Earlier this summer, my daughter participated in her first professional dance intensive, a rigorous training program. It wasn’t in New York or San Francisco or anywhere fancy. It was in Minneapolis at the Cowles Center on Hennepin Avenue. She was selected as the lone high school participant, a source of pride for her.
Her excitement gave her mother and me no small measure of joy, almost enough to erase the reminder that she is growing up and soon will make her way out into the world. We will see less of her. She will need less from us.
Our aspiring dancer is 14, about to enter her sophomore year of high school. We live in St. Paul, so my wife and I are raising a city mouse, wiser in the ways of the world than her country-mouse father was at her age.
Most mornings during the school year, my daughter takes a Metro Transit bus to school. She then takes light rail and another bus to dance classes every night. The plan was for her to take the Green Line west to Minneapolis and disembark at the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue Station before walking a few blocks to her workshop.
In her previous travels she witnessed the full range of commuter characters: the perky professionals, the weary work-a-day warriors, the riders so far into their machines that the world disappears, the day-drinkers and drug users, the opportunists and hustlers, those marching to the beat of a different drum. Like most teens, she’s stingy with the details of her days, and like many parents, we try not to press her. We don’t know as much as we’d like, but every so often she honors us with a few stories.
During one bus adventure, our daughter observed a young niece counseling a drunken aunt. In another she ignored an upperclassman from her school, not sure what to say. In a third, she got on a bus going the wrong direction and landed in an exciting neighborhood.
After her first day at the dance intensive, she arrived home and went straight to her room without saying much. Her mother and I made an effort to restrain ourselves, but the desire to know everything overwhelmed us. We asked how the day went, how she felt about it, how she held up against the pros, what kind of dancing they did, who was there, what folks were wearing, how it felt. Details! We pressed her for details about her dance day, but she withheld them. She mainly wanted to talk about her experience getting there and what happened as she walked toward the Cowles Center.
She told us about the men standing on Hennepin Avenue and how they catcalled her. She told us what they said and how it made her feel. She passed it along matter-of-factly, but it weighed on her with the persistence of gravity.
The day still allowed some celebration, but unwanted guests were with us, grabbing at the cake with grubby paws. Before we could get to the joy of her debut, we had to deal with the pain of her experience getting there.
As I listened to what she shared, I was flooded with reactions. I felt a parent’s desire to protect my child from the world, an instinct to talk sense to fools, sadness for another layer of innocence peeled away, disappointment that her summer intensive didn’t go as hoped, and distracted by the effort to listen without judgment.
Without judgment of her. Yes, her.
There, along with the other reactions, was energy devoted to suppressing the ingrained response I felt as a man. Somewhere in my training I’d assumed a Manchurian urge to protect my team from this accusation. As my daughter spoke, I had to confront my impulse to cross-examine her. I had to do that even though the charge was repugnant, the evidence compelling and the key witness my own child.
I don’t think I betrayed my thoughts to her. She developed strategies to survive the week — avoid the creepy men, call friends to pick her up, wear headphones, walk faster, avoid eye contact. We rehearsed a few responses. She finished the summer intensive and enjoyed her experience. She learned a lot about dance, about adulthood, about men, about life.
And I had an epiphany about privilege. Because I am black in a white world, I know what it’s like to exist outside of privilege. I know how it feels to explain your experience to people hard-wired to defend their team against perceived accusations. As a man in a patriarchal world, I sometimes forget that I also possess privilege. Considered broadly, a lot of people are like me, simultaneously privileged and marginalized. That night I listened to my daughter with everything I had because I know what it’s like to want to be heard.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He lives in St. Paul.
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