As if out of caves we come together, to stand here behind a two-way mirror. This is the first day of the inevitable. This is the first day of dance class for a 3-year-old ballerina who has waited so long. Inevitable, and yet complicated by a blur of something so bizarre: There are all these other girls here, other 3-year-olds in new leotards and new pink slippers and even tiaras. Other girls?

We thought we had the only one? The only 3-year-old in the history of the world to have discovered the twirl and the curtsy and a love for dance that seemed embedded within the structure of the soul. Yes, perhaps for a time we did think this. Yes, of course we did. We are humans, and a swollen pride for the little humans under our care is one of the ways our species survives.

Parenting a child younger than 3 is different from parenting a child older than 3. Everything was private before, her persona protected and glorified. Now she is stepping out onto the world stage, old enough for dance class and preschool, where she has her own locker with her name on it. For the parent, it is as if exiting a cave set deep into the center of the earth. Up here, there is air and there is awareness and there is community, but there is also altitude sickness.

My daughter. What is the matter with her? Why is she standing as far away from the leggy and elastic Miss Dawn as space will permit? Why is she standing there, beside the window, with her arms folded so tight across her chest it seems she might be choking her own blood supply? I feel I should make an excuse. I should tell the other parents hovering like eager zoo patrons behind this two-way mirror that my daughter needs her space, she's a circler, she does things in her own good time. I should assure them that there is no other 3-year-old girl in the history of the world with a love of dance so embedded within the structure of the soul.

But there are other reluctant girls, some who appear even more scared than my daughter. There are girls who will not stay in that room unless their mothers stay, daughters who know that even new leotards and new pink slippers are no match for a mother's lap. We feel bad for those mothers. Behind the two-way mirror, a kind of safety glass, some offer opinions. "She should not let that child cling to her." Or, "She should take that poor child home." Or, "She should tell her that you don't get a sticker unless you dance."

Heh heh. Really? Does this mean my daughter, girl of folded arms and frozen frown, is not going to get a sticker? I make a joke about this, but no one laughs.

"You really should go in there and tell her she won't get a sticker unless she dances," the one says to me.

Oh, my. I don't think so. I really don't think so. Life outside the cave is harsh.

Now the littlest girl, the one with blond pigtails, she is

wailing. She is in her mother's lap, but even that is not enough protection. She needs to get out of that room. She stands, grabs her mother's hand, yanks. They come flying out. The mother comforts the child, joins us behind the glass. "Those girls are having fun!" the mother says, pointing. "Don't you want to have fun?" The child has not yet caught her crying breath, her chest is still hiccuping. "Look, sweetie! They are doing leaps just like you do at home! Leaps! What fun! C'mon, let's go in there and have some fun!"

"I don't want to have some fun," the girl says between sobs.

"You don't want to have fun?" the mother says. "You don't want to be happy? You don't want to make people happy?"

Oh, my. I want to rescue this child from a forced happiness, probably in the same way the sticker mother wants to rescue mine from the stickerless life. Outside the cave, you witness so many different styles of persuasion.

Another child comes storming out, joins her mother in our crowd. "What are you doing?" says the incredulous mother. "Do you have to go potty?" The girl shakes her head no. "Well, then get back in there, sweetie! You see all those girls, they are earning. Remember we talked about earning?"

My daughter is not earning. My daughter is not making people happy. I feel a mixed-up guilt. I should do something. I should fix this. I watch Miss Dawn reach out, beckoning my daughter to join in the circle of the brave. But no. "I have to watch the cars," my daughter says, turning to face the window, her back now to the class. I want to go rescue her. I want to scoop her up and scoop me up and I want us to return to the cave for good.

Afterward, every girl gets a sticker. (And God bless Miss Dawn.) In the car, my daughter announces that she would like to return to dance class next week. "It was fun," she says.

"It was?"

"Yup."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is laskasmail@aol.com.