Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.
One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.
I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).
I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.
He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.
He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”
In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.
My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.
I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.
All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.
He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”
Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?
“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.
Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.
“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”
There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.
“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.
It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”
As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”
I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.
I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.
Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.
The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.