Julia is about five weeks into her first session of piano classes. She started off with a bang in mid-June; her first class was amazing. She was awed and impressed with the studio and her teacher (as was I) and I was pleased with her interest and ability to focus so intently for an extended period of time. We both came away from that first lesson delighted and excited about what lie ahead for her. But, the following week something changed. As we reached the door to the studio, she hesitated. I opened the door and walked in, gently pulling her by the hand as she trailed sheepishly behind me. We sat down in the waiting room and listened to the class in progress – a voice lesson – where the student was singing, “The Water Is Wide,” a song I’d sung countless times to Julia in infancy while nursing her in the rocking chair. She climbed up on my lap and buried her face into my shoulder. She sat that way until her teacher, Mr. Palmer, walked into the waiting room and said, “Hello Julia! Are you ready for piano class?”
I put Julia down and she stood there looking up at Mr. Palmer for a few seconds. Then, she burst into tears. I wasn’t sure what to do, but Mr. Palmer had clearly encountered this before. He gently asked what was wrong, and then told her she could stay in the waiting room and do as she wished while he would have class with me. I followed him into the classroom and began to play the part of the student until a few moments later, Julia was standing beside me. Soon she was participating in the class and I returned to my normal spot in the chair in the corner, taking notes.
The next two weeks went just the same, with the only difference being the pep talks I gave her on the way to class. Julia was always excited to go. Her piano practice at home during the week went well and she gushed about Mr. Palmer telling me, “Mr. Palmer is very good, Mom. He is smart. He can play the piano. Mr. Palmer loves me.” Still, when we arrived for class, she was timid, shy and emotional – the polar opposite of her usual self. I would ask her what was wrong; she would tell me she was scared. When I asked her what she was afraid of, she’d say, “I don’t know.” So, this week Dave decided to go along. We thought she could use the extra support. We arrived a little early to give her the chance to settle in before it was time to begin. This time, she sat on Daddy’s knee with her head in his shoulder.
Then Mr. Palmer walked in and said, “Hi Julia! Are you ready for piano class?”
Julia slid off her Daddy’s knee, looked up at Mr. Palmer and said, “I am scared.”
Mr. Palmer patted her on the shoulder, “its okay to be scared, Julia. We all get scared sometimes, but it doesn’t hurt, does it? Do you feel hurt right now?”
Julia shook her head no.
“No, it doesn’t hurt. It’s okay to be scared, but we still need to move on, so let’s get started.”
And she did. She walked right into class, bowed to Mr. Palmer, took her seat at the piano and played a song she made up about the rain. Now, I can’t keep her away from the piano at home. She points out every treble clef we see. She’ll pretend to be a butterfly and shout, “I’m a butterfly! Like the high notes! Like treble clef notes!” Then, she’ll stomp like a bear, “I’m like bass clef, Mom! I’m a bear, like a low note!” She is completely enthralled with the piano.
After her class was over, Mr. Palmer and I chatted – we both had recognized the breakthrough she’d had that day. We came to the conclusion that her fear wasn’t of him or the place, but of failing. Learning to play the piano is a daunting task. She discovered that after her first class, when she wasn’t able to sit down and play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” like she thought she would. Now, she had admitted her fear and faced it head on and we were all reeling in her success over it.
I am so proud of Julia. I didn’t want her fear to keep her from learning to play the piano, like my fear has kept me from doing so many things…
All I’ve been able to think of the past day are of the choices I’ve made because of my fear of failure, particularly in college. I had been a neuroscience major – and a successful one – until my junior year when it came time to take the Medical College Admission Test. The night before my test, I
changed my mind chickened out. I was too afraid that I wouldn’t do well enough to get into medical school. I was out a couple hundred dollars and left with a big decision to make. If I wasn’t going to medical school, what the hell would I do with a neuroscience degree? And so, I decided to change my major and give up on a lifelong dream.
I’ll never forget the day I had to go and officially change my major and academic advisor. I needed the signatures of the department chairs for chemistry, biology and psychology to make it official. I’d come to know each of those professors pretty well, especially the chemistry professor as I had been in her class every semester since I began college. She was particularly hard on me. She always seemed to know when I wasn’t grasping something because that was the thing she forced me to stand up and explain in class. When I joined my sorority and was elected as an officer, she called me into her office to express her concern and tell me to get my priorities straight. She’d made me cry on numerous occasions. I had just come from the biology department and was walking down the hall toward her office when she saw me coming.
“I know what you’re here for, Miss John. I am not pleased about it,” she said curtly without looking up from the work at her desk.
I put my paper down in front of her.
She looked at it and sighed, “Speech Communication. Is that what challenges you?”
“That’s what I want to do,” I replied. If I were being honest, I would have told her it was the degree I could complete without adding an extra year of schooling.
“What you want to do is give up,” she said looking right at me.
“I think this is what’s best for me,â€ I said, sounding hopeful. I did have a natural talent for public speaking, after all.
She picked up the pen, put it to the paper and began to sign, “And you had so much potential…”
Potential? She thought I had potential? Was this really coming from the same woman that called me a loser during Organic Chemistry my sophomore year? My heart was beating wildly and I could feel the tears coming, so I snatched the paper and walked out. I was furious. Why couldn’t she have given me a little encouragement before? I told myself, “Maybe if she’d encouraged me before, I wouldn’t have given up!”
As time went on, I realized that she wasn’t the one that had let me down. I let myself down. I had thought that skipping the MCAT and switching majors would keep me from failing and I could go on believing that I could have been a doctor, I just didn’t want to. Instead, it has left me with a mountain of regret, because entrance exam or no – I failed. I gave up. If only I’d had the courage that day to tell my professor, “I am scared,” the kind of courage Julia already has at three years old…I guess she must get that from her Daddy.