The only job I have ever had where I have not been working in service of children was at a temp position I had one summer working for Sun Microsystems. I got placed as an admin in the marketing division. As people began to know me and trust that I could do the work they needed me to do efficiently and well, they would stop by my desk to chat. They would say, "You know there’s a job opening writing promotion copy that you would be good at. You should apply for that job.” I would explain that I was busy applying for teaching jobs and was sure I would get one by the fall. “Teaching? Uhh, there’s not any money in that,” they would tell me solemnly. Equally solemnly, I would thank them for their insights and for thinking of me.
WE CAN ONLY DO WHAT WE KNOW
I relate this story because even though my college degree hadn’t been in marketing or communications, I think I could have very likely been hired for that job—and been good at it. My father was in construction and my mother was a choreographer. I hadn’t ever given thought to studying marketing, and yet I like words and like writing. It could have been a logical path for me.
One of the reasons our children feel the pressure of a narrow path is not just because we pressure them. It is also because they have a too narrow view of the world. As a mathphobe, it would have never occurred to me to go to work for a tech company, and yet that summer I learned that I had something to contribute even there.
THE DANGER OF WANTING THE EASY PATH FOR OUR CHILDREN
In the same vein, as parents we often discourage our children from following their dreams because we only see the challenges. I had more than one talented young student whose central passion in life was dance but because she feared or had been told she wasn’t prima ballerina material, she gave up her dreams of being a professional dancer.
To illustrate how it is possible to have a career in dance and then extend it beyond being on the stage I want to relate the story of two employees of the Smuin Contemporary American Ballet in San Francisco.
MAKING SUCCESS OF NON-TRADITIONAL CAREERS
After retiring from being a dancer at San Francisco Ballet, JoEllen Arntz became Smuin’s wardrobe supervisor and company manager. As such, she has to wear many hats. With her company manager hat on she is in charge of “Human Resources, budgeting, office administration and more.” As wardrobe supervisor, Arntz gets out her glue gun and paint brush to give Smuin costumes their extra panache. Furthermore, she is at every performance with her team ready to solve middle-of-dance costume failures. After two decades of being with Smuin Contemporary Ballet, Arntz considers herself the “mom” of the company.
Smuin’s ballet master, Amy London, danced for Smuin for four years and later took on her job as “caretaker of the choreography.” Ballet master is one of those jobs that sitting in the audience you probably had no idea existed, and yet it is absolutely vital to the backbone of the company. The easy end of London’s job is teaching weekly company class and keeping an eye on dancer’s progress. The hard end is writing all the dances down (How do you write a dance down?!) in such a way that captures the choreographer’s vision and then being responsible that each and every dancer knows his or her part. London has to know both the dancers and dance inside and out.
SERVICE FROM BEHIND THE SCENES
From artistic director to administrative assistant, most of Smuin’s personnel comes from direct experience in dance, but not all former Smuin dancers are still in the dance world. One former dancer—still a big Smuin supporter—became a successful real estate agent. Another is both baker and dance wear designer.
None of the these positions pays an engineer’s salary, naturally, but each and everyone of these former dancers does meaningful work that provides a valuable contribution to supporting the arts in our communities while making a living. As a parent do you really want your child to only measure success in terms of dollars? What about impact on the world? What about spending a lifetime engaged in making the world a more thoughtful and beautiful place? Yes, the day to day lives of people in the dance world may be more financially precarious than other professions, and at the same time as Albert Schweitzer says, “Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.” Dance reveals to us to our humanity. A dance company requires a whole host of people behind the scenes to make that performance come alive, to give us that gift of connection to ourselves and to each other.
EVERY JOB DONE DEPENDS ON A LONG LIST OF OTHERS
I have used the dance world to illustrate my wider point: There are thousands of different jobs with different job titles. We are dependent on each and every one of those jobs. Do you grow your own food? Make your own clothes? Build your own house? I certainly don’t and I am so grateful that there are people who have made it their life’s work to do those things so I can get up in the morning and do what I love to do. Even if your child does end up in STEM fields, by exposing them to a wide variety of “behind the scenes” jobs they could do, you will lower their anxiety about having to follow a certain kind of path in order to have value in your eyes.