubt) considered selling his home.  In addition to giving me life advice, Mr. Data was an integral part of our backyard sibling wars, serving as my ally when my brothers held the basketball too high for me to reach.  He’d often console me by saying, “When people get old they shrink, so one day you’ll be bigger than them!” He didn’t specify when “one day” might arrive, so I’d often compare heights with my brother, just to check if he was starting to shrink.  

Being the youngest and the only girl came with it’s benefits.  I never wore hand-me-downs and I usually came out on top in sibling feuds.  It also meant I developed an obsession with proving myself at a really young age in my perpetual race to be big.  My brothers were so much older than me that I was almost always too young to participate in whatever they were doing.  Knowing I couldn't do something made me feel inferior, so I committed myself to proving I was big enough to do anything.  I learned how to cover the Risk board in pink army men, stood on benches to win at air hockey tournaments, and made myself sick winning meatball eating contests.  At some point, the line between doing something because I wanted to and doing something to prove I could became blurry.  

When I first quit school to start my storefront business I fought with one of my brothers about it for an entire year.  If I had to sum up the argument it was “why don’t you take your time” vs “why don’t I do it now”.  He had a famous piece of advice that I now quote often: “learn to fail in obscurity”.  At the time, failing in obscurity felt like something you’d say to someone you’re positive will fail.  It triggered the part of me still proving there was nothing I was too young or too small to win at.   And so I yelled at him, signed a 5 year commercial lease, and yelled at everyone else who told me to take my time.  

Doing things to prove something is actually strangely effective because it doesn’t rely on your ability to believe in yourself, it only relies on being stubborn.  People think starting a business takes confidence, but for me it just took an idea I was excited about and someone implying I wasn’t big enough to do it.  

In tiny storefront business terms, we actually did pretty well.  I got really good at diversifying (offering adult fitness classes) and running community events (offering people free wine) and after 6 months we had 5 dance classes running in the space.  I was exhausted, but when you’re running the race to prove yourself, the adrenaline’s high and there’s no amount of proverbial meatballs you can’t eat.  

In the spring of 2009, we were invited to perform at the Lincoln Square family festival.  In dance education world, this is a big win.  Community events are a great way to get in front of families while also giving your brand new students an opportunity to perform.  We arrived that day with two boomboxes, enough costumes for all 9 children and umbrellas as the forecast predicted rain.  Within the first 10 minutes we realized both of our boomboxes were broken so we ran across the street to buy a new one at Walgreens.  Meanwhile, our group of 9 four year olds began to get restless and by the time we realized this new boombox also would not play music, four of our kids were crying.  We assumed there was an issue with the outlets and pushed our performance back 15 more minutes to purchase batteries.  Our CD of classical renditions of children’s folk songs played for just a moment before fading out.  Upon opening the back of the boombox we realized that in a feat against science, this brand new set of batteries had melted inside this brand new boombox. Looking around the courtyard I realized we now had 5 crying dancers, an employee asking to go home, an audience who was now leaving, and no music for our students to dance to.  And then it began to drizzle.  Future me would like to reschedule this performance, 2009 me did something else.  “Tell everyone to get on stage and be ready I’ll be right back”.  I turned and ran to my car, drove it into the courtyard and up onto the sidewalk.  The kids were standing on stage, their costumes now drenched when I plugged my iPod into my car stereo, turned my volume all the way up and opened my car door in what I thought would be a valiant display of problem solving.  It was not.  Even turned all the way up, the volume from my car stereo could not compete with the rain and travel the distance to the stage.  Unfortunately, I was still visible to our group of now angry parents, who watched me stand outside my car, now soaked, blaring children's ballet music for no one but myself.  

I later received an email from the chamber of commerce apologizing for the outlets not working and Walgreens was happy to take back their melted stereo.  It kind of didn’t matter though.  The failure wasn’t in outlets not working or batteries melting.  It was realizing that under pressure, I chose to drive my car up on the sidewalk like I was in a 90’s rap video instead of acting like a business owner.  Because, as I was learning, being in charge of something was about more than being stubborn enough to keep going.  It was more than proving to yourself or others that you can do it.  In fact, you never “do it”.  You’re always in process and that’s the point.  

The months following that day were bleak.  We ran out of money several times, discovered a severe mold infestation and began a punishing and ultimately fruitless legal battle with the building owners.  Meanwhile, I was borrowing money from friends for groceries, watching my relationship with my boyfriend fall apart, and nearly had my car repossessed.  The months between that festival and the day we closed our doors were long, brutal and humbling.  But for some reason, that day with my car halfway up the curb, cursing the limits of my iPod’s volume will forever be the day that Design Dance felt like it died.  Clearly the company itself did not die, but this other thing - the thing where my choices were driven by a desire to prove I was old enough or big enough to do anything I wanted - that was dying.  And at the time it felt sad because I wasn’t sure what that meant about what I wanted.  But looking back I realize that it was giving way to this next phase where being small was actually my greatest asset.  

The summer after I had to leave the Design Dance space couldn’t have been more depressing.  I worked a mind numbing call center job to make ends meet while fighting with my parents about whether or not I should move home.  Meanwhile I couldn’t bring myself to part with the office furniture from the space, so it was all crammed into my tiny studio apartment, forcing me to climb over remnants of my failed business on the way to kitchen.  When I finally revisited Design Dance in the fall of 2010, it was out of desperation for a job and it was honestly boring.  I created a spreadsheet of every single school in the Chicagoland area and I called and emailed and called and emailed, every morning, Monday thru Friday.  I did it quietly.  I’d already failed at Design Dance so this color coded spreadsheet embarrassed me, even when I was all alone in my apartment.  But slowly, people started calling back and when they did, I did the work.  I drove around to any school that would have me and I asked a crazy amount of questions.  I took a million notes and every time I learned something new about working in schools, I’d shift my plan a little bit over and over and over again.  It was not glamorous and it was not particularly fun, but I was learning what I needed to learn to build something with foundation.  Allowing yourself to fail in obscurity means that you shut up and learn what you need to so when problems arise you don’t drive your car up on the sidewalk.  Being comfortable being small means building real confidence in what you can do, not blind defiance in what you want people to think you can do.  Nine years in, my job looks a lot more like what I thought it would in 2008 but it took a lot longer than I thought it would to get here. The funny thing is that over time I’ve become more proud of the work of building, and not as much the reward of winning.    

Essays, LearnedDebra Giunta