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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Unnecessary Lessons

by Kirsti Sandy

In a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Jerk, the nouveau-riche Steve Martin urges his wife, Bernadette Peters, to “take unnecessary lessons.” Her choice: knife throwing, and she’s not all that great at it. When my parents moved from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Andover, when I was twelve, I finally got the joke.  Although it was a fifteen-minute drive from our old house, everything had changed, including how we spent our weekends. People in Andover did not sit in front of the TV on Saturday afternoons, watching candlepin bowling, boxing matches, and Solid Gold while referring to the dancers as “sock crotch” or “tomato bum.” They did not linger near neighbors’ houses in a bathing suit on hot days in the hopes that they might, by chance, be invited for a dip in the pool. They did not stretch out on the kitchen floor and moan about having nothing to do while their mothers stepped over them to dry the dishes. At least, this is what my mother told my father, my brother, and me. And then she signed us up for lessons.
I wanted to learn the cello but compromised and went with violin. My brother wanted karate but settled for Cub Scouts. What my parents chose surprised both of us: disco dancing. Now, I could see myself as a violinist, in a white shirt and velvet skirt, looking regal and serious as I concentrated on moving the bow across the strings. I could easily picture my brother in the blue scout uniform, gold scarf on his collar, ready to earn his badges. Yet the idea of my parents as disco dancers was all wrong. While they both loved disco music, family lore had it that my father was so averse to dancing that he danced only the first song at their wedding. Plus, disco hardly seemed like the kind of pastime our lawyer neighbors next door, the ones with the purebred Irish setter and the twin maroon BMWs, had in mind when they had suggested community education at the local high school.
It was only a matter of time before one of us quit our lessons, but I was the first.  I could not understand how the sound that emerged from my violin squeaked and whined so, when I was pulling the bow across the strings just like everyone else.  That and I had become distracted by the act of rosining the bow; the sticky rosin felt had the appearance and texture of butterscotch candy and it was soothing to move the bow across it, back and forth,  as though spreading it with crystallized pine pitch.  My parents did not put up much of a fight, especially after listening to me practice, so the violin went back in the velvet case for good.
Next to quit was my brother, but even this did not deter my parents. Their disco lessons had a new purpose:  to prepare them to take the floor with their actor friend Tom at Studio 54. They prepared in secrecy, as though not to jinx their chances. Although we saw them walk to the car and return from their dance lesson, we never actually saw them dance, not once, even though they practiced at home a few times a week. They made sure that we were out of the house before they danced in the living room, and I suspect they drew the shades, turned on the “Disco Hits of 1980” compilation I was always taking out of the sleeve to play in my room, and got down to business.
Studio 54 was for them, as I’m sure it was for many, a disappointment. My mother, bless her justice-loving heart, returned with this complaint: “We waited in line and they just kept letting other people in!” If you ask her now, she will tell you that of course she knew they weren’t getting in, but I remember that she was upset about it. My father seemed more relieved than angry, describing the men in high-heeled sneakers carrying balloons who stepped right from limo to door, the people they met in line “from all over—you wouldn’t believe it! China, Mexico, even California!”—the doorman who looked exactly like the actor on Taxi, the food they ate before and after and in between: “real New York bagels, Kirsti! You should have tried them—like hot pretzels!”
Bagels aside, I could not fathom waiting in line for two hours while someone else got to sail through the door with no delay at all. It went against everything I had been taught—even the seventh graders at my school had a code of “no cuts, no buts” that was strictly followed by even the most popular kids. It seemed to me that this gave the people in charge tremendous power, power that intrigued and appealed to me, so I set about creating my own version of Studio 54, but not with dancing—I was in remedial gym, after all—with something I was good at, even without lessons: roller skating.
My parents were great sports about it; they let me string up the Christmas lights in the basement and play records on the wood-paneled stereo. I would be the DJ and the bouncer, and also the hostess. Kids in the neighborhood would wait in line to come to my skating rink. Never mind that there was a big skating rink in nearby Lawrence, called “Roll on America” which, despite the fact that it sounded like a deodorant, was very popular. Mine would be free, with no strict rules about skating backward or doing tricks and none of those “skate bouncers” in mesh shirts who thought they were so big and liked to blow the “get off the rink” whistle at the younger kids. It struck me that I could also reject anyone who was a better skater than I was, or who was thinner, or who had better hair.
On opening night, I set out some warm Polar Ginger Ale (I had wanted name brand soda, which my mother nixed immediately) and a plate of E.L. Fudge cookies. After attempting to bribe my little brother to plug and unplug the lights while we skated to produce a strobe effect, I ran upstairs to answer the door: Leslie and Kelly, skates in hand, talking faster than they could listen, then the boys from down the street, then my cousins. One of the neighbor boys had removed the knob from the front of his skates, the one that served as a brake “to make them more aerodynamic.” We watched as he demonstrated, whipping forward and using a support pole to keep from crashing into the wall. Kelly wore the ribbon barrettes from the movie Xanadu, so I put on that record first, the opening chords of “You Have to Believe in Magic” filling the room as we spun and twirled across the floor.
It wasn’t until the evening was almost over when I realized that I had not turned a single person away.  At some point during the night, they had all stopped skating and started joking around, climbing the furniture, and turning cartwheels. I had lost them. As Leslie and Kelly left, Kelly (likely coached by her mother) thanked my mother “for the roller skating party.” That should have been my first hint that my friends would never view my basement as a real roller rink—it was a basement, and we were all pretending, especially me. If my friends were going to get a ride somewhere on a Saturday night, it was going to be to a real skating rink, which had boys from different schools and where they could play Ms. Pac Man and eat French fries.  I could not compete.
The roller rink turned into a makeshift haunted house the next October and finally served as a temporary apartment for my dad’s down-on-his-luck friend from California. Like the real Studio 54, my roller rink had been overtaken by a coked-out weirdo, but I had already moved on to classier pursuits:  English riding lessons. Elocution. Baton twirling.
“Toss the baton in the air the way Mary Tyler Moore throws her hat,” the baton teacher shouted, making the motion with his hand. He was fed up with our lackluster tosses, our deflated twirls. Not a beauty queen in the bunch—acne-marked, greasy-haired, brace-faced, four-eyes we were, all of us, yet we held on to thin hope that lessons might transform us, because wasn’t that, after all, what lessons were for?
“Throw that hat!” he demonstrated, with a vigorous toss and a satisfied smile. “The world is yours! You are Mary Tyler Moore!” And in the instant the baton made a perfect spiral in the air before crashing back down on my head, I almost believed it.
Kirsti Sandy is an English professor at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, a town that once held the world record for having the most lit jack-o-lanterns in one place. She has published essays in the online journal of Freerange Nonfiction, Freshly Hatched, and in several academic journals and books. She recently purchased a pair of "Roller Derby" brand skates for her two-year-old daughter.

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