Monday, June 20, 2005

Food for thought

Willow is a dance major with a minor in public relations. Like all the dance majors I’ve taught, she gets to class late because she has technique class right before and has to shower and change, or she slept late because they had to rehearse the brown bag performance until nearly midnight last night, or she was confused about what day it is and went to her Monday-Wednesday class instead of her Tuesday-Thursday class.

Dance majors, those ethereal little bun-heads who waft down the hallway with their feet splayed at 45-degree angles. They’re always somewhere else, not really in the here and now.

I think it’s because they’re hungry.

I’ve never met any of the dance faculty so I don’t know if they’re acolytes of George Balanchine’s starve-’em-to-the-bone philosophy. But the dancers who have been in my classes do adhere to some frightening diet plans.

Willow, for example, eats paper. “I just get so hungry. And if I eat normal food, I put on weight.” She tells me this at Starbucks, where I’m meeting students one by one the day before an assignment is due (they get a free read on the rough drafts). I offer to buy her a latte and a muffin and she ends up explaining why she doesn’t eat.

She’s about 5-foot-3, maybe 100 pounds sopping wet. She started the paper-chewing when she was in middle school after her dance teacher told her she was too chubby to be Clara in The Nutcracker. Willow tried notebook paper (the student kind) and finally moved on to Bounty paper towels, which proved easier to chew and swallow. She rips the sheets into thin strips and chews them until they disintegrate in her mouth. Paper makes her full. She loses weight. She has a partial scholarship into the dance department. She loves ballet and wants to learn the great roles.

In class, Willow falls asleep every day at exactly 11:20 a.m. She sits in the front and I see her eyelids slowly start to descend like little garage doors. She has trained herself to doze without her head drooping forward.

She’s a good student. Gets her work done. Always pleasant. Decent grades. But I’d love to meet her again after she’s had a good long rest and a steak dinner.

Marcie was the dance major who fainted in class that time. Fell right out of her chair, like 80 pounds of feathers softly sinking to the floor. We were in the writing lab, where each student sits behind a computer and tippy-taps writing exercises one day a week. One minute Marcie had her delicate fingers on the keyboard, the next she was crumpled in a heap beside her chair, eyes rolled back in her head.

The students on either side of Marcie’s limp body just sat there. I rushed over and rolled her flat on the floor. At least she was still breathing. Anybody have water! I shouted. In a trice, a dozen bottles of Evian, Fiji and Dasani materialized from backpacks and totebags. Suddenly Marcie’s eyelids fluttered and she looked up at me with watery blues. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m OK.”

All of this didn’t take 10 seconds to unfold, but my heart was pounding in a panic. Mental note: Learn CPR.

Fainting students -- not something they covered in the new faculty orientation sessions.

One of the Ashleys helped a wobbly Marcie gather her things. They headed off to the dorm. “She hasn't eaten in two days,” said another Ashley conspiratorially. “And when she eats, she only eats three Gardettos.”

What? “Gardettos. Those snack things like pretzels and toasty deals,” said the Ashley.

She lives on three packets of pretzels a day?

“No,” Ashley corrected. “Three pretzels. She counts them out. A package of Gardettos lasts her a week.”


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