In Darren Aronofsky’s movie ‘Black Swan,’ Natalie Portman plays Nina, who has won the lead role in the New York Ballet Company’s new production of ‘Swan Lake.’ Nina dances the virginal white swan gracefully, but is clumsy when it comes to the passionate black swan. Sheltered by her failed ballerina mother and confined to their Manhattan apartment, Nina is encouraged by her director to discover her inner black swan. But in unearthing and unleashing her primal passions of jealousy and paranoia, contempt and hate, Nina ruptures her sanity. At the end of her perfect opening night performance, as the audience chants her name in rapture, Nina lies bleeding to death at the back of the stage.
Seeing that Nina has stabbed herself, her director asks ‘why?’ with a look of painful shock. ‘I wanted to be perfect,’ Nina whispers.
Nina was at the back of my mind as I sat in my office on the Sunday evening before the start of school. Seated with me around a conference table were a new student and her mother, as well as Rebecca, a student who has studied with us for a year now. Earlier that day, this new student’s mother had called me, anxiously telling me that her daughter wanted to drop out. Anxious myself over the start of school, I explained to the mother that her daughter was probably overcome with anxiety about enrolling in an unproven programme.
When we all convened that evening, this new student told us so herself. She’s never lived away from home, and she’s accustomed to strict competitive schools, where her classmates never even thought about dating, let alone discussing it in front of their roommates, which is what a couple of her new classmates did during the week of mandatory military training before the start of classes. For that one week, this new student was tormented by doubts and concerns: Will her new classmates be focused? Will her classmates’ bad habits infect her? Will teachers dumb down the material?
Rebecca was seated directly across from the new student, and explained to her that a year ago, she was sitting in exactly the same seat. A year later, she appreciates that the ability to remember someone’s name and befriend them is more important than the ability to memorize math equations and win math competitions. Before, Rebecca expected and demanded that all her classmates be just like her, but now understands that in a class with difference and diversity, she can learn as much from her classmates as from her teachers.
Perfection is a dangerous obsession, Rebecca explained to this new student. Rebecca mentioned a cousin who finished second on the gaokao in the province of Liaoning, and now that she’s out in the workforce she finds everything and everyone so revolting.
Empathy is central to a good English reading programme, and it’s important to help students as they struggle to understand the viewpoints of characters in books ranging from Michael Lewis’sMoneyball to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids.
After a year, we’ve been surprised and inspired by how generous and compassionate the students have become. In junior high, Rebecca was in a class of over-achievers, and now and then she returns to see her classmates to find them still the same, while she’s transformed from fearing change and uncertainty to welcoming them. After a year, she’s a completely different person.
And that’s exactly what this new student is afraid of. That evening, she spoke passionately about her quest to be a brilliant painter, while showing utter contempt for her new classmates: ‘All the girls talk about is make-up and their boyfriends!’ she shouted at us. ‘And the boys – they want to hang out together on weekends. I can’t stand them!’
I sympathized with this new student’s artistic obsession, and so I patiently explained to her that being a brilliant artist is not just about devoting yourself single-mindedly to your art, as Nina had done in ‘Black Swan.’ It ultimately requires decades of open-ended inquiry and learning so that failure, change, and difference can mould you in a way that will permit you to import diverse modes of thinking into your art, and thus create something startling and striking.
Hearing these words, this new student’s face became less tense, and she slowly smiled.
I could have told her that we would introduce her to books and activities that would expand her comfort zone, and that we would teach her that empathy isn’t about losing your individuality. It is essentially about reaching out to others to import the lumber and the steel and the concrete from which to build the internal support for one’s mental architecture, from which individuality can stand and rise. Empathy constantly expands one’s mental framework, permitting the learning of new ideas, but also the marshalling of primal passions.
Nina went insane because she delved deeper and deeper into her innermost core of raging passions without the support that empathy could provide. Put simply, she fell off the edge because she had no friends to cling to.
But I didn’t say any of this because I could see she was smiling not because she was agreeing with me, but because I seemed to be begging her to stay. All her life, as a top student, she had been praised by her teachers and her parents, and this praise had only narrowed her mental framework to the point where it now risks implosion.
I had hoped that having Rebecca hold out her hand to this new student from across the table would bring her over. But it’s this new student’s choice whether to cross, and ultimately my responsibility is to those who have chosen to do so.
So I sent this new student and her mother away, knowing I’ll probably never see them again. And I began preparing my first lesson for the new semester.