Philadelphia Metropolis


Who Will Tie Their Shoes?

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Ballet Shoes-thumb-400x300-776.jpg

By Kat Richter

By the time I reach the coffee shop in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon, I am exhausted.  I've spent the past week administering band aids, untying shoelaces, retying shoelaces, chaperoning bathroom breaks and trying to convince one of my students--an unusually well-dressed five year old-- that dancing will help him feel better about the fact that his mother has left again. 

Technically, I'm a teaching artist at a preschool for low-income families in Germantown. But "creative movement" doesn't even begin to describe what goes on in my classroom.  It's part Tchaikovsky indoctrination, part Michael Jackson impersonation, part therapy, part recess and part contact improv, the name I decided to give to my students' numerous collisions). 

On bad days, it is utter chaos. On good days, when I catch my students practicing their "dance moves" in the hall or hear them humming music from The Nutcracker on their way to lunch, I'm filled with hope.

 I am making a difference, I tell myself, these kids are going to break the cycle.

But then I get to the coffee shop and my entire mood changes.  Across the street is an elementary school.  The youngest of the students are just a year or two older than my preschoolers and already they have a hard look. They don't smile; they skulk down the sidewalk with their hands in their pockets, their unsmiling faces proclaiming "Don't fuck with me."

I hate seeing them there; their presence reminds me that my students will be joining their ranks in just a few years.

In terms of inner-city education, I'm one of the lucky ones: I teach creative movement five days a week at a school whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is arts education.  I have a beautiful dance studio with a proper wood floor, a ballet barre, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and enough "toys" to send my students into a tizzy whenever I reach into the supply closet. 

My students are lucky, too. They get music, dance and visual arts every day, and unlike their peers, they never have to worry that their arts classes will be cut when No Child Left Behind rears its ugly head or the governor decides to hack $500 million from the budget for basic education.

But what will become of them when they go to kindergarten?  Who's going to encourage them to break dance (on a properly padded floor, of course) and expose them to jazz?  Who is going to remind them that contrary to popular opinion boys can dance?  Who is going to take the time to tie their tiny ballet slippers day after day, and who is going to be there to give them a hug when they're curled up in the corner and crying because their mom still hasn't come home?

As I stare out the window of the coffee shop, I can't believe I was stupid enough to think that I could "change the world."  Even if I manage to engage my 30 kids through creative movement, they'll be lucky to get a gym class once a week once they leave our program.  I can't "save" them any more than I can the sullen kids on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop. 

But it's not up to me to save them.  Indeed, who am I to be saving anybody?  That's the idealistic product of a private liberal arts school speaking--the white and consumed-by-white-guilt product, I might add.  I don't trust the public school system to take it from here. For every parent who is engaged and advocating on behalf of their child, I can show you two more who either don't know how to ask for the services their children need or simply don't care. 

My job is to show up at 9:00 a.m. every morning and to be the best teacher I can be during the two hours I have with my students.  My job is to encourage their creativity and to teach them to explore the world through their bodies; my job is not to protect them from the world or to shepherd them through their K-12 years.

As if to confirm this realization, a woman enters the coffee shop with two children who clearly don't belong to her.  "You can use my cell phone to call your mom," she tells the eldest before purchasing two hot chocolates.  They talk about the art work on the walls when it finally dawns on me that she is their teacher. I begin to understand that my presence in the dance studio is just one piece of a larger picture. 

My ego often gets in the way--I like feeling like I'm making a difference--but I have to trust in the village to raise these children.  There are plenty of things that can go wrong from here out for my students. There are plenty of things that can go right. 

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist based in South Philly.  She blogs about her love life at




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