The tiny dancers take their bows and skip offstage, buoyed by clouds of pink tulle. Raucous applause follows, then dies down, and the stage lights go black. The theater settles into hushed darkness; no wrappers rustle, no babies fuss, no one whispers loudly for silence. It's as if, collectively, we are holding our breath. My solar plexus might be fused to my spine, for all the air I can draw.
Each spring for the past seven years, I have sat in this theater in our adopted home—a rural mountain town in Montana—and watched my daughter Nina perform in the annual dance recital, along with a significant portion of the town's youth. The recitals are lively and entertaining, hilarious and sweet, always too long, and always full of surprises. Unlike at a musical performance or soccer tournament, parents have not been privy to the practices. We know we'll get a good show, but that's all we know.
Nina was six at her first recital. A butterfly of a girl with expressive eyes, a quick mind, and dancing feet, she was fond of red glitter shoes and clashing prints. Back then, the bullying at school was subtle: poorly disguised whispers, backs turned just far enough, laughs ending abruptly or—worse—following her as she walked by.
"Give it time," my husband and I told her. "They just need to get to know you." Years would pass before we understood that she would always be an outsider. She would always be a target.
One afternoon, Nina's second-grade teacher called, asking me to come pick Nina up after school. I was confused; I'd arranged a playdate for Nina that day with one of her classmates. Nina rushed tearfully into my arms when I arrived, burying her head in my shoulder while her classmate's mother explained that her daughter had been invited to another girl's house, and—she shrugged and smiled, oblivious to the smirks of her daughter and the other girl—what was a mother to do? Her child had changed her mind.
I stared at the woman, shocked. But perhaps I shouldn't have been. After the earlier incidents at school, I had tried talking to a few parents. Surely, they wouldn't want their kids treating another child this way? I never got anywhere. "There's something about Nina," they always said.
I thought about my daughter, about her enormous blue eyes already shuttering to grey. I couldn't fathom what they meant. When I pressed, the parents said it was nothing—just something, always that vague something—which I understood to mean that they believed my daughter deserved to be shunned by their children.
That day, in the car on the way home, I suggested that Nina try not to let them see that they could so easily upset her. This was the advice I had gleaned from books about bullying. The experts were all very firm: the victim's weakness and isolation make her a target, and her show of pain incites the bullies to torment her further. "Don't make a scene," they admonished, "and the bullies will grow bored and move on. Don't show any reaction at all, unless of course you can laugh it off. That's the best response."
This was what I told my little girl, who sat behind me in the back seat wearing a green turtleneck and a denim jumper that buttoned over one shoulder, her small hands still dimpled over the knuckles. That was what I told her, even though I knew it was impossible for her—for anyone—to do. I didn't know what else to say.
I know nothing about her dance this year, except that Nina, now 12, is to be the Enchanted Lady. For weeks, she and the ballet teacher have spent extra practices working on her piece. There have been hushed phone calls between them and a building excitement about the costume.
Shortly before each recital, the director of the dance school creates a poster featuring the costumes each class will wear, an advance press leak to whet the appetite of adoring fans. This year, when the poster went up, Nina's costume was curiously absent. I have done my best to weasel details out of her. She has been uncharacteristically mum.
By third grade, the bullying had escalated to outright pointing and jeering, and a scuffle on the playground, the first time Nina had ever pushed back at her tormenters. Afterward, she was made to stand in front of the class and apologize. "Nina is responsible for her own behavior," her teacher told us later.
My husband Ray and I did not dispute this, but surely the teacher had witnessed the other girls elbowing her out of games, pushing her out of line, ostentatiously circling their wagons to keep her out?
No, her teacher insisted. She hadn't.
Back at home, I shouted at Ray, "So why is Nina responsible for everyone else's behavior?"
"I know it's bad for Nina," the school counselor said when I called, desperate. "I find her treatment by the children—and some of the teachers—to be personally distasteful, but I have to be honest with you. There's very little I can do to stop it."
This was before bullying became recognized nationally as the pernicious and damaging phenomenon that it is, but I'll never understand the lack of response from the school.
In the minutes before the show began, Ray ejected the video camera battery and reseated it, and I read the program. This year, a story runs through the recital: the tale of a king and his beautiful dancing daughters, a magic spell and a knight. And an Enchanted Lady—Nina—who will dance in the forest and present the knight with a magic cloak, rendering him invisible.
We love stories. When all else fails—and in our case, all else has failed—there are always stories. I have scoured the library and our own shelves for tales in which girls rely on their own wits, rather than waiting for rescue. Don't give up, the stories say.
In fourth grade, the bullying became more physically violent—not more hurtful than the emotional bullying that preceded it, but more recognizable, even to the adults who considered bullying a childhood rite of passage. Finally, Nina's teachers agreed to meet with my husband and me to figure out a way to support our daughter.
A day before the meeting, the principal called to cancel the meeting. "You back off," she said. "There is no bullying in my school."
Nina appeared in the opening number as one of the king's daughters, and later as a court jester. The story unfolded; little girls in pink tutus skipped and twirled, bowed and exited—and now, in the silence and darkness, it's time for Nina's solo.
Wait! I want to tell everyone. She can't be ready yet.
I want to slow things down, to pause the clock. I need to breathe, I realize. Just give me a moment to breathe. But no one hears me, and the theater is dark, so no one sees me grip the back of the seat in front of me.
A single spotlight illuminates the stage—the forest—and the sound of wind fills the air. The knight, lost, stumbles across the stage and exits, just as three dancers, wide sheets of black fabric outstretched behind them, are blown across, leaving behind a fourth dancer, lying hidden beneath another black cloak. One toe peeks out from a corner of the fabric, and I fix on it, my heart pounding, as a drum beats, and the sound of rain begins. The drumbeat rises as the three dancers return, black sheets billowing about them, a thin thread of music trailing behind the drums. They are the storm, flashing, while the fourth dancer lies utterly still, as if she has been forgotten.
In the middle of Nina’s fourth grade year, we pulled her out to home school. She seemed relieved, but her eyes remained shadowed and watchful, her feet still quiet, her step heavy. A week later, at the ice rink, one of the school mothers, a woman who didn't usually speak to me beyond a "hi-how-are-you" in passing, glided over and leaned her head toward mine. In a low, confidential voice, she told me that she was so relieved we had taken Nina out of school. Her daughter, she said, had often come home in tears over what the other kids were doing or saying to Nina.
Before New Year's Day, we went to the rink again, where I encountered another mother who told me the same thing. She felt terrible, she said. It was a good thing that we'd taken Nina out, she said. The bullying had been so very difficult for her kid.
In my lesser moments, I wondered if these mothers felt absolved for their inaction after telling me these things. They knew what Nina was enduring, and they did nothing. They said nothing. Except for myself, these mothers have been the hardest to forgive. It is our job as parents to protect children, if nothing else: all children, and our own, most of all. In that, I failed.
My heart almost breaks as Nina lies motionless while the other girls leap about. That one exposed toe seems so vulnerable. As much as I want to see her costume and her dance, I want just as much—or more—to pull the fabric over that toe and keep her hidden. Then the music swells, the storm churns, the drums are more insistent, and the huddled mound that is my daughter begins to rise, slowly, until she's standing with her back to us, still encased in the black cloak. She throws her arms wide—ah, now we’ll see her—but no. She turns, her arms crossed high above her head, still fully enclosed in black, in night, only her slim feet and the ruffled white hem of her long skirt showing below the cloak.
She steps forward, her feet graceful, and then she takes another step and throws wide the fabric, letting it cascade to the floor behind her.
My heart nearly stops, so shocked am I by what emerges from that black cocoon.
It has been two years since Nina left public school, but in a small community, there is no real escape. She withdraws from all activities except ballet. The bullies are there, too, so she steels herself before each class. At home, though, she sheds her armor, abandoning our world for those of Harry Potter and Tamora Pierce. She spends hours tending our animals and has begun, once again—to my heart's soaring delight—to tap out syncopated rhythms on the wooden planks of our porch. Progress, but nothing has prepared me for what I see on the stage this afternoon.
Nina is all in white, her sleeves gossamer, her skirt draped and long, so it falls heavily about her, yet swings lightly when she turns, following her feet, completing the arcs they draw. Her neck is long and supple, her dark hair swept up, held in place by six tiny white roses. And her face: it is clear and delicate, but as she moves with the music through her forest, I note the gravity in her expression, the composure. Now the storm returns—the three dancers—and with one gesture, Nina silences and dismisses them.
Here, she has that power—to move the storm, any storm. Yet though her presence is so forceful, she moves as lightly as the dawn, her feet touching the stage as softly as wings. Her forest dance is as ephemeral as a dream, and just so, it is over. The music quiets as Nina beckons to the knight waiting in the wings, a gangling boy with giant, sneakered feet who tries to look awed and—sweet boy—only manages to achieve awkward as he approaches her.
Nina offers him her hand, and he takes it. The spell is broken.
For one last moment, she is the Enchanted Lady again, and her feet and skirt swirl around him, encircling him in the cloak. The final measures of the music cascade down as she drifts behind the curtains like a last wisp of fog in the morning sun.
There's a smattering of applause, and the house lights come up for intermission. People stand and stretch, walk up the aisle to the concession stand, or turn to chat with neighbors. Dumbly, I sit in my seat, staring at the empty stage.
A different daughter emerged out of that black cloak. I don't know when it happened, but Nina has crossed some invisible threshold, perhaps as she lay beneath the cloak, just a toe showing, waiting for her moment. She knew that some in this audience were hostile to her and that most were simply indifferent. She cast that knowledge aside like the black fabric of her magic invisibility cloak, announcing calmly, and with grace, "I am here. Just watch me."
My heart, for a moment free of its burden of failure, cries out silently, And I am here. I will always, if nothing else, be here. And I see you. I see you.
That may be the only real protection I can ever give her.