So You Think You Can’t?

As a professor of English, Bob Blaisdell sympathizes with his students when they struggle with writing assignments. But it's nothing compared to the truckloads of pity he feels for himself when trying to learn to dance.

January 22, 2016
 

I turn and pause, and I know I have only one step to take.

She sees before I even understand it that I’m blocked. My face is frozen, my eyes blank. Vera, on her toes, raises a forefinger. We’ll catch the next go-round.

My dance instructor is ever encouraging and perfectly tactful, but I burn with shame.

The other couples are moving. They occasionally stumble, but they continue. I’m blocked the way a wind-up toy is blocked by a wall, its feet nevertheless churning. Even when there is no literal wall, there is sometimes a figurative wall in front of me, and it feels as if my feet have only the one-two rhythm, side to side. I cannot go forward or backward, although one of my feet must. But which one? And then what?

The motion has to flow, and I cannot. It is the ever-intensifying faintheartedness of leaping into a cold lake or off a diving board, or while driving onto a freeway trying to merge with a stream of cars.

I would go, but I can’t.

“We’ll try again,” says Vera. She offers her hands, and I can do that, I can take them.

I’ve never been able to dance unself-consciously except while clowning it up for my own kids and nieces. I signed up for Vera’s dance lessons because I wanted to please my wife. Suzanne deserves a husband who can dance in public, I tell myself -- the thought of which increases rather than diminishes the pressure.

Get loose, Bob! Relax!

After all, as an English professor at a community college, I continually encourage my hesitant students to let go, to write freely -- not to answer or please me but to show themselves what they’re thinking. I tell them they can write their panic right down on the paper.

“But I’m stuck.”

“Write that.”

“What?”

“Write, ‘I’m stuck …’ and then ask the question you know I’d ask: ‘Why?’ And then continue with ‘because …’ And go on like that. You always have the room to write what’s going on in your head right now.”

And Vera has said pretty much the same to me: I always have the room to move my feet and create the space I want, that remembering the steps or forgetting them needn’t stop me from moving. My feet still work, and the music keeps playing, and she or my wife is waiting for me …. So while trying to decide where to move, don’t stop -- just move!

“It’s life, it’s rhythm, and you can do it with or without the music, with or without the steps,” says Vera. “You’re confused because you’re blocking your body with your own thoughts.”

But “I’m not thinking,” I want to tell her. I’m shutting down. I’m trying to listen to her, to the music, to my memory.

In the classroom, I sympathize with my students when I see them stuck, but I know now it’s nothing compared to the truckloads of pity I feel for myself on the dance floor.

I try to trick the students into experiencing (not “learning” but doing!) various ways of dealing with anxieties about writing. But Donald -- 19 years old, a native speaker of English, not unintelligent, obeying the law I wish I would obey on the dance floor -- stumps me. He plunges in, never looks back, no hesitations, no regrets!

In class, I watch him, and I’m impressed. His pen is moving all the time, ink covering line after line. But when I get home to my rhythmically consoling rocking chair where I do most of my marking, I read on and on, confused by Donald’s plainspoken nothingness and carelessness. One phrase thoughtlessly follows one another: “Nick was idean in a boat on water and don’t know the idean lady and the husband takes his ax out and makes the baby born and the doctor named George saw this and liked smoking with ideans.”

He even carelessly miscopies the title of “Indian Camp,” calls the author not Hemingway but “earnest” and hops and skips along, summarizing the story into long curls of nonsense that would bring him up short if he only registered what he was saying, but he tumbles on, lest he notice what he’s written. He is scrupulous about not looking at what he’s written because, he tells me one day, it would freeze him.

“Did you read what you just wrote?” I ask as he rises up, half crouched, writing the last phrase of what was supposed to be a response to, not a summary of, the story.

“To be honest, no,” he responds, walking up and handing me the paper.

“You have to.”

“Really, Professor … it’s forward or nowhere. I can’t.”

The other students are listening.

“You can.”

He avoids my eyes but makes tiny shakes of his head. I don’t like putting him on the spot. “Hold on to this,” I say, pointing to the paper, “and take a break. And come back and try to read it just the way you read somebody else’s work.”

He takes it and goes back to his desk. He sits a moment, then gets up and puts it in his folder and slides the folder into his backpack. He nods at me, and then he walks past with his pack and says, “I’ll be back in a few.”

Is Donald really to be the person I model myself upon on the dance floor? He doesn’t come back for a week!

I ask him the following Tuesday, “Do you still have your response to ‘Indian Camp’?”

“The what?” He looks for a minute in his bag. “This?” He pinches it like a dirty diaper and reluctantly offers it to me.

But wait, there’s also Marya, who dashingly composes first in Ukrainian and then into a peculiar English -- an English she has never heard or read before. Back home, she has told me, she wrote hundreds of essays, and though I try to discourage her and other ESL students from composing in their native languages, she tells me that the Ukrainian is a constant stream that can’t be shut off.

Her writing for class is a kind of argument with English, as if she imagines she’s showing the English grammar how to reform itself: “According to me, Nicholas is child who both neither death nor being born knowledge they have given him to understand. Father, by me, is made pathos by act of many sufferings seen by son.” She’s in touch with her own private “Ukrainlish” and -- this is true (she’s argued the point with me) -- I usually understand her perfectly, so why fuss?

I try to explain: “Because the writing makes me …” I cringe (which is a visual aid I hope she gleans) and try to think of another word that conveys cringe. “It reads with a thick accent,” I say, “and while I love accents in speech, I can’t help thinking we don’t want to show it in writing if we can help it.” I don’t mention how she unrepentantly crowbars English grammar into places it’s never been.

I decide I could try Donald’s method as a dancer and go blank and ignore my own incoherent moves, or I could try Marya’s method. I could wrench my partner (my wife, lucky girl!) around the floor, listening to an inner rhythm that bends the music and my partner to it. Or I could keep doing what I have been doing, stumbling and halting, my face borscht red, my wife and Vera hopefully and anxiously awaiting my improvement.

Bio

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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