Two Sides of Growing Up

April 7, 2009

This was dance weekend in our home and our little town.  Both my daughters take dance lessons throughout the school year, and their annual recital was on Saturday afternoon.  The younger one takes tap and ballet; the older one takes tap and jazz.  So both of them had two performances in the recital, and both of them did great.  Nancy and I were very proud, and kept thinking back to the days when they were just starting out, wearing stiff little plastic tutus and ribbons in their hair.  They’ve both come a long way.

But this weekend that was especially true of our older daughter.  In addition to the regular dance classes, this year she auditioned for the University’s dance performance, which was also performed this weekend.  She’s only in eighth grade, but she’s very good and she got into two dances — an Irish dance and a modern hip-hoppy sort of thing.  She was the youngest person in the program, but you wouldn’t have known it to watch the dances, and to the credit of the college kids, you wouldn’t have known it from how they treated her.  She was one of the dancers, nothing more and certainly nothing less.  It was a magical experience for her, a tantalizing taste of what she has to look forward to in years to come as her dancing improves and she gets into even more dances in the college program.

It was quite an experience for Nancy and me, too.  Seeing her up there dancing with those older men and women and fitting in so well — it brought home to both of us just how fast the years are going by.  She started dance nine years ago, and it seems like yesterday.  She leaves for college in another four years or so.  How quickly will that time go by?  (Rhetorical question; believe me, I know the answer.)  It’s hard to fathom, but it’s exciting for all of us.

But these changes have a darker side, too.  

On Sunday night a girl my daughter knows — a high school student three years older than she — was killed in a car wreck on a rural highway a few miles from here.  My daughter wasn’t terribly close to this girl, but that didn’t keep this tragedy from having a profound effect on her.

I’m a middle-aged man.  I’m used to confronting my mortality, to being reminded every day that life is transient and fate capricious.  But this is new to her, and a part of me grieves to see her forced to confront such hard truths at such a tender age.  I realize that she’s not as young as I think she is, nor as unprepared for the real world.  But it’s hard to watch nevertheless.  She’s a teenager, as are her friends.  And she’s finding out that bad things happen to good people.  She’s realizing that those stupid rules her mother and I impose (like, for instance, she’s not allowed to ride in a car with a teen driver) have their roots in justifiable fears.  She’s starting to understand that “growing up” is double edged, and that the freedom she covets comes with dangers she hadn’t fully considered.

I know that these are important lessons for her to learn, though right now the price of them seems far, far too steep.  I find myself struggling with the (mistaken) urge to shelter her.  I want to hold her on my lap like I did when she was four and was getting ready for that first recital.  I want to tuck her in and sing her to sleep.  Parenting was easy then.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was.  And so when she comes to me and tells me how freaked out she is, how sad for this girl’s family and her close friends and her new boyfriend who lost his first love, I’ll listen.  I’ll resist the urge to reassure her, because really, what assurances can I give?  I’ll avoid the temptation to try to draw lessons from this experience for her; she doesn’t need my help with this one.  And when she tells me that she’s scared, that the uncertainties of life seem overwhelming, I’ll nod and tell her that I’m scared, too.  Because I am.  And she’s grown too old for easy lies.

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