Sharing Stories by Meryl Lipton
Some children find their passion in the course of the school year: they begin to learn to paint in art class or become fascinated with physics or discover they have an aptitude as distance runners or soccer players in gym. But for many children the school day fails to arouse their deepest enthusiasm, and with it, their greatest gifts and the abiding interest that creates a quest for excellence and with it a sustained effort.
Luckily, there is always summer, with its emphasis on fun and flexible schedules and following one’s interests, with less “I must” and “I should” and more “Might as well try it” and “I’d love to…”
Over the years I’ve come to marvel at how much better the children I see feel by the end of August, and at how many of them, during those golden months, develop a special interest that endures and shapes their lives for decades. One little boy’s going away to camp in Colorado became a life long interest in fly fishing and hiking. Another child went to ecology camp and developed a consuming interest in biology. But the transformation of a third child, whom I’ll call Audrey, has been perhaps the most joyful and surprising of all.
That is possibly because Audrey has come the farthest. I knew her first at the age of eight. She was one of five children in a remarkable family— socially adept, musically gifted, bright, and athletic. The father had been a pro basketball player; the mother had been a gymnast. All Audrey’s siblings were honor students. Her older brother skied competitively: her younger brother was an excellent golfer. One sister was a gymnast like her mom, the oldest girl had already graduated from a conservatory and played violin with a symphony orchestra. Each child had an area where they ruled—except Audrey. She was a very bright little girl, but she was also diagnosed with ADHD and had some reading issues. In school she struggled. Shy and self-conscious, she also struggled socially. Her self– esteem was not so great.
To the credit of Sally, her very busy mom, Audrey was not lost in the shuffle. After the child was evaluated, I recommended she get help in areas of school work that were difficult for her, and she gradually gained some sense of mastery of the things that had loomed so large and threateningly in her school day. As she read better, she gained more confidence, and she tried harder. It was great.
But as her mom pointed out, as wonderful as it was to see Audrey progress, it was a qualitatively different experience helping Audrey do her necessary but not thrilling reading exercises, than it was watching her son compete in a golf tournament or her oldest daughter play with the symphony. “She tries hard, she’s getting better, but it’s not like she looks forward to doing it. What I want for Audrey is what I want for all my kids,” Sally told me. “I want her to be so gripped by something that she doesn’t notice it’s hard, doesn’t mind the effort she’s putting in. I want her to get good at something because she loves it.”
So Audrey and I talked, and I noticed that that she lit up describing the time she went to the circus with her grandparents. It had been magical, enchanted– especially the aerial artists and the tightrope walkers. Her mom Sally and I discussed it, and by June Audrey was enrolled in a circus arts class that taught unicycle, trapeze, rope walking, and juggling. “I am a baaa-aad juggler,” Audrey told me at the end of the summer, giggling, “but I’m getting better on the trapeze.” The classes she’d begun in the summer led to regular Saturday classes during the school year. Soon she was telling me the difference between the slack rope and the tight rope. The family aptitude for gymnastics became evident in her performance.
During the course of two years, Audrey was transformed. She became confident, more sociable, more academically successful, and yes, she had found a passion—for tight rope walking! Almost every day after school she headed to the practice rooms and balanced on the tight rope, walking, turning, kneeling, doing a handstand. She was the star of circus class. Her interest only grew stronger over the course of a decade.
At the end of high school she auditioned and was accepted for a prestigious college of circus arts in France. Tightrope walking became the activity where she ruled. And summer vacation—with its long hours to devote to a chosen interest—had been the gateway.