In Defense of Culture: Instilling the Arts in Children
"Marie, time to get dressed for ballet!" That was me calling my 9-year-old daughter. She and the neighbor kids were digging a big hole in a vacant lot. Marie shuffled into the yard, dragging a shovel. She was dirty, but with a little strategic washing I could make her presentable for ballet.
"I don't wanna go to ballet today," she said. "I want to dig with Billy and Jennifer."
"You can play in the dirt every day except for Wednesdays," I said. "On Wednesday you have ballet. I want you to clean up and put on your dancing clothes now."
"Do I have to?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, and she began to cry. (A human lifetime might contain 30,000 days, but kids know that 29,999 of them are irrelevant.)
"Why?" she asked.
A smarter parent would've said: Because I said so! But I believe that legitimate authority can hold up under questioning.
I sat down on the back steps, drew my dirty daughter down beside me, and said, "Because of culture." As someone whose favorite art forms are balloon animals and cowboy movies, I hoped I could get through this OK.
Marie asked a question I'd gotten wrong in Anthropology 101: "What's culture?"
"Culture is what makes human beings different from animals," I said. "It includes things like drawing pictures, playing music, writing stories, and all the other things people do that can be beautiful and are not especially easy. Like ballet."
"But I want to dig," she said.
"I know you do," I said, "but your ballet lesson is the one little bit of culture in your life. And it's paid for, and I want you to do it."
"OK, Daddy," she said without joy. As Marie went upstairs to suit up, I felt triumphant. Not triumphant over Marie, triumphant over the forces of ignorance and sloth that had reached up to pull her down into the dirt.
This was not the first time I had been drafted as the defense attorney for higher civilization. Previously I'd argued the case for wearing pajamas at bedtime, for assuming a conventional seated position at the dinner table, and for doing homework without the cheery companionship of the TV set. Of course, responsible parents around the world are fighting similar battles all the time. But each time I'm summoned, I feel alone and ill-equipped.
Did you ever see one of those movies in which an ordinary kid happens to find that the gates of Hell have come ajar and he must perform far beyond his usual abilities to save humanity? And all the while he's wishing someone with better qualifications were available. Well, that's me, and this was my most subtly important case yet. And I'd won it! Civilization wouldn't crumble on my watch.
Then Marie came downstairs and said, "My leotard isn't where it's supposed to be. I think Sally must've taken it to Shannon's house so they could play Dancing Girls."
Sally is her sister, and cousin Shannon lives a half-hour away. And the ballet teacher, Miss Janet, would as soon let Marie take her lesson in street clothes as she would add gelatin wrestling to the ballet center's curriculum. I might defend civilized standards every so often, but that's 90 percent of what Miss Janet does.
"Go dig with your friends," I said.
Watching Marie scamper away with her shovel, I could only hope that the billions of other parents, fighting the good fight worldwide, had their act together this day, or all humankind would be slipping back a step toward the pit.
Marie is now 25 and has become a wonderful writer. She lives in the city, working as a temp to support herself until she can land a teaching-assistant job at a university so she can earn a master's degree in creative writing.
A few months ago, Marie confided to me that on the day she didn't want a ballet lesson, she had hidden her leotard and then lied about it. The confession stung a bit, but I like to think that it was my compelling defense of culture that had inspired her first work of fiction.
Rick Epstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.