Up, down. Up, down. Keep the right hand still, let the left hand do all the work. Knees bent but still. Throw, spin, catch. Throw, spin, catch. Throw, loop the string up, release the right hand-
The diabolo thumped dully onto the mats and I stared at it, stunned. Marie's footsteps were almost silent as she ran lightly to my side, but her hands squeezed my arms until I thought they would break when she grabbed them, and her voice was a siren wail of frustration. "I swear, are you trying to aggravate me? Or are you really that stupid?"
The words tore out of my throat before I even knew I meant to say them, childish and indignant. "What did I do?"
"What did you-" Marie looked like she was about to explode...her face was certainly red enough. I wondered if she's just blow off the top of her head like a volcano, or if she'd actually blow up into thousands of little gross pieces that I'd never get out of my leotard. "What did she do, she asks!"
My teacher abruptly released me, almost shoving me away as she did so, and stood again. I rubbed at my arms and glared at her with injured dignity as she stalked in small circles around the area where we were practicing, rubbing her temples with her fingers and hissing out her breath through her teeth. Finally, she whirled on me and put her hands on her hips. "What you did, Mademoiselle Passel, is you ignored my instructions, and you nearly knocked out yourself or one of the other students."
I protested, "How did I-"
"One." Marie held up one slender finger like a sword point. "You finished that second spin with your legs so far apart I could crawl underneath you."
A small part of me wanted to snap back that she was probably too old and fat to crawl under my small body, but children being lectured learn quickly to subdue those urges. I managed, somehow. "Two. You dropped the right stick first. I told you to work on breaking that habit of relying too much on your dominant hand. That's why we're working the left side more. Or was there so much on your little mind you just forgot it?"
My lips trembled at the sarcastic and disgusted tone of her voice when she spoke those last words, and my eyes began to burn.
"Three. Your throwing that last time was all wrong, completely and utterly. You don't throw it like you're planning on catching it and then wait, that's all wrong. You throw it about half that height so all you have to do is throw up your string and then you don't have to catch it at all!"
I covered my face without thinking, and wished I had hands left to cover my ears.
"Four. Your fourth mistake, Mademoiselle Passel, is that because you did not listen when I specifically warned you not to try and catch your diabolo when switching sticks, your string was too tense. If I hadn't stopped you, when you finished switching hands the diabolo would have gone spinning right up the string and bounced off the stick, flying off God only knows where." Her voice took on a mocking tone, but her eyes still blazed. "You're so wonderful at getting that little toy to spin so fast, it'd probably fly pretty far if it ricocheted off that stick, wouldn't it? So fast it would probably hurt if it hit someone, that's pretty fast, isn't it?"
All of the indignation and how dare she's had faded away into shame and fear...it didn't matter that I still didn't like Marie even after so many lessons, she was an adult and I was a six year old child and she was yelling at me for doing something very, very bad.
"Can you give me one good reason," Marie continued to rage, "why you refuse to follow any simple directions that you are given? What will it take, Mademoiselle Passel? Hospitalizing one of the other children here, or even yourself?"
I tried not to cry very often, lest I shame myself in front of my classmates and be labeled a crybaby and a wimp, but I couldn't stop my eyes from overflowing at my teacher's words and I scrubbed furiously at my eyes to keep the tears from falling where she could see them. The movement must have caught her attention, however, because a moment later Marie took my arm with surprising gentleness, took the diabolo from my cold fingertips, and led me off of the practice mat and into one of the offices in the back of the gym.
Under normal circumstances I probably would have been alive with curiosity at being taken back to the offices that the students were under no circumstances allowed to enter, but at that moment I was too upset and frightened to feel any excitement about the situation. Despite the lightness of Marie's grip and the fact that she was certainly not forcing me to come with her--on the contrary, she stopped and waited with me every time I started to resist and refused to walk any further and would not say a word until I followed her on my own--but I still believed that she was taking me away to tell the head of the gym that I was a naughty and selfish child and that I would never be able to return to my lessons there again, and even more than the humiliation would have been if that were the case I was terrified of having to leave my diabolo learning behind. It was true that I hardly listened to what Marie told me if I thought there was a way to do the same thing that I already knew and preferred, but I was learning and I wanted to keep learning even more. The techniques, the new tricks, the little bits of information I was able to glean from Marie and others about those competitions she kept alluding to…I did not want to leave it behind, not in the least. Besides, if Marie threw me out, my parents would punish me as well for being so careless and bad, and what if they took away my diabolos entirely, for good?
Marie led me into one of the offices and closed the door behind her. I climbed into one of the chairs, trying my hardest not to sniff too loudly and keep my tears hidden, but of course it did not work very well. I was still a child, after all. Children are not very adept at hiding their emotions and while I take pride in being more composed and calm than most my age, I'm sure back then I was no exception to the rule. Marie sat in a chair beside me rather than behind the desk as I would have expected if I were not so upset, waited until I was a bit calmer, and passed me a tissue. "Rosetta."
I paused in the act of wiping my nose and felt my eyes well up again at the sound of her voice. Marie clearly noticed because she immediately reached out and took my free hand in hers. "Rosetta, can you stop crying for a moment and listen to me? You aren't in any trouble, I promise."
There were so many things that were unbelievable about that simple statement that I stopped crying out of surprise. "But…" I dabbed at my eyes and nose with the tissue and sniffed to try and clear my voice. "Aren't you angry at me?"
"Of course I am angry with you!" she nearly snapped, and closed her eyes with a visible effort at controlling herself. "You refuse to listen to me, no matter what I say or tell you to do unless it suits you. You never even stop to think that perhaps there is a reason I tell you these things!"
The volume of her voice had been steadily rising despite her efforts, but before I could start to cry again Marie opened her eyes and shook her head. "I'm not sure what to do with you. But you aren't in trouble. I just think that we need to talk."
"You aren't going to tell my parents?"
"Why would I?" With another shake of her head, she sighed. "You need to stay calm if you don't want them to know, though. Your face is so blotchy and red right now that anyone on the street could tell that you're upset. Promise me that you'll stay calm and quiet until I am finished, all right?"
I nodded solemnly, still worried and not willing to say no to anything my teacher told me at that particular moment, no matter what that might be.
"All of these rules and techniques aren't just silly orders for you to follow," Marie began. "I'm not telling you to do these things because I'm some sort of witch or mean person who just wants to boss you around."
I nearly opened my mouth to say something smart back at that, but I had promised I would stay silent and so I did not speak.
"First of all, you need to understand that while the diabolo is fun, it can also be dangerous."
"I know that," I interrupted without thinking, and Marie closed her eyes for a moment in exasperation.
"I'm not just talking about breaking things and getting into trouble with your parents, Mademoiselle Passel. What I told you out there is completely possible; if I just dropped your diabolo on your head it would hurt quite a bit, wouldn't it?" She waited until I nodded my understanding before continuing on. "Imagine if it hit you after it was flying through the air at top speed. It's exactly like getting hit with a rock that someone throws at you, only a little bit less dangerous. Not much, though. Do you understand?"
I nodded again, my eyes wide and horrified. I had never thought about it like that before. I knew that my parents were always concerned about me hurting myself when I played with my diabolo on my own no matter how good I got at it, but I had never understood why. Now, though…now I did. I felt shamed and horrified all over again.
"If you aren't careful and do everything in the safest manner possible, you could hurt yourself or someone else very easily, like I told you earlier. It could happen another way, too. You could trip over your strings and fall wrong or fall on your sticks or poke yourself with them or simply stand wrong and hurt yourself trying to spin improperly. You see, Rosetta, these techniques are just like rules for doing diabolo and if you don't follow them, people could get hurt, even you." Marie released my hand and reached for another tissue to give me. The one I already had was balled and twisted up in my hand and utterly useless as a result. "There is another reason you need to learn to listen to me as well. You want to compete, don't you?"
"I want to be world champion," I answered immediately, even though I was still in the dark as to what competing and being world champion actually entailed. I only knew that I wanted it.
"Well, if you want to be world champion, you need to learn to follow orders. The judges at competitions won't just be looking at how creative your routine is. They also want to make sure that you are following the rules, using the proper techniques just like everyone else in the competitions, including all of the techniques and tricks that you are required to in any given competition…" Marie smiled a bit nastily at the expression of bemusement and distress on my face. "It's all very complex, isn't it?"
"Is it really that hard?" I asked quietly.
"It is. But!" My teacher held up one elegant finger to keep me from speaking. "That does not mean that you can't do it. If you are already used to doing everything the way that the judges expect you to, then it won't be nearly as difficult as it sounds. You are practicing for competitions with me, which means you need to be willing to listen to me when I tell you to do something differently than how you want to. So then," she finished as she leaned back in her chair and studied me. "Do you understand now why I was so angry?"
"You didn't have to…" I began, but a stern look and a raised eyebrow from Marie had me swallowing the rest of my protest. "Yes, Mademoiselle Fleur. I understand."
"Will you listen to me from now on instead of fighting me when I tell you to do something that is more difficult for you now?"
"Yes, Mademoiselle Fleur."
"Good." Marie stood and helped me to climb down from my chair. "Let's start by seeing if you can follow my instructions about your left side and throwing techniques."
As difficult as it was to follow Marie Fleur's instructions when I already had my own way of doing things that seemed much easier and more fun, her lecture did get through to me. I had ever really thought about why my parents had been so worried about me playing with the diabolo when I was little, much less now, or even if there were other reasons for them telling me that I could not throw it indoors especially around other people outside of the risk of breaking something or disrupting them somehow. I studied my diabolos very closely after the lecture, even my little old plastic one from all those years ago, and after throwing them experimentally against the side of the house and the door until my mother told me to stop right that minute or I would be in awfully bit trouble, I concluded that Marie had not been exaggerating. They were big, they were heavy, and I had not trouble at all imagining the loud, painful thunk the diabolo made when it hit the house being applied to my own head. If the adults thought that me following Marie's directions would keep people from getting hurt, well, they must be right then.
Even more importantly, though, I had finally learned something about competing and the competitions to be the world champion diabolo performer. It all did sound terribly difficult. And yet…hearing even that discouraging bit of information had only made me want it even more. It was like hearing from an adult that you would hate something they were eating but they still won't tell you what it is exactly. The more I heard, the more I wanted to try it myself and find out everything, absolutely everything, that I wasn't being told.
The challenge in itself appealed to me as well. If there were so many rules, there must be a reason for it, right? Was it to make sure that everyone was doing the same thing? How did they know who was the best, then?
Well, that was simply enough to figure out. The person who won was the one who could do everything perfectly when everyone else couldn't.
I wanted to be the best. I wanted everyone in the world to know that I was the best, always. So if I had to follow the same rules as everyone else, then I had to follow them perfectly so that I was the best. And I was going to be the very best, I knew it. There was no doubt about it. I would be world champion, and so I would follow all of the rules.
Marie had a much easier time working with me from then on.
Over the summer, my diabolo practices had become the center of my world, and when first grade began I had trouble going back to school and integrating myself with the normal children again. My mind had a single focus and it was so different from theirs that it made things rather difficult at first. I had already distanced myself from them the previous school year in order to save myself any teasing and bullying over any trace of an accent I might accidentally let slip, so I did not really have any friends at school as it was, and now I wasn't sure if I would ever have any. I didn't really mind that much, so long as my peers respected me properly, but still I felt bewildered by the other children's behavior and more than a little bit curious as to what their motivations could possibly be.
Recess was the most confusing part of the day. I joined the other little girls over on the jungle gym and bars, but unlike them I had a purpose in being there. Marie had been working with me on increasing my flexibility by having me do bridges over the gymnastic bars to stretch out the front of my legs. She also had suggested to my parents that I start taking one gymnastics class a week in addition to my lessons with her so that I could learn the basic movements I would need to know for my routines outside of spinning and actually working the diabolo. So while the other girls played aimlessly, I sat on the parallel bars with one leg propped up on the opposite bar as I stretched over it, or practiced basic flips and rolls off of the bars, or any number of similar things designed to help me further my own goals. I wanted to compete as soon as possible, so every free moment was time to practice, even during recess. Besides, it was still fun.
Meanwhile, the other girls swung on the bars or climbed over them or flipped around them with no evidence of any technique whatsoever or even just sat on them and chatted with each other, and I simply could not fathom what the purpose was at all.
Yet despite my curiosity I never actually asked the other girls what they were doing, even for the sake of a literal answer. I puzzled over their motivations and what purpose their play might have, but I was too preoccupied with my own actions to ask during recess and there was never time during class or after school since I either went straight home to play with my diabolos or to the gym to practice with Marie every day. Perhaps if there had been more time my curiosity would have gotten the best of me and I would have finally asked them, but as it was I never had the chance. Someone else beat me to it.
I curled up from where I was leaning backwards off of the bars to find myself staring in the dark eyes of another girl my age with long black hair sitting next to me. She smiled and waved one hand happily at me. "What are you doing?"
It took me a moment to answer, as the question was completely unexpected. It had never even occurred to me that the other girls might not have any idea what I was up to. "I'm stretching," I replied at last.
"Oh." The girl frowned in thought and asked, "Why?"
My brows drew together in a combination of annoyance and confusion. "It's for practice. Of course."
"Practice for what?"
"For the circus," I answered her with complete honesty. Imagine my surprise when she start giggling at my words. I didn't see anything funny about it at all. What was she laughing at exactly?
At last the girl stopped laughing and continued to smile at me with a friendly expression. "What does hanging off of the bars do to help you practice for the circus?"
"I told you, I'm stretching." I leaned back again to demonstrate, enjoying the burn in my hamstrings as I did so. "It makes me more flexible and stronger."
"Are you an acrobat then?"
I sat up again immediately and all but shouted at her. "I'm a diabolist, not an acrobat. It's not the same at all!"
The girl scooted away a bit with an expression of surprise on her face. "Well, I didn't know what you did. You just said you were practicing for the circus." She pouted for a moment and then suddenly was all smiles again. "I've never known anyone in the circus before. What's your name?"
"I'm Rosetta Passel," I answered, still somewhat offended and angry at the girl.
"I'm Analise Merchant," the girl chirped happily. "I like your name. It's like a flower."
"It's supposed to be," I told her with a bit less anger towards her now. "My mother picked it."
"Really? I'm just named after my grandmother. Are you really in the circus, Rosetta?"
"Not really. Not yet," I amended, letting my feet fall from where they had been propped against the other parallel bar and swinging my legs back and forth idly. "Someday I will be. And I'll be a world champion diabolist when I grow up."
Analise kicked her legs back and forth in time with mine, mimicking me without seeming to think about it. "That's really neat. Hey, is diabolo anything like baton? My mother wants me to start taking baton like she did when she was little like me. Do they do baton in the circus? We could be in the circus together that way!"
"I can ask Marie. I've only been to the circus once."
"I think they have batons in the circus. Hey, you can help me practice, like you do every day. You can show me stretches and things, right?"
"Sure. They're really easy."
"Good. I haven't even started yet, so I don't want it to be too hard. If you say it's easy, though, that's okay, since we're friends now. Friends don't lie, right?"
I agreed with her without thinking, smiling back happily myself, matching Analise's expression tooth for tooth. Suddenly I thought I might understand what the other girls were doing when they were out playing during recess. They were having fun, too, just with their friends instead of alone.
Having a friend was definitely fun.