When I picked up nine-year-old Abigail, she was subdued. I thought perhaps she was exhausted. School had been followed by a two-hour rehearsal for the dance recital. She curled against the door, head half-cradled in her arms.
She nodded. ``But that's not it.''
``No? What then?''
Simultaneously, I watched the road and tried to study her face, marveling at how she had changed in the past year. She's not little anymore, I thought. I can't kiss her and make it all better. She has to learn her own lessons now.
She sighed deeply, and I saw the quiver of her chin, a prelude to tears.
``I'm not good!'' she burst out. ``I'm just no good at this. I can't do the recital! I'll look like an idiot!''
Abigail's image is important to her, more important than I can remember mine being at her age, but perhaps my memory is faulty.
She always wants to be sure of her ground, to know what she is doing, and to feel confident in doing it well.
I have seen her study for parts in school plays and in community theater with adult seriousness, learning not only her lines, but those of the people around her so she'd be sure to come in on cue. She has prompted other players, adrift in stage fright, in an effort to ensure the success of the whole production.
She takes her work very seriously and is intolerant of anything less than perfection in herself, if not in others. And while on occasion I can see how difficult that intolerance has made life for her and for those of us who love her, I cannot help but respect it as well.
But she needs to give herself space in which to try and fail, space in which to grow. She needs to learn that the attempt, even a failed one, is no less wonderful than perfection. The attempt, overcoming the fear of failure, builds courage. It is a lesson not taught, but absorbed.
``Why do you think you're no good?'' I asked after a moment.
She threw up her hands as though unable to find the words to explain.
``Has anyone said anything to you?''
She shook her head.
``I think you're expecting too much of yourself,'' I said gingerly, knowing I could be precipitating a storm of protest. ``I think you've improved tremendously since you began.''
``Parents always say that!'' she cried in exasperation.
``But what if it's true?''
``Parents won't tell you you're awful, because they don't want to hurt your feelings. They want kids to feel good about themselves!''
It is a hard line to walk - encouraging without being too laudatory, correcting without crushing. I often seem to find myself on the wrong side of the line.
``Have you talked to Faith?'' Faith, older by one year, with two years more experience at ballet, was Abigail's toughest critic and most supportive admirer. Abby shook her head in silence.
``Faith will tell you what she really thinks. Why don't you call her?'' I prodded. I knew that Faith, in an act of love, would encourage Abigail to try, just as she has learned to try despite her own doubts.
Abby curled up as though to put an end to the discussion. I fell silent, still debating with myself the parental questions.
Where was the line between respect for her decision and teaching perseverance? Should I insist that she go?
We didn't speak about the matter until the next day.
``I don't think I want to be a dancer,'' she informed me abruptly when she came down to breakfast.
She has wanted to dance since she was 3. I had never seen the discipline for practice in her, but I have seen enough of the world to be willing to encourage her to try.
``No one's forcing you to be a dancer,'' I replied, having begun to think more clearly about what her withdrawal at the last minute would mean to her fellow dancers in the teacher's carefully choreographed recital piece.
``I'm not going to the recital.''
There it was: the challenge. I was thankful she had waited until the next day to make it with such conviction.
``What about the other dancers? Won't your being absent leave a big gap?''
She thought about that a moment, about her place in the fabric of this one piece, about each member's part in the integrity of the whole.
``And what about Miss Becky?'' I continued. ``She's worked really hard. This is her moment, too.''
Abigail had fallen silent, and on her face was a stopped-in-her-tracks meditative look.
Without a word, she turned on her heel and walked off. Once again, I found it hard to know when to push and when to back off with my children. My mother pushed me into ballet class. It was she who had wanted to be the dancer, not me. Her prodding had been well-intentioned, but I purposely got myself thrown out.
But this had been Abigail's idea. It was her own bargain that she must fulfill. I said nothing more. She went off to ruminate.
On Saturday morning, I went upstairs to wake her for the recital. There was no discussion: She offered no argument, voiced no reservations. She rose and raced up and down the stairs, collecting her costume and gear in a dramatic frenzy.
Sitting in the car on the way to town, she held herself rigid, steeling herself for what she feared would be the worst morning of her life. Yet, as fearful as she was, she had decided to go.
The dress rehearsal was a turmoil of last-minute costume adjustments and hair disasters, all pulled together in time for the opening number. The audience of parents, grandparents, and siblings was crammed into one side of the church hall; the dancers had command of the other.
Abigail waited across the room in a corner, commiserating with three of her classmates. She patted one of the girls, then smiled. And in that smile, I saw renewed confidence. She had seen, reflected in her friend's eyes, her own doubt. She was no longer alone.
She remembered every step, every turn, counting out the measures, moving in rhythm with the others.
As she turned for the last arabesque, she flashed me a grin that made my heart leap. On that Saturday morning in the basement of the church, Abby had discovered triumph in the attempt.
She had overcome her fear enough to try.