The first time I felt the sickening haunt of failure, I was eleven years old. I was in math class. The teacher, Mrs. Burnett, was young and irritable. She sported a short pixie haircut (it was 1981) and two front teeth that pushed inward, giving her a strange (and not, it seemed to me, entirely coincidental) fanged look.
At this point in my life, I never did homework. I don’t know exactly why, but I know I did not do it. This unfortunate habit translated to As in English, Bs in History, and, usually, Cs in Science and Math. I just moved forward. I didn’t see a way out of or through the airy state of perplexity that would descend over me like a caul when Math or Science began to happen around me. I would always figure out enough not to get every single problem or question wrong, and that seemed sufficient. Barely– but sufficient.
One afternoon, during our post-lunch rest period, when we could be reading or working on homework (you know which one I was doing) Mrs. Burnett called me over to her desk. Because she never did this, I felt a tiny thrill being singled out in such a way. Was I going to be in a spelling bee? I would win. I knew it.
“Ann,” she said portentously, looking up at me over her enormous early-80s pale pink glasses frames, “we are three weeks away from our next quarterly report cards, and I thought I should let you know that at this point, you are failing math.” That was all she said. She just sat there, looking at me, while I felt my face go hot with a rage and humiliation I had no way of understanding. She did not offer me any kind of solution or recourse. Neither, needless to say, did she offer me any kind of comfort, or reassurance. She let me walk back to my desk, alone, the other kids’ eyes bright with the questions they would hit me with the minute class ended: “What did you do? Did you get in trouble?”
When I got to my desk, I did the only thing I felt capable of doing, which was to bend forward and balance my forehead on its edge, so as to hide my red face dripping tears onto the floor. There was nothing else to do. I couldn’t even think about who might be looking at me– all that mattered was not to see myself being seen. I could pretend for a while. I was alone…a mark had been attached to me. The mark was the letter F. I was smart and it didn’t matter because I was dumb at the same time. I was dumber than I was smart.
I can feel that feeling as though Mrs. Burnett spoke those words to me to me only an hour ago. It has been almost thirty-three years.
In 2010, my former business (and everything else) partner and I decided that we needed to continue on as wholly separate entities. I had been learning hoopdance with him for four wonderful years, but now it was time to make our way, each on our own. I was nervous, but excited. A whole new world was ready for me–and I, in my sunny, optimistic way, felt ready for it.
I spent the next three years honing my skills as a movement artist. I was fortunate enough to be able to rent out my house in North Carolina and spend some time in New York, where I drank in every art event that came my way and spent hours daily exploring movement in my apartment-studio, taking notes on every new discovery and painstakingly translating each new insight into concepts and exercises for my weekly classes and weekend workshops. I then traveled for two years, teaching these new ideas, which– I always take care to note– were built on the rock-solid foundation of my former teacher and partner’s immense and immensely insightful body of work.
I found my own vision. I would provide an online resource for all the hoopers and hoopers-to-be out there in the world who didn’t have what I had– weekly access to a passionately dedicated hoop teacher who made dancing with the hoop comprehensible, interesting, and possible. There are many, many excellent hoopdance tutorials already out there, but not much in the way of a singly-focused hoop curriculum, a clear and consistent structure on which an understanding of hoop and body, and their unique union, might be amplified and expanded in an ongoing and simplifying way.
For the first and only time in my life I had found a project that absorbed me utterly, satisfied my need to do work that adds something good to people’s lives, engaged me on every imaginable creative and intellectual level, and seemed fascinating and meaningful enough to do forever.
I tapped all my most talented friends, spent almost all the savings I possessed in this world, and at the end of three years I had the website of my dreams. Beautiful, organic-feeling, functional, and…just…exactly right. Exactly as I wanted it– to be an invitation to people, not a blingy, blinking horsefly buzzing in people’s faces with the false urgency of BUY NOW, YOU MUST BUY NOW. Because my experience has been that those who need the hoop, find it. Or it finds them. Us.
Just over two weeks ago, I finally launched the site. I enjoyed about 48 hours of post-partum euphoria before it began to dawn on me that I was staring down another years-long marathon of work, for which I had no education, no preparation, no formal training, and no intuitive advantage. I’m talking about the work of marketing.
I started to realize this because in the first week after launching the site I sold only three classes.
That’s three, total.
At the same time I was realizing this, several year-end bills were coming due. I had to again dip into my vastly depleted savings to cover these bills (property tax, homeowners’ insurance, car insurance, and last year’s taxes, to name a few). The very same week, I received a letter from my health insurance company informing me that my premiums were (for no stated reason) going to double starting January 1. Suddenly, I was going to be one of the millions of Americans navigating (and thanking god for) the new options now available to us through the Affordable Care Act.
Within the same few days, I bounced a check and had to cover it with funds transferred from my business account. Then, I got a call from my bank telling me my business account was about to be overdrawn (a check was coming in from workshop space rental) if I didn’t get funds in by 2pm that day. I scrambled, panicking, transferring funds back from personal to business and then covering my ass with more transfers from my fast-dwindling Paypal account. Then, I got a call from the cable company–somehow, I hadn’t received the last two bills (having just switched over everything to online billing) and I was now in arrears, past due for two months (how did I not realize this?!) and in danger of having my home internet connection suspended. Put it on a credit card. Move forward.
During this same span of ten or so days, I had only one student show up to my introductory hoop class for two weeks in a row. The first week, I thought it was a fluke–that can always happen when you have a new, ongoing, drop-in class. But the following week the single student who showed up was a dear friend, and she gently broke it to me that there were perhaps reasons other than luck that people were not showing up to the class. It was the same feedback I had always gotten–I like to use words, sometimes too many of them–but this time I had to see and acknowledge the bigger picture, which was that, in planning the class lessons, I had entirely failed to take into account the actual, defining needs of beginning hoopers–the most important of which is to find an immediate, physical, and personal connection to the hoop, outside ideas, outside the neocortex, outside language…outside words.
In my zeal to simplify the techniques of hoopdance for my prospective students through a unique conceptual framework, I had spectacularly failed to take into account the single most significant feature of a class for new hoopers, which is to offer them a reason to hoop. A way to connect to this big, awkward, even comically bizarre object. The only hope I have ever had in dedicating my life to this bizarre object is that others might happen to find the joy and freedom through dance that I was able to find through this most unlikely of portals.
And I had failed.
To be forty-three. To start a business on your own. To put everything–literally everything you have in the world– into it. To have trusted your own judgment so far past what you could have reasonably earned through experience. To feel the cold, terrifying whistle of the endless space beneath us, of the bottom that has already dropped out, because it is not there and never has been there to catch us. This is what the ghost of failure feels like, as it sweeps past and breathes its icy breath down the back of your neck, where you haven’t tightened a scarf because you didn’t think you needed one. It was warm this morning, years ago, when you left the house.
To begin something is to be willing to endure this stomach-turning, gooseflesh-making, face-searing feeling, not just once, and not just a couple of times, but over and over and over again, day after day. I hadn’t remembered this. I hadn’t had time. In my eager rush, I had forgotten what it felt like to be a beginner. To fail again, and again, and again. And to keep trying.
So I just might have something to offer my students at the next class, after all.