The girls are singing with Ne-Yo in the back of the bus - “Give me everything tonight” - riding their post-competition high as we drive home in the dark Vermont afternoon sunset. My heart aches to indeed give them everything because in this moment of young play the possibilities seem endless for these teenagers. They are riding easy after the pressures of performing in front of their peers and judges, evaluating their movements, group cohesion, and facials. The pressure of the first competition of the season for this high school dance team has fallen away and left them with open hearts ready to just be with each other.
These moments feel all too rare with many of my high schoolers. Sometimes I enter practice unsure of what I will be walking into. Although I often feel close to my teenage years, the work of being a teenager is intensely more challenging for many of these kids than I remember from my own well-supported adolescence.
What does it mean to ask for excellence from kids who are fighting an uphill-battle to just show up? There are sick days, both physical and psychological, days where no one shows up to give you a ride, days where you wonder if you can pass your classes to keep participating in a sport, days where your romantic relationships seem to eat you alive, days where you don’t know who your friends are, and days where it’s hard to put one foot in front of another let alone get into that shoulder stand.
Yet here I am at the front of the room every practice asking my kids to take it to the next level, shouting orders and bouncing around in cowgirl boots. They are used to my brushing off excuses, telling them to dig deeper, or rolling my eyes as I take in the latest version of “but, but, but!” I know that these kids can dance as deeply as they feel. I know they can and must find something in themselves that they didn’t know they had. They are capable of more than they may realize and our work is to uncover that in the midst of all this seemingly overwhelming drama that is living. I know the time I have with these kids is precious for all of us and we can’t let it be anything less than awe-inspiring even if it breaks us down a little bit in the process.
I was dancing in the bleachers with one of my students today when she turned to me and said, “Ashley, you’re just like a teenager.” I smiled and said, “I hope I seem like a mature teenager,” but I was grateful that for a moment that she saw this silly dancing as part of being the work of being a teenager. Here we are, riding the bus back to Springfield, to our every day lives after experiencing something that demanded heart and courage, and these kids are belting out every pop song this incredibly gracious bus driver is indulging them in. My heart breaks for a moment when I sense how much they feel by just being and I’m grateful they are willing to share.