Every story has its heroes and villains. In a story of trauma and assault, the villains are easy to spot. It’s the heroes who can be harder to see.
Look at any trauma survivor. Look deep enough, and you will find a human behaving badly. It’s inevitable. PTSD is an ugly beast. From punching walls to guttural screams to suicidal impulses, PTSD manifests as a primitive battle-cry of rage against inhumanity.
I only made it out of that dark because someone was always walking beside me, holding a lantern to light the way ahead.
My heroes were deeply flawed human beings with addictions and wounds and bad habits of their own. But when the time came, they chose kindness. Every act of cruelty and indifference has consequences. So, too, does every act of compassion. Of faith in another human being. The outstretched hand matters every bit as much as the fist.
* * *
Frank Bays believed in children the way some people believe in racehorses or football teams or god. We all felt it.
I was seven years old when I walked into his ballet studio in Bothell. A rundown brick building off Main Street that smelled of rust and crumbling paint and damp wood. But as soon as I stepped onto the wood floor and stared at myself in the mirror, I knew I’d found Wonderland. It smelled of the soft, dyed leather of ballet shoes. And in front of the mirrors, Frank stood like a pillar, beaming at us all. I had never seen such a kind face.
He wore a white sweatshirt and blue pants with white lace-up jazz shoes, the kind with the little wedge under the heel. It was his uniform. Rehearsing. Teaching. I must have seen him in street clothes. He came to dinner at our apartment once or twice. But all I remember are the white jazz shoes and the soft blue pants.
That first class with him, I was utterly lost. Utterly. My parents later learned I should have been placed in beginning, not intermediate, ballet.
But Frank was unfazed. “Let’s give her a few weeks,” he said. Much later, I learned he was struck by the way I’d bitten my lip and concentrated. I hadn’t cried. I hadn’t given up. I hadn’t looked lost.
I had looked determined.
He thought this meant I had grit, and he wanted to see what I could do with it.
* * *
You cannot understand what it means to have an adult believe in you, if you have felt valued and important from the day you were born. If you were raised believing you deserved your space in this world.
In Frank’s classes, I felt like a sapling that had been watered.
He was my teacher for three years, and almost every night after class, he stood outside the back door, snapping his lighter in the darkness and dragging on his cigarette. “Well,” he said. “Did you have fun?”
Sometimes he explained the question, like he was trying to teach me something important. Something that would always matter more than pliés and battements.
“Are you sure?” He’d ask if it had been a difficult class, and my mother, who was openly in love with him, would wait, smiling. “Because that’s the important thing. The technique you can learn—you’re good at it. But you have to have fun. That’s what it’s for. You understand?”
I nodded. But I didn’t. Not yet.
* * *
Frank believed in all of us, but he believed in me and two other girls especially. After one year, he pulled my parents aside. “You need to send her to Cornish,” he said. Thrilled to have a protégé on their hands, my parents agreed.
And Frank cracked open the world for me.
I was eight years old when my parents drove me to Kerry Hall, the original campus of Cornish College of the Arts and the building where the Preparatory Dance Program still runs. It was another world, one where beauty lived everywhere: in the white stucco and Spanish tiles, in the arched portico at the entrance, in the Chopin and the saxophone-jazz that drifted from windows. At the cramped, musty dance studio in Bothell, Frank was merely moonlighting. This was his actual job: a college professor at one of the nation’s top dance programs. He taught partnering classes to college students.
Here, the teachers were nothing like Frank. Where his corrections made us giggle (“No chicken wings, girls. Elbows rounded.”), these teachers targeted children as young as eight until some of them fled the studio in tears. No longer the squeal of tape players, professional pianists accompanied us on polished baby grands. We were training to become apprentices and then corps members and maybe, hopefully, one day soloists or principals in ballet companies. We were expected to begin auditioning professionally by age 14 or 15. The best of us were expected to land apprenticeships before age 18.
One evening, my mother and I went to Broadway Performance Hall to see a piece Frank had choreographed. I still remember the dancers, all in red, swaying and leaping over the stage. They were sweating, panting. He demanded so much from them. But they gave it. Eagerly.
We all did. Unlike so many of the teachers there, he was someone you could make proud.
* * *
I continued taking classes with Frank, even as the schedule at Cornish became more demanding. My favorite moments at Cornish were the ones when he surprised me. I’d be at the drinking fountain, and he’d tackle me from behind.
I giggled, and he swept me into a big, warm, ashy hug. The other girls stared in astonishment. I rarely spoke. I certainly didn’t hug anybody. So why was I being treated like I was so special–by him?
Because I was. For those few years with Frank, I really believed it: I was special.
Then, in all earnestness, he would ask what he always asked: Are you still having fun?
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was miserable at Cornish. So I said yes.
When he broke the news that he was moving to San Francisco, I cried. There would be no more tackle-hugs between classes. And no one else ever asked if I was having fun.
* * *
I never stopped missing Frank. That is the way of it when you are a child starved for kindness. He had seen the resilience in me that had always been there. He would not have been surprised by the preschool child who had climbed six-foot fences while her mother watched television. I strolled through my neighborhood like I owned it, stopping for an oatmeal cookie at Rita’s and games at Daniel’s. The larger world, I had always believed, had to be better than the family I’d been born into. And up on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Frank gave me my first formal introduction to that world.
Frank expanded my self-concept. I was a victim, a rejected child. But I was also a hero. A dancer. Someone who doesn’t quit and has fun in the midst of a challenge. In some of the darkest times of my life, I have always been able to step into a dance studio and fly.
Many years later, in my late twenties, in a particularly lonely season, I looked him up and learned he was dead. I walked up Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, where I was living above a restaurant. I found a bench beside tufts of lavender where bees buzzed, and I wept as if he had been my own relative. As if a beloved uncle had died.
The most painful part was that I learned he had been gay. The entire time I knew him, he had a life partner, a man at the center of his life, whom I had never known. Frank came to dinners alone. He greeted me at performances alone. He talked of his goats with fondness but never a word about this man, who was with him in the end. The things I hadn’t known about him. The thought that, in the end, they tired of their farm in Bothell, tired of the kind of loneliness that comes from having to hide yourself. Teaching children in a conservative, Christian suburb, certainly he would have known that who he really was would have jeopardized everything. This man who had gifted me faith in myself, I had not even been able to reciprocate with the simplest thing. Acceptance of who he was.
Since then, I always try to smile at LGBTQ couples on the street. Maybe it’s creepy. It’s probably weird. But I want them to know, from the bottom of my heart: You’re welcome here.
I’m happy that you’re happy.
He had taught me so much about life and about art. But most especially about myself. My own value. My own potential. He had seen a kid full of grit and resourcefulness, who never ever gave up. And I had forgotten. At 28, I had forgotten how to have fun. How to be joyous. How to keep going, no matter what. I would not forget again.
I walked to a dance shop and bought my first pair of ballet shoes in over a decade. A few years later, I walked back into a dance studio. For Frank.
I am unconvinced there is an afterlife or that Frank lives anywhere but in the memories of his loved ones and his students, many of whom had posted on his memorial wall with stories like mine. I doubt there are pearly gates awaiting me. But if there are, I hope Frank will be there. I want him to be leaning against a parapet, smoking a cigarette in his white sweatshirt. “Well, Melanie” he’ll say when I arrive, stubbing out his cigarette. “Did you have fun?”
And I will tell him the truth. I will tell him yes.