By Meredith Betz
One of life’s biggest gifts to one another is empathy. That is, to really understand the pain or joy or sorrow or elation of someone else. It’s not a natural inclination. Especially if you are an adolescent trying to keep your head above the waves of peer pressure I got a taste of what empathy means in sixth grade. It wasn’t easy.
The last time I wore white gloves was in Mrs. DiClementi’s ballroom dancing class in 6th grade at Thomas Jefferson School in Rockaway, New Jersey. We eleven year-old girls were well on our way to womanhood with little time for goofy sixth-grade boys and their slew of ridiculous and gross bathroom jokes. Most of the boys feigned disdain for us and called us less than flattering nicknames beyond our backs. Since my last name was McElwee, it seemed only natural that they would call me “Muckleweed.”
To add to my misery, Mr. Liss, our 6th grade teacher, stuck me in the front row of the classroom because I was his favorite. He planted the class misfit Peter in my row so that he wouldn’t fight with his nemesis Jeff, the class clown. Mr. Liss banished Jeff to the back of the room from which he would flick spitballs. Peter was the target. At least once a day, Jeff missed and crowned me with a soggy wad. However, Peter surpassed Jeff’s disgusting pranks. He liked to pick his nose and stick the boogers under the desk.
Peter was one of the tallest and biggest boys in the class. He was overweight with white and doughy skin. He spit a lot, spraying his saliva across the room on occasions when he got really excited.
Given the fact that we were all on the cusp of adolescence, it seemed the opportune time to teach us proper etiquette such as where to put the knife and fork, to keep your napkin on your lap until you were ready to leave the table, to abstain from telling farting jokes and sticking boogers under your desk. However, learning to dance the Box Step seemed to be the quintessential skill that would prepare us for becoming sophisticated young women and men. Thus, the white gloves.
The principal Mr. Burnside hired Mrs. DiClementi, our local dance teacher, to teach us ballroom dancing. She was a tall very attractive woman who wore her thick brown hair in an elegant French twist. She smelled like Lilies of the Valley and she often wore a beautiful blue-taffeta- crinoline shirtwaist that swished when she modeled the dance steps
Mrs. DiClementi came in every Tuesday afternoon for our dance lessons in the gym turned-ballroom that smelled like sweaty shoes and pungent body odor. She’d line the girls up on one side and boys on the other. That’s when the excruciating lessons would begin. Mrs. DiClementi would ask the boys to approach the girls, instructing them to choose their dance partners. The most beautiful pair in the class would pick each other first.
I was never the last one to be picked because Peter consistently asked for my hand just seconds after the beautiful people found theirs. Other girls would be growing more anxious that they would be chosen last. Still, even as their hearts were sinking, old faithful Peter provided them amusement when he would take my hand.
I held my head low; counting the box step’s 1-2-3-4-5-6, as he repeatedly stepped on my toes blurting a million sorries as loud as he could, and showering me with spit. I’d breathe a sigh of relief when we moved onto the Fox Trot. I was able to dodge him for other less nerdy boys most of the time.
The best thing that happened in sixth grade was watching the Ed Sullivan show and seeing the Beatles’ debut in the US. At 8 o’clock on February 9th 1964, America tuned in to CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show. In the audience, hundreds of screaming girls, who weren’t wearing white gloves, swooned over the Beatles with their bowl shaped haircuts, slim gray velvet-collared jackets and stovepipe pants.
Toward the end of their act the group sang “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I wanted Paul McCartney’s, who was, in my book, the best-looking Beatle. While we were learning ballroom dancing, I was wistfully wishing that Paul wanted to hold my hand. I would have given anything for that. I got Peter’s instead.
I was a preacher’s kid which was, on some occasions, more than a curse. My father’s expectation was that I would never be snobby or cruel to anyone…ever. Thou shall not do to others what you would not have them do to you. Refusing Peter’s hand was hardly an option for me. All I could muster up was a little sympathy. I felt sorry for him. Dancing with him made me a better Christian.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood that everything wasn’t all about me. And, I learned that there was a big difference between sympathy and empathy. Feeling sorry for Peter, or for anyone else wasn’t the point. My father wanted me to have first-hand empathy for people…to feel what it felt like to dance their shoes and not because it was the right thing, but because it was the real thing.
Meredith Betz is a former high school Communications/English teacher whose avocation is coaching students of all ages in writing and delivering presentations. Currently she writes for the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her vocation is executive coaching and organizational consulting to for profit and nonprofit organizations.