Three times a week, I take a ballet class for adults. We do about 45 minutes of barre, 15 minutes of core work and stretching, and a half hour of center. Attendees range from late teen to upper forties. Nobody is Gelsey Kirkland, but it isn’t anyone’s first Swan Lake, either. For me, dance is an escape from the real world and the people in it. Sure, even dancers can be dressing room divas and declare turf wars at the barre, but overall these occurrences are rare.

Everyone wore something pink to class one night last week — one of those things that seems delightfully coincidental until one studies the color palettes in which women’s activewear is offered. As for me, I inadvertently chose a pink bandana. We started out by laughing about our attire, but the conversation somehow offended the teenager next to me. As we lined up waiting for our first center combination, she gave me the finger.

I saw her flip me off because rooms lined with mirrors have few safe havens. I had an incredulous moment but decided to ignore her. I was content to let it go, but two of her friends insisted on inciting a reaction. “Did you see her?” they tittered. The girl wouldn’t look at me. “She just flipped you off! Can you believe it?” I could believe it, this not being the first time I’d been flipped off. The teen shrugged at them, offending finger now hidden in tightly folded arms. She didn’t acknowledge them or apologize to me.

What I wanted to say was this: “I don’t give a shit what a vacuous 17-year-old thinks of me. I did this part of my life already.”

I didn’t say that.

Maturity is a funny thing. I don’t think it has very much to do with age, either. It has to do with that moment you realize that you have the power in a situation and choose not to wield it. It’s heady, knowing that you could injure someone with very little effort and a few choice words from your vocabulary arsenal. This girl didn’t hurt my feelings, but she stirred up some dormant pride by assuming I cared about her opinion. Part of me wanted to say something really mean.

This girl is not the kind of girl that I was in high school. Where I was docile and fastidiously cultivated the favor of adults, this girl laughs at the teacher, argues about corrections, and revels in her mistakes. She eschews the need to conform, perform, or reform–something it took me years to learn and even more years to learn to balance. This girl probably runs her high school, flippant and consequence-free. But I’ve seen how that future pans out. I could have told her, right there in class. I could have extrapolated her flaw- physical and intellectual and social–over time, explaining what happens to every one of us after the real world levels each and every one of us. But that heartbreaking and unavoidable process will befall her in time with or without my lecture. So I kept my mouth shut.

What I should have said was this: “Someday you’ll insult someone whose opinion of  you actually matters a great deal and you won’t be able to take it back.”

She was probably screwing around. Maybe she felt surly and needed someone to take it out on. Maybe she really hates pink headbands. Maybe she was showing off. Maybe it’s none of these things. In truth, the impetus doesn’t really matter. The habit is a bad one, though. As harmless as the situation was, somewhere down the line, she’s likely to do something she can’t undo. And let’s hope someone’s indelible first impression doesn’t cost her something dear.

What do I know about it? I got brave enough to use “fightin’ words” about halfway through college. I got into some scrapes with people and I didn’t fight fair. I did myself a disservice by attacking first and asking questions later. I permanently ruined relationships with people I respected. I didn’t learn very quickly, either. I’d just gotten acquainted with my ego and I spent more time crafting defenses than mending fences.

After graduation, I moved to a new city and took my first job. I desperately wanted to be liked and respected by my colleagues. I worked in marketing communications, then, and part of my job was to liaison with the customer service team. An irate customer had been emailing with a complaint for over a week. Our team felt insulted by her letters and weren’t sure what to do next. They sent her latest email to me for my opinion. I returned a scathing screed, assuring the team the customer was irrational, calling her a “snatch” for good measure. I hit “Reply All,” thinking I’d been forwarded the correspondence instead of cc’d.

I recalled that email for what seemed like hours. My boss was out of town. My boss’s bosses were out of town. So I called the woman’s voicemail and apologized. I wrote her a letter. I told her I’d resign as soon as my bosses got back from their trips. I told her that I was stupid and showboating and sorry — so very, very sorry. I felt dizzy, nauseous, unmoored. I went home and sat in my dismal apartment and sobbed.

And then she wrote back. She told me that it was hurtful to be called a snatch by someone you didn’t know, particularly a young woman. She told me that her children could have seen the email and then she’d have to explain that kind of language to them. She told me that she could tell I was devastated and that I should stop apologizing and learn a lesson. She did not want me to lose my job, she just wanted resolution to her customer service problem.

Lucky. I was mortified, humiliated, shamed, but lucky. She was mature. She could have, arguably should have, destroyed me. But I did as she asked. I thought about where that need to insult the indefensible came from. And these days, I try to follow a new rule: if I can’t say something to someone’s face, I don’t say it. Not in email. Not behind their back. This has definitely worked out better in the long run. I have more friends. My mouth doesn’t taste so much like foot.

Out there in the wild, wide world, I hope that girl from class grabs her second chances when they come. Though we’re more alike than she’ll ever know, in six months her graduation assures our paths won’t cross again. What I said to the girl in the class –maybe the best thing — was nothing at all.

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Photo by Bailey Weaver from Medford, USA (Perfect.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.