One of the things the kids were most excited about when we moved to Georgia—aside from the pool, because ZOMG A POOL WE MUST BE RICH—was that they were finally going to start taking piano lessons. I can’t give you a definitive answer on why we never did it before we moved, but I think it went a little something like: Sorry, we don’t have the money right now; well now you’re doing something else, instead; now we have the money and possibly the time but you no longer seem interested; and finally, HOORAY we have both the time and the money and you’re interested but… we’re about to move, so screw it.
So we waited until we moved. And then we got a recommendation. And the teacher was conveniently located and well-regarded and affordable and we said okay, let’s do this thing!
The kids have been studying with him for three years. Correction: The kids HAD been studying with him for three years. Because yesterday I fired him. And today I am still pissed off, but not nearly as much at him as I am at myself.
I am pissed at myself because I used to sit in on their lessons, for the first few months. But the teacher let me know that wasn’t really necessary (translation: Mom, take a hike and let me do my job), and so over the last months and years I’ve taken to letting them go on their own and I am merely the “how’d it go today?” caboose at the end. I am second-guessing my decision not to sit in on every damn lesson. Let’s see: three years of weekly lessons for two kids… that’s somewhere around 300 lessons I’ve missed.
The first year was fine. Great, even. Both kids loved it.
The second year was mostly fine. Monkey complained a little, but nothing serious. Chickadee started dragging her heels about practicing, though, which I found odd, because she was the one who’d really, really wanted to play.
The third year—this last year—has been hard. And to be fair to everyone involved, this last year was hard because everything about the year was hard, full stop. It wasn’t piano. Rather, it wasn’t JUST piano. Chickadee starting middle school was hard. Monkey’s 4th grade year was hard. Things were just hard in every possible way, it seemed like, and so I didn’t see piano as being any harder than anything else. Of course they complained. Of course no one wanted to practice. Of course Chickadee tanked at her recital. The 2009-2010 academic year goes down in the Casa Mir annals as “Extreme Suckitude. See also: hair donkey balls.” So I really had no reason to suspect piano was problematic.
Except a couple of times Monkey was dismissed early, in tears. And yes, it was a hard year, and sometimes he can be pretty difficult… but I’d tried to talk to the teacher about it a couple of times.
“He was diagnosed with Asperger’s,” I told him. “He’s really having a difficult time, and you have to understand that he’s not doing it on purpose.”
“Oh, I don’t care about any of that,” he’d said, waving his hands. “He’s just spirited, and sometimes he’s difficult. But he’ll outgrow it.”
And I excused him for his ignorance, because he’s older and set in his ways and look, the kids are playing real music, so something must be working okay here.
That was a mistake.
Except Chickadee was starting to hate piano. I would send her upstairs to practice piano and she would practice her flute until her lips cracked, but avoid the piano and sometimes say, in her defense, “Mr. PianoGuy hates me. It doesn’t matter if I practice or not, he’s just going to yell at me.” And I thought she was exaggerating, as she does.
That was a mistake.
Except the recital was coming up again this year, and both kids were completely freaking out. Monkey—who’d not been included, last year, because “he’s not mature enough,” even though kids half his age WERE included—was given a simple piece and we were told, “He should have no problem with this, and it’ll ease him into performing without it being stressful for him.” So I thought he’d kind of gotten it.
But then I sat in on Monkey’s lesson this week, and he stumbled a little as he played. And Mr. PianoGuy sighed heavily and rapped on the keyboard next to Monkey’s hands. “Monkey! This is the easiest piece in the world. ANYONE could play this piece! Pull yourself together!” Monkey darted a sad glance my way and I smiled at him in encouragement, while simultaneously wondering why I didn’t suggest Mr. PianoGuy find a motivation technique that doesn’t include mocking derision.
After he got through it, I asked if they’d discussed what Monkey should do if he makes a mistake at the recital. “Don’t go putting ideas in his head, Mom!” Mr. PianoGuy chided me. I tried to explain that Monkey needs to practice scenarios which are likely to be emotional for him, that he needs to know what to do if something goes wrong, and the teacher interrupted me to say to Monkey, “You just KEEP PLAYING, right?” Monkey nodded. That’s great advice for a neurotypical kid. I could easily picture Monkey screwing up at the recital, and with all eyes on him and anxiety burning bright, banging on the piano like a deranged Liberace; but I tried to believe it would be okay.
And then I sat in on Chickadee’s lesson this week, and she was surly and uncooperative, even though I was sitting right there. And while Chickadee takes high honors on a regular basis in surly and uncooperative, I’ve NEVER seen her carry on like this for a teacher. She is sweetness and light and goodness for her teachers. But not for Mr. PianoGuy. She struggled to get through her piece and her fingers wouldn’t obey, and she sat at the bench and wept and refused to continue, even after he asked and then told her to go on. She refused to look at or speak to him. And in exasperation I told her that if she couldn’t as least be respectful to the teacher, I was going to leave.
“NO, MAMA!” she cried, leaping up. “Stay! PLEASE!” I sternly informed her that when an adult speaks to her she responds, respectfully, and that she should afford Mr. PianoGuy the proper deference for the remainder of the lesson. She nodded and wiped her cheeks. He told her to “stop acting like a two-year-old” and gave her some direction and she started again. Flubbed again. Dropped her head down to the keys and didn’t respond when he called her name.
He turned to me and said, “What do you think is causing this attitude problem?”
I shrugged and said that she’s needed an attitude adjustment of late, we know, and she hadn’t practiced her piece enough and was now embarrassed, and I was sorry she was being difficult.
“I think I know what it is,” he continued. Oh, I remember thinking, THIS should be interesting. “It the whole… you know… the broken home situation.” I tried (and probably failed) not to gape, and as he continued I saw Chickadee straighten up and peer incredulously around the corner of the piano at him to listen to his indictment. “It’s very difficult,” he continued, “and I’m sure it’s just TERRIBLE for them, and they’re acting out. Plus, growing up with a stepfather… well, I had a stepfather, and it was pretty hard. It’s such a tough situation for them.”
[Sidebar Reality Check!
Just in case you’re new here or would like a refresher:
1) I’ve been divorced for seven and a half years. In other words, Monkey doesn’t remember their father and I being married at all, and Chickadee barely does. We’ve been apart for more of their lives than we were together.
2) Otto and I have been married for three and a half years. And excuse me if this sounds more self-congratulatory than I mean it to, but our home is pretty much the polar opposite of broken. Honestly, I think I did a pretty good job for the years the kids and I were on our own, but THIS household is everything I always wanted for my kids, and a level of love and stability that, quite frankly, makes me pretty damn proud.
3) I don’t know what sort of daddy issues Mr. PianoGuy is harboring, but Otto’s awful treatment of the children includes… oh, wait, that’s right. He treats them like his own, loves the snot out of them no matter how obnoxious they are, quietly steps aside for their father whenever appropriate, and has raised his voice in dealing with them exactly once that I can remember. THAT MONSTER.
4) I’m sure you’re wondering if Mr. PianoGuy is a paragon of family values, given his strong opinions on the matter. So I’m happy to confirm that yes, he and his (really lovely) wife are still married and have three adult children. And this is me not commenting on the fact that two of his three adult children dropped out of high school and had babies and currently live at home. AHEM. I am not commenting because IT’S NONE OF MY DAMN BUSINESS. See how that works?
I hope you have enjoyed this sidebar as much as I have.]
You could’ve heard a pin drop as Mr. PianoGuy sat there waiting to be congratulated on his keen insight. I was, quite literally, speechless. Finally Chickadee said, “Uh, Mr. PianoGuy? My parents got divorced when I was, like, three.” (Subtext: Put down the crack pipe, Mr. PianoGuy.)
If she had asked me for a pony, right then, I would’ve bought her one. Just sayin’.
Somehow the moment passed. I may have forced a chuckle and said, “Uh, yeah. I don’t think that’s the problem.” I asked what would happen if she wasn’t ready for the recital on the weekend, and we were treated to a speech on how in all his years of teaching, no one has ever pulled out of the recital, she’ll be ready, they’ll both be ready, they’ll just have to get through it, it’ll be fine, etc.
We gathered up our stuff and left.
I talked to Otto. I talked to the kids’ dad. I put a little something on Facebook to ask if that experience was as surreal and invasive and just plain icky as I’d thought (unanimous consensus: HELL YES). I thought about letting the kids do the recital today before telling the teacher we were done.
But in the end, it was Monkey who make up my mind for me. I asked him if he likes playing the piano any more, and he said, “Well, I like the playing part. I hate going to Mr. PianoGuy, though. He’s just mean.”
Then I played over the last year in my head, wondered how many clues I’d missed, wondered how long my kids were being mocked and chided and dismissed as problems without my noticing. The thought absolutely filled me with shame. And still does.
Yesterday I asked Chickadee if she’d just like to skip the recital. “Oh, I can’t do that,” she said, horrified. “Mr. PianoGuy will be furious. I have to go.” I said what if we’d decided to stop lessons with Mr. PianoGuy, effective immediately—would she still want to do the recital, anyway? Tears of relief sprang to her eyes. “Really? No more lessons with him? No, I don’t want to do the recital. THANK YOU.”
I wrote him an email. Erased it. Rewrote it. Told him I think he’s unprofessional at worst and rude at best. Erased it. Finally settled for explaining that the anxiety both kids are experiencing over the recital at this point far outweighs the potential benefits of having them perform, and we were not only bowing out of the recital, but taking a break from lessons. I apologized for the late notice, finally saying only, “I didn’t realize until sitting in on Chickadee’s lesson this week exactly how bad things had gotten.”
We live in a small town. Part of me desperately wants to lay it out for him, take him to task for mistreating my kids, for judging my family, for having turned music lessons into something so very unpleasant for both of them. The more rational part of me knows there’s nothing to be gained, there; he won’t change, and some bridges should just be avoided rather than burned.
And really, I’m angrier at myself than at him. I let it go on for too long. Telling him off isn’t going to make me feel any better.
I told the kids we would most likely just shelve lessons until January, and then find a new teacher. They cheered. CHEERED. I apologized for not figuring it out sooner. They patted me and assured me it was okay. “He wasn’t always so… so… well, he’s gotten weirder,” Chickadee offered. I thought that was very kind of her.
Especially considering as how the broken home situation is so terrible for them, and everything.