The First Lesson

She stands, quietly, trying to keep attention. But her eyes keep darting away. The Christmas Tree still stands, in all its glory, and there are ornaments yet to be discovered.The manger scene on the nearby table is another distraction: “We have one just like that at home,” she informs the woman trying so patiently, gently, to give her instruction.

Well, yes, I think. Apart from the fact that the one at home is made by Fisher-Price, apart from the fact that Mary, Joseph, and company are interchangeable with other Little People figurines in other Little People sets, and apart from the fact that Wonder Woman and Santa Claus frequently takes their places alongside the three kings and the shepherd boy, we do have one just like that at home.

But we are not here to discuss manger scenes. We are here to see if she’s ready to begin lessons on the violin. The gift she asked for last summer, the gift she forgot she asked for, the gift she fell in love with all over again on Christmas morning.

Her attention, as it is prone to do, fades in and out. I can see so much of myself in her: she is easily distracted by her new surroundings. As with so many past pursuits, she is reluctant to receive instruction, eager to just dive in; she thinks she already knows what she’s doing. As the teacher tries showing her, simply, the proper way to hold the violin to her chin, her hands are already moving down the neck, feeling the strings. As she tries gently to place Nora’s fingers around the bow, to simply hold it, Nora wants to draw it across the strings. The impatience is achingly familiar.

I hope she’s more like her mother than like me, I think. I hope she enjoys this. I hope she wants to learn.

The teacher pauses with the hands-on instruction, addresses her directly, with rapid-fire questions: “You have to practice every day. Are you willing to do that? Playing the violin is hard work. Will you work hard?”

With every question, her head nods. “Uh-huh… M-hmmm… Yes… Yeah… I will.”

I wonder.

Mrs. Brown’s hands were always cold. I remember that. It was a Wednesday afternoon, which meant we were seated at her piano, which stood at the top of the stairway just inside front door to their split-level home. As always, she was trying to give me instruction. As usual, I thought I already knew how to do it.

I’d been taking lessons from her for at least a year. The music book was open to the Marine Corps Hymn. I knew this song, and so I began to play. Not three bars in, she would stop me, and attempt to explain what I was doing incorrectly. I am very sure Mrs. Brown saw the same faint attention, and heard the same half-whispered “yes, yes, uh-huh” that I see and hear from Nora now.

It would be years before I understood what Mrs. Brown was trying to explain: I was playing the song in the wrong key. I was playing the Marine Corps Hymn, I just wasn’t playing the notes that were on the page in front of me. I never understood that at the time, never understood why it sounded right if it was wrong. I remember frustration — or perhaps it was desperation — in Mrs. Brown’s voice as she tried to hold my attention and explain the difference to me. It was, for her, a losing battle. My attention was already on the clock. The little hand was nearly to the six. Almost 4:30. Mom would be there any minute to pick me up. I’m not sure I heard a single word Mrs. Brown said, but I’m sure I nodded my head at all the appropriate times. I’m sure I told her I understood and would practice harder.

I think we both knew I was lying.

I don’t know if that was the very last lesson I had with Mrs. Brown, but I know it was among the last.

We walk to the car, and begin to drive away. I ask Nora all the same questions the teacher just asked her.

“I’m ready,” she tells me. And I’m sure she believes she is.

I think we’ll wait a year.

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