There is a living Hell known as the first teacher work day of a school year. Teachers all gather in the cafeteria, drink coffee, chatter, have some laughs, that is, until the principal calls us to order. I scan down the agenda, and invariably about three items in, it reads, Introduction of new staff members. Each new, poor soul, who only knows the administrator that hired them, hears the words, “Stand up and tell us something about yourself.” The responses can be pretty routine. “Just got married, I’m new to the area, I’m a graduate of _________ University, (fill in), and so on . . . I feel confident that this ritual is fairly standard across the business world, and any other kind of office setting, and is just as mortifying.
I, myself have endured that terrifying moment, having to publicly sum up my existence before a crowd of strangers. The people around actually do look friendly, and try to make the humiliation a little lighter. But the trick of the exercise is grappling for the words that provide some plausible description of my identity. Without exception I blurt out some lame particulars, turn red, and sit down. There I relive the trauma, echoing the dumb things I said over and over in my head.
The core substance of what makes up an identity is far more nebulous. Describing characters in my book, River of January, has challenged me to present these people with more than a limited, predictable persona. For example, Helen, the main protagonist is deceptively easy to classify as a blond beauty. However, limiting her traits to one or two superficial qualities misleads the reader in underestimating her strengths.
If Miss Thompson stood up and introduced herself she would have much to tell.
In 1932 Helen auditioned in New York for a classical ballet troupe scheduled to travel Europe for three months. The ballet mistress who conducted the audition was a notable Italian/American dancer by the name of Maria Gambarelli. Miss Gambarelli had studied under legendary ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and became a famous artistic figure in her own right.
As fun, lighthearted, adventurous, and easy going as Helen was, she was also a disciplined, inspired, and talented ballerina, too. Gambarelli noted Helen’s professional skill and serious work ethic, adding the girl quickly to the company. Incidentally the final twelve dancers selected became known as, “The American Beauties,” who demonstrated to Europeans, in the following months, the grace and excellence of classical dance in America.
Helen could have shared that little story about herself.