This was an essay I wrote for a class last semester. The topic said to "tell us about the best or worst time in your life." Unable to think about anything or anyone else at the time, I chose my beautiful student, dancer, and friend, Nina...
For most of my life I’ve been able to separate my memories of the greatest times from the bad times, like a mental bookmark. Unfortunately, the two are linked together in my most awful, "bittersweet" life lesson. My memories of the summer of 2009 have no bookmark. These memories contain my absolute lowest moments, along with, although few, my highest moments. Both of which caused by the most tragic event I’ve ever experienced in my 18 years of life.
On July 12, 2009, a friend of mine was killed in a car accident in Greece. Her death was the most unexpected, painful experience I have encountered yet. I felt completely lost, without purpose. Empty. The time I spent and continue to spend rebuilding myself is a journey that continues to change my life. For that I am more than grateful to have known her.
Her name was Katerina, but those who knew her well or whom she got the chance to correct (like me) called her Nina. She was six-and-a-half, with sky blue eyes and chestnut brown hair that was almost too short for ponytails. She laughed often, and when she did her whole face lit up with a smile, revealing the tiny gap between her two front teeth, and the happiness in her eyes. When she spoke she would occasionally stumble over her words, but never left her listener questioning her intelligence. Her brain was like a sponge. She observed those around her, especially adults, and in turn, was incredibly mature for her age. And she had such a sense of style! She picked out her own clothes, had her nails painted, and always, always had tattoos. She was wise beyond her years and she acted it! The last tattoo I saw on her was a flower design that stretched across her entire, although very narrow, lower back. I remember being shocked that a six-year-old chose that location, but she couldn’t have been any more proud. Nina was one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, inside and out and I was blessed to have known her.
We met in September of 2008. That year, I decided that because of my own dance injuries I would have one more year of dancing and then leave it behind me. Because I stayed, I was chosen to be the teacher of a "Combo 5" class at my dance studio. It took one week for the studio instructor to realize these girls were talented and should be bumped up a level. So we combined two classes, one of five-year-olds and one of six-year-olds, and created an enormous "Combo 6" that would learn Jazz and Tap.
When I took on the responsibility of teaching this class, I met Nina. I taught her every Saturday from September through June, along with her little sister Christina and cousin Eleni. Three-year-old Christina was in my "Combo 4" class, and Eleni joined Nina in "Combo 6."
I love teaching more than anything in the world. I love passing my passion on to other people, and every so often they share that passion with me. Sometimes it takes time to develop, but every dancer who genuinely loves movement has a light. It’s a light of joy that just emits pure happiness to their audience. It’s a light that separates dancers from performers, and athletes from artists. Katerina had that light. I spotted it from day one that she truly loved to move, and I connected with her immediately, more so than any other of my students.
She understood her body, and I would challenge her. I would focus on things with her that I ignored with the other dancers. Her little body was a powerhouse of pure muscle. She could do things with herself that the other girls couldn’t. Most of the time I’d teach them all something new just to see if she could do it. She would never disappoint me.
I thought of her as being just a step above the rest of the class and I think she knew it. Almost every class she would stand directly in back of me at the barre, and I would put her first in line to travel across the floor, knowing she would set an example for the others. If I had forgotten a student’s spot on the floor, she knew it. If I forgot a step I taught the week before, she knew it. She was always helping me, her classmates, and her little sister.
When it came to Christina, Nina would do anything. She went above and beyond her responsibilities as a sister. She would come early to the studio so that when Christina began to throw her weekly tantrum about being dropped off, or putting on her tap shoes, she was there to pick up the pieces. Christina wouldn’t dance without her sister beside her, and for that, Nina knew her sister’s routine in addition to both of her own. Because Christina needed her sister with her for her class, I spent more time with Nina than any of the other students in my classes.
Besides dancing, we had a friendship. She would finish changing her shoes early, or take her water bottle over to where I was on her break to talk to me. She would tell me stories about everything. Her friends at school, her little sister, birthday parties she went to, even the people in her apartment building. She could talk about anything, and she chose to share it with me.
After the weekly lessons had finished, and the recital had passed, I got a call from her mother to babysit Nina and Christina. Although I knew Christina was a challenge, I enjoyed the two of them too much in class to miss out on the opportunity. Plus, knowing I’d have Nina’s helpful hand put my mind at ease, and I decided I was willing to take on whatever battle Christina chose with me. I got to watch them twice, for a total of close to ten hours. It was a short period of time, but I feel I got to know them pretty well.
The first day I was with them I realized how much of a little adult Katerina was. We were busy the whole day. Whether we were eating, playing, cleaning up our messes or dancing together, we were always engaged in something fun. She even climbed up the bookshelf to show me her baby book.
When we played, I remember wondering if I shared with my little sister the way she shared with Christina. Nina made compromises. She figured out the best way to make everyone have what they wanted. She was clever and she obeyed every single one of her mom’s rules. I’ll never forget when Christina was throwing her first tantrum of the day about a Nutella sandwich. It got to a point where I didn’t know what to say to her, so Nina took over. She stood over her, looked at me, then back at her sister. She put her left hand on her hip and whipped out her right hand in front of her with her index finger pointed and counted, "One… Two… Three!" and then whispered to me, "You can put her in the corner for time out." I was so overwhelmed with the screaming, kicking and crying Christina was putting me through but at that moment I remember being so entertained by Katerina’s mannerisms. She was like a mini-mommy.
The last day I saw her was the day before they left for Greece, Friday, July 11. They came to my house so that they could swim in the pool. We swam, watched my old dance videos, and they explored my room. They ran in without my permission and got into just about everything. Nina tried on my shoes, left wearing one of my sweatshirts, and her hair exactly the way I had mine. I spent a good portion of the day with Nina because she wanted to stay in the pool after Christina decided she was going to stay with my mom. She was showing me tricks she learned and we sat with our feet in the water just talking. It was her "big girl" time with me.
Their mom came to pick them up right as I was about to paint their nails, and we promised we would have a nail day once they were back. Our moms sat at my dining room table and talked about my day with the girls, Greece, and potential medicines for my ankle pain. The girls were asking my mom if they could take me to Greece with them. Christina was multi-tasking- talking, walking around the room and drawing, and Katerina was in my sweatshirt, sitting in the chair I sit at for dinner, observing it all. I walked them outside to say good-bye and they were telling me all about Greece and the big water slides there. I had so much fun with them. The only thing I can’t remember from that day was if I gave her a hug goodbye.
I got the call five days after I had seen her, four days after the accident. My world stopped. It seemed unreal. I couldn’t understand how or why she was chosen to die. I began to question everything in my life and its importance. All at once I unknowingly took everything away from myself to achieve complete isolation. I stopped talking to my friends, I stopped eating, dancing, working, everything. In retrospect, I did this to start from scratch. With nothing, I would learn what I couldn’t live without and what I could, as well as who couldn’t live without me. And slowly, things and people came back to me. I learned who my friends were and what made me happy when I felt like I had nothing to live for.
As numb as her death made me at first, and sometimes now still, she truly gave me purpose. This child, Nina, changed my perspective on so many aspects of my being. She left me with memories and laughter I could never replace. She made me realize what I have to do with the rest of my life. Because of her, and I promised her I would, I will keep dancing. I promised to make myself strong enough to dance again, for her. For her I will teach to share my passion, and to find and bring out the light she had in other dancers. For her I promised myself to always have that happiness, even if I’m not dancing. I will never put myself in a job or lifestyle that doesn’t make my eyes shine like hers.
I admire her. She lived with a simple philosophy. She did what made her happy, as all young kids do. She lived in the exact moment she was living. She did what made her and others around her smile. She dreamed and reached for higher goals than some people will ever make. In her lifetime, I know she was a Varsity swimmer, a Ballet, Tap, and Jazz dancer, and Karate master. She was definitely the most accomplished six-year-old most of us will ever have met. She did what made her happy and what she loved, and I can only hope to do the same.
Katerina lived a beautiful life and was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. In her honor her parents have created a scholarship fund for kids to follow their dreams academically and through athletics (<katerinatsiboukis.org>). They have a website and a group on Facebook to promote this scholarship, and keep her memory alive.
This summer, through my all-time low moments I discovered what brings me higher. I’m discovering what, and who I should always have in my life. Although teaching and knowing she will never be dancing behind me following again, seeing Christina without her, and her parents and family without her bring me down all over again, knowing the things she taught me, and how amazing she was, I can be happy I knew her.