Acts of Agency by Ori Lenkinski

*originally published in Hebrew on the Parental Choreography blog in Haaretz


One of the best decisions I ever made was to drop out of college.

If you had asked me a year earlier if dropping out of school would ever be a possibility, I wouldn’t have even answered. I would have just laughed knowing that it could never happen.

I was raised in an academic home. Grades were important. Applying oneself mattered. I was at the top of my class in my private high school. SAT season was intense. Most of my classmates made enormous efforts to secure their spot at an Ivy League school. And I was there in all of it, caring about my grades, pushing myself to excel, thinking that being a great student meant a great life was ensured to me.

The other side of that life was the after-school side, which was dancing. From as early as I can remember myself I danced. On the carpet of my grandparents’ apartment in Canada to a record I remember calling “The Snake Song” in my mind, in dance studios in suburban Philadelphia and competitions and musicals and intensives. I had planned to get into a very fine dance program at a very exclusive college. When I got cut at the audition, I decided I would do the next best thing and join my sister at McGill University in Montreal.

I loved being on campus, I loved living in the dorm and meeting people from all over the world, so different from the sheltered Jewish community I grew up in. I loved picking courses seemingly at random from endless, awe-inspiring lists. But, one morning in February, I woke up, looked out at the feet of snow that had fallen overnight and realized that I was not living my actual life. I knew that I could stay there, pick a major, graduate. I could live in a great apartment for not much money (as was possible in Montreal in the late 1990’s) and think about a Master’s degree once I finished my Bachelor’s. But I, the me that I knew, could not stay there.

I called my parents early that morning and informed them that I would be taking the following year off to live in New York and give dancing a real shot. I had no idea what that meant only that the train of my life was leaving the station and if I didn’t jump on it, it would be too late. For some strange reason and in nearly complete contradiction to the educational values they hold dear, they gave me their full and immediate support.

One year off wasn’t enough and it turned into two and three and fifteen and more. And though I can’t say the following months figuring out how to make it in New York (waitressing) were easy, they were possible and they led the way to me finally boarding that life train, holding on dearly while the carriages bumped, jerked and chucked me around. It was the life that I always wanted even if I couldn’t picture it in advance.

I was recently reminded of this when the Gifted Students exam was rolled out over second grade classes throughout Israel. A permission slip was sent home in my daughter’s backpack that we had to sign and return so that she could take the test. We were told that the test was elective. My daughter wasn’t sure if she wanted to take it. I signed the form and returned it to the teacher with a note saying we were leaving it up to our child, she could decide on that day if she wanted to take it or not. The teacher called to see what the problem was. For the school, maximum testing is essential. She stressed that everyone should “at least try”. I told her that we were keeping with our original decision to let our daughter decide.

On the day of the test, she came home a bit discouraged and told us that she had done half of the test and, when met with parts she didn’t understand, decided to stop.

I thought about this.

The moments in my life in which I have made the best choices have been the ones in which some inner force pushed me, obliged me to take full use of my agency. Dropping out of college was one but there were others. Leaving a volatile relationship, moving cities, quitting endless bad jobs, those moments in which I felt uncomfortable enough to stop doing something and get up and walk away. It isn’t that I condone quitting but I do support knowing when something isn’t right and listening to that voice.

I had no aspirations that my daughter would rank in with the gifted corps of second graders. The only situation in which I would have celebrated her passing is if that was what she truly desired, if passing made her happy. I would rather her be well-adjusted and confident than academically advanced. And perhaps because of that, to me, her walk out was such a bold act of freedom, of self-will and trust in her instincts that I felt perhaps prouder than I would have had she passed the test with flying colors.