Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Of Failure

In lieu of learning notes this week, here's this week's pivotal incident.

In February the two big girls started taking organ lessons. I'd been struggling with how to keep their interest in music after a difficult year with a piano teacher who was a bad fit with our family. A friend had been taking organ at a local academy and was doing very well, and my girls thought organ was intriguing and that they might like to try their hands at it. So we signed up.

There were warning signs at first. The teacher was used to pupils who were striving for excellence, and that has never been a hallmark of piano ambition at our house. After our first week, I had an email which laid out, gently but firmly, that if the girls didn't improve their practice habits, then our money would probably be best spent elsewhere. I sat on them for a week, setting timers, supervising every practice, correcting posture and wrist position, advising on Hanon and fingering and tempos and All The Stuff. The next week was better; the teacher sent another email praising their improvement, and we went on. They did well at the recital, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the summer break.

During the summer, the kids did play. They just never practiced their organ music. Eleanor and Julia both fooled around with pieces from a Sound of Music easy piano book. Isabel, not taking organ, was trying to learn Jingle Bells. They had fun without working too hard, but it was optional fun. They did it or not as they pleased.

Now, music lessons aren't optional at my house. Whether they like it or not, they're going to have to take something, just as they have to go to religion classes or do their math. So as it came closer and closer to the new year of organ, I exhorted them to practice. They did, halfheartedly. And it turns out they took their halfhearted attitude right into lessons.

After their first lesson this week, I received another email from the teacher. This one was even more firmly worded, though still exceedingly polite. Usually students starting a new year of organ come back with some enthusiasm, some readiness to play. She'd not seen any of that in the girls. The one with the stronger work ethic had powered through her lesson, but there was no joy or eagerness there. The one with the lesser work ethic (my formulation, not the teacher's) was inattentive, vague, nonchalant, and, when sent to the piano to practice while her sister had a turn at the organ console, had spent the whole time folding origami rather than playing. When asked if she was still interested in having lessons, she responded that maybe she would take it this year and then try something else. The teacher was not cashing my check. She wanted me to think about whether organ was right for our family, or, again, whether our money would be better spent on something the girls would enjoy more.

Perhaps it was my daylong sinus headache, or perhaps I'm in the October funk, but I cried over this email. Not little sniffles, not a tear trickling down my cheek, but big wrenching ugly sobs that required a litter of tissues. When Darwin returned home, having picked up the girls from dance class on the way home from work, I said I needed to speak to Daddy in the library and shut the door in the children's faces. I wept big sobs against his chest as the door kept opening and a concerned four-year-old head popped around the corner to ask several times, "Why is Mommy crying?" Why was I crying? Not because I was embarrassed for myself, though I was. Not because dreams of organ weren't panning out, although they weren't. Not even because of a girl acting her age -- I was that age once; I remember how strange it seemed that people thought I was being disrespectful when I thought that I was paying perfect attention, etc. Because, perhaps of failures -- a failure of manners, of real courtesy on the part of the girls; a failure of scholastic endeavor; a failure of household culture, perhaps, that gave my children the impression that they could blow through lessons as carelessly as they blow through their work at home, and that no one would call them on it. I questioned my entire homeschooling project now that I'd seen it tried and found wanting in public -- every homeschooling parent's fear.

After dinner we called the girls in separately and spoke with them. The lesser offender was given a choice about lessons, which she wasn't ready to make right then. After a weekend of thinking about it, I think I'm going to invoke parental privilege and override the choice with my decision -- no more organ lessons, in the best interest of the family. The greater offender was read the teacher's email and told that she had lost the privilege of studying organ, but that didn't mean that she was going to get out of taking music altogether, and that her parents were disappointed in her for choosing to waste the teacher's time and hers by disobeying the instruction to practice, and by being rude, whether intentionally or not, in the way she responded.

She wept. She had not meant to be rude. She wanted to play the drums.

"Honey, any teacher will tell you that piano is the best foundation for percussion because you learn harmony and rhythm," I said.

The tears continued to flow. "I feel about organ the way I feel about the cats," she sobbed.

My lips twitched. I looked at Darwin and saw his lips twitching. I looked away. I bit my tongue sternly. I made the mistake of looking back at Darwin, and we both broke down howling with laughter. And so the evening ended well-ish, although I still continued to tear up at intervals, and my eyes stung the way they do when you've been crying, and I started to wonder if I needed glasses.

And it's Monday morning, and I'm going to write to the teacher and tell her that we're not going to continue with organ and apologize again for the girls' behavior, and we're still homeschooling, and I'm going to research a new piano teacher, and the kids are alternately cutting up the newspaper article about Gone With the Wind to combine the stills into new movie projects while I try to write this out while yelling, "Just give me half an hour to write!" every time someone barges in to show me their story line. And life goes on, I guess.


John Farrell said...

I wish I could get special dispensation from Heaven to send you Miss Dunn, the Farrell family's late, beloved piano teacher who took something like two trains and two buses every Tuesday afternoon to come to our house and teach me and my three younger siblings piano. She looked like a character out of a Woody Allen movie (whenever he does flashbacks to the '40s) and had the utmost patience with all of us--and I'm sure we were more difficult than your two girls.

Caroline said...

This made me smile, remembering. My house was also a mandatory music one, and eventually this was heavenly for me, but it took awhile. When I was 6 my parents yanked me out of dance (perhaps they noticed my coordination was sub-par) and put me in piano, and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. And now as an adult I ponder the logistics of fitting an upright into a second story small apartment....

Julia said...

Hugs to you on the failure front, which is where all moms seem to be sent. Think of it this way: as organ failures go, this was better than some!

Some of the hardest feelings I know are the ones that come when I sense (or fear) character flaws in my kids that may have come about because of me. I do think that developing a good work ethic is extremely hard these days, mainly because we are comfortable enough not to *need* to work that hard at things. Perseverance isn't the necessity it used to be for survival. At least not in this part of the world.

The hook that works for us in developing a work ethic has been uncovering personal passions/interests, which are a much more compelling motivator than Mom. Developing perseverance in Things One Doesn't Like to Do is a whole different issue, one which often requires me to take on a policing role (which is one of the Things I Don't Like to Do). My personal aversion to having to play beat cop and do that much work, times that many kids, is perhaps the biggest part of the problem. Ah well.

Rebekka said...


mrsdarwin said...

She is a dog person afflicted with cat people for parents. You know those people who hear cute but mildly frustrating stories about kids and say, "That's why I'M never having kids!" I feel that way about dogs and every dog story ever posted on the internet.

Finicky Cat said...

Re: dogs. Mrs Darwin, that's the best illustration of dog-dislikers that I've seen. Ha! Yes.

Re: the organ episode. See, that's why I'M never having kids. I mean, if I hadn't already had these six, of course.

Rebekka said...

Aha. Also: so with you on the dog thing. Never met a dog I liked. Just some I disliked less than others.

Anne Kennedy said...

I hate failing so so so much. And watching a kid train wreck. This was a perfect description of so much for me.