Sunday, August 26, 2007

Essay: Obliteration

In one afternoon, my perspective of the man changed completely. This man was ---------, my ballet teacher of eight years in the Southeast Asian country of Thailand. His students called him Ajarn, the Thai word giving importance to one who has a university degree. Although American-born, I had lived my entire life in Thailand with my missionary parents resulting in my studying ballet with this man.

I had always viewed Ajarn -------- as an edgy man, having a square shaped face with deep-set, slightly slanted Asian eyes; a square, if slightly flattened nose; a square neck leading to a squarely shaped body with two long rectangular legs set underneath. His feet, however, were prime examples of the curvaceous arches that mark a great dancer.

Ajarn’s beliefs were also very squarely set in his life. In Thailand, where to be Thai is to be Buddhist, he was the most devout Buddhist I had ever met. His faith in his religion was sincere and unshakable. Many times a year he would take his students to meditations and Buddhism training. Being a Christian, I never participated in those trips; however, I would often arrive for my ballet class and find a number of students sitting around him in a silent circle on the floor while he lectured them in Thai on how they should behave and live as good Buddhists. He was ever leading them in the pursuit of peace within their lives. Roughly translated, he would promote ideas such as, “Peace is the goal of your life. To maintain a peaceful existence, you must remember who you are in comparison with the other creatures of the world. Be wary of pride. You are no greater than others; be careful of harming any other being.” Ajarn was like a father to all of us. Indeed, in that Asian culture, when a teacher takes a student under his wing to train, he essentially becomes that student’s father. Even the legitimate parents of a student would acquiesce to such a teacher’s demands.

He did seem like a peaceful man to my eyes. Always neatly dressed in a simple style that blended with his personality, Ajarn spoke gently and softly. When, as a class, we were being lazy or not working as hard on perfecting our training as he felt we should, he would literally lecture us for hours on how to perform better. He was forever challenging us to stretch ourselves farther and farther into our art. “As dancers, your goal is not to perform for yourself but for your audience. If you are so focused on techniques that you fail to grasp the message of your story, your audience will never be touched. You must show discipline in your lessons; being lazy will simply hinder your future opportunities not only in dance, but also in every area of your lives.” Despite all his lectures, Ajarn would rarely raise his voice. The intensity of his speech was all that was necessary to focus our attention on him as he would sit cross-legged on the floor in the pose of meditation, lecturing us on our talent, our art, our lives.

In contrast to his gentle voice, Ajarn had strength of iron when he walked amongst us correcting our technique while we were dancing. If we were not pushing ourselves hard enough to lift our legs that extra half-inch, Ajarn would wrap his manacle-like hand around the errant leg and push it up higher until we would wonder if our backs were going to snap in half. Then, he would release his hand, and, in that gentle voice of his, he would command us to hold it there – use our muscles. And we would.

I loved him. Ballet was my world, and his commands and directions were the axis of that world. Despite his strength and determination to push us to our boundaries and then beyond, I never feared him. Well, I never feared him until that day.

I will never forget that steamy, tropical afternoon. As I sat stretching my muscles out on the smooth wood floor of the studio, a fellow student, Ayra, sat beside me. I noticed she was quiet, but that was not unusual. All of a sudden, Ajarn stormed into the room, focused only on his prey, oblivious to any others. He grabbed Ayra’s hair-bun, forcing her to the floor where he proceeded to scream in her face for the next hour in a voice unlike any I had ever heard come from him. To this day, I do not know what caused the onslaught against her; my abilities in the Asian language were not strong enough to follow the tirade that came so quickly after Ajarn’s entrance to the room. Later, I never had the courage to ask her what had happened. During the tempest, I sat curled up, half-hidden under the bars. I was too stunned to move, too wary of the monster in front of me to act.

Where had that gentle nature gone? The peace he was always admonishing us to seek was no longer evident. Ajarn was a changed man, a cruel fiend, a tyrant. His strength was no longer for teaching but for punishing. Neat clothing array, hair flamed out over his head in no set fashion, soft-spoken ways dissipated - he was a nightmare.

The next day, everything was back to normal. As I cautiously entered the studio, Ajarn
was sitting cross-legged on the floor lecturing on peace. In the following days, weeks, months, years, he acted as he always had before his eruption. Yet he was changed in my eyes. He no longer was representative of peace and honor; he was a volcano full of hidden power and cruelty. My love and regard for Ajarn had been indelibly altered in that single hour.

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