Every kid in school was afraid of the music teacher.
The grownups didn’t understand this. Miss Steiner had been teaching forever – she had taught the grandparents of some of my classmates – and when she had been young she had apparently been kind and patient and not yet disillusioned. To us, though, she was impossibly old.
And worse than being old, she had gotten mean.
At least it seemed mean at the time. Now I think it was probably a vast internal cauldron of frustration, simmering for years, now boiling over. Decades of teaching music to elementary school children had taught her one thing: children are terrible at music no matter what you do. And the corollary statement: if you are someone who loves music, then observing this phenomenon up close, day after day, year after year, will destroy you.
By the time our generation came along, Miss Steiner was desperate to save Music from the butchering hands of grade school kids with no talent. She would accompany soloists at recitals, pounding the keys of her piano in an attempt to drown out some poor clarinetist murdering a rendition of “I Love You Truly.” She played with desperation, as loud as she could, sweating and clenching her teeth and gasping for breath at the end of each song. It was as if she had no choice – as if Music itself had demanded it of her.
Music class was taught on the school’s stage, a dark, cavernous area separated from the gymnasium by a heavy curtain. Someone said Miss Steiner lived back there, like a troll, which I doubted but could never quite disprove. Sightings of her outside the school were rare and unconfirmed. Someone said they saw her at a restaurant once, where she was eating pancakes, and someone else said they saw her walking on a sidewalk with a man during Cheese Days. Both of these were impossible to imagine.
Another rumor informed us that Miss Steiner’s gray, wiry, bouffant hairdo was actually a wig. A girl reported that she’d seen Miss Steiner with her hands on her scalp, adjusting her hair as you might a poorly fitting helmet. I don’t know why the idea of a wig terrified us so much, but it did, as if Miss Steiner were not a music teacher at all but secretly some kind of space alien or bald monster.
Now that I’m an adult, my guess is that she was not adjusting her false hair. I would bet she was trying to press out a migraine headache. She was anxious and angry and had pretty much lost control of both her classroom and herself. If you told me she drilled holes in her skull to release the pressure, I would not be all that surprised.
During small group sessions she was usually fine. She could even demonstrate patience, now and then. But when conducting the entire band, she had completely given up any hope of sanity or rational behavior. Wearing a blue pantsuit and nurse’s shoes, she stood on a raised wooden platform, whipping a baton that had long ago splintered from the abuse it had endured at her hands. The way she whipped that thing around, slicing the air and battering the music stand in front of her, was simply incredible. More than once I had seen her hit herself in the eye with her own baton, an obviously painful event, but she only blinked and muttered and resumed screaming.
Yes, screaming. It was the hallmark of her performance: in both recitals and concerts, she screamed through every single song.
Kevin, no! Kevin! Kevin Schlotzky!—NO NO NO NO NO!… Not yet, drums. DRUMS! DRUMS!! NOT YET!!!! You—you with the flute! Like this! Like this! Da-DA-da. Da-DA-da! [whipping baton against music stand] KEVIN SCHLOTZKY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU ARE PLAYING THE WRONG SONG! PUT YOUR INSTRUMENT DOWN, KEVIN, PUT IT DOWN AND DON’T PICK IT UP AGAIN!
I would say Miss Steiner was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that can’t be right. Surely the breakdown had happened long ago. By the time I reached fourth grade we had to be at least a full decade in.
You might think that all this had soured me on music, but here was the thing: somehow I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to learn to play the piano.
And as everyone knew, Miss Steiner was the only piano teacher in town.
After dinner one night I told my parents I had signed up for piano lessons.
“I paid for a month’s worth,” I said. “I’m all set.”
My mother looked at me as if I had just announced my forthcoming trip to the moon. “Where did you get the money?”
“From my allowance. I’ve been saving up.”
“But…you know we don’t have a piano, Jacke.”
“Can’t we get one?”
My mother wasn’t smiling. She shook her head. “That’s not going to happen.”
“But I want to learn how to play,” I explained. “It’s my dream.”
She stared at me. “Where would we put a piano, Jacke? Where, in this house, would a piano go?”
I didn’t understand what she meant. My father wiped his mouth with his napkin, stood up, and walked me through our home, room by room. By the end he had proven to me that our house literally did not have a wall long enough to fit a piano, unless we got rid of our television or one of the beds.
I was not ready to give up. “How about the basement?”
My father patiently led me downstairs. It had rained earlier that day; our basement floor was flooded with water. “Pianos aren’t cheap,” my father said. “It would get ruined down here. Anywhere else you can think of?”
“Maybe the garage?”
My father rarely said no straight out, preferring to use irrefutable logic. He nodded, as if he were taking the idea seriously. “Yes, that’s a thought… although where would we put the car?”
“Park it in the driveway?”
He nodded again, as if he were thinking it over. “You know what,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think that will work. Our car might get stolen.”
We walked back to the dinner table. My sister looked at me with sadness, feeling bad that my dreams were being crushed. No doubt her dreams would be next. It was how things were.
I sat down. My mother appeared to be waiting for me to acknowledge the truth. I wasn’t ready to give in.
“Other kids get to play the piano,” I said.
“Other kids live in bigger houses!” my mother said.
I didn’t say anything else that night.
The next day after school I went to my lesson anyway. I had already paid, after all. Miss Steiner began by handing out books to all the new students. I had known this was coming and handed Miss Steiner the remains of my allowance money.
“You don’t have enough,” she said, smoothing out the crumpled bills.
“I can bring more next week,” I said. “I get my allowance on Saturdays.”
“Don’t forget,” she said. She handed me the book, which had a piano on the cover and the bust of a scowling man whom I recognized as Beethoven from a Peanuts cartoon.
I was on my way.
The first lesson wasn’t much. Miss Steiner shouted the first five pages of the book at us, which told us about the history of the piano and the many great composers who had mastered its secrets. At the end of the lesson we all went up to the piano and pointed at middle C. Next week, she told us, we would actually play. In the meantime we needed to practice the first song.
Our lesson was over. Everyone else filed out down the steps and into the light-filled hallway. I stayed behind.
“What is it?” Miss Steiner shouted. “Time to go! What’s wrong with you!”
“I’m not sure I can practice every day,” I said.
“What!? Why not?”
“Because I don’t have a piano.”
“WHAT???” she said. “YOU DON’T HAVE A PIANO! WHAT??? Well, I can’t refund your money.”
“I don’t expect you to. I’m planning to take lessons. It’s my dream.”
“Are your parents going to buy one?”
I explained that the geometry of our house did not permit us to own a piano.
Miss Steiner glared at me for several seconds. Then she disappeared into the small office rumored to be her home. I could see her through the window, writing something down.
What was it? An address, maybe? Of a church? Somewhere with long walls that could hold a piano, where I could learn to play and follow my dream. A rich person’s house?
After a minute she emerged and stomped toward me. “Here,” she said, thrusting a wad of paper at me. “Take this.”
I unfolded the paper. It was not what I had expected. Instead of an address, there were rectangles drawn with a black magic marker. The ink was still wet; the fumes attacked my nose.
It was not a passport to a rich person’s home. In fact I was not sure what it was.
“It’s a keyboard!” Miss Steiner cried.
I could see it now: it was meant to look like the keys of a piano. It was hard to see that because most of the lines were crooked, drawn hastily by an angry person. Here and there the rectangles were colored in, apparently to represent the black notes. A few of the lines were scribbled out where she had drawn the lines so slanted they had crossed one another and she had needed to redraw them.
“You can put it on your kitchen table,” Miss Steiner said. “You do have a kitchen table, don’t you, Jacke?”
“You can spread it out. That’s how you’ll practice.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I carefully refolded the paper, loaded it into my Cub Scout backpack, and took it home.
After dinner I unfolded my paper and started to play. My mother was drying the dishes and didn’t notice at first.
“What,” she finally said, “is THAT?”
“Miss Steiner gave it to me. It’s for practicing.”
My mother threw the dish towel over her shoulder and sank into a chair, aghast. “You are… you are pressing your fingers on a piece of paper,” she said in a lost voice.
“I need to learn “Three Blind Mice” by next Tuesday,” I explained.
The end of the table where I was sitting was not wide enough to hold the entire sheet, so part of my keyboard flopped over the side. This had bothered me until I realized that the version of “Three Blind Mice” only had three notes. The song was easier than I expected; I learned it very quickly. Soon I was singing along to my playing.
Three blind mice
Mice can’t count
But we do fine
“You can’t learn this way,” my mother said. She looked stunned, as if she could not find the words to express herself. “You just…can’t.”
“Well, I can’t learn without practicing,” I pointed out.
My mother shook her head. “You’re…are you trying to make me feel terrible?”
“Of course not,” I said.
“But you are. You know that, right? You’re making me feel guilty. We don’t have a big house, Jacke!
Out of politeness I had stopped singing while she spoke, though I kept moving my fingers on the keys. It was a little hard to keep the right tempo; she was speaking very quickly and her words were making me speed up. I had just learned the song and was not yet accomplished enough to rush through it without making a lot of mistakes.
“I’m sorry we’re not rich, Jacke!” she said. “I’m sorry you’re not happy!”
I stopped in mid-song. “But I am happy,” I said. “I’m following my dream.”
My mother shook her head slowly, her eyes filling with tears.
“The boy’s right,” said my father, who had come off the couch to see what was going on. “He can hear it in his mind this way. Miss Steiner found a perfect solution.”
No doubt he thought I’d quit before too long, ending the problem. My mother didn’t even look at him. Her head was in her hands.
“Keep practicing, son,” said my father. Then he returned to the couch and turned up the volume on the television. The Rockford Files came on, and I tried to play loud enough to drown out the theme song, but it was not easy, seeing as I was such a beginner, and for all its many fine qualities, my keyboard was not very loud.
After a month our class had two songs in our repertoire and it was time for the first recital. At the final lesson, the students had to tell Miss Steiner whether they planned to play “Three Blind Mice” or “I Love You Truly.” Miss Steiner, who was writing all of the choices down on a clipboard so she could type up a program, skipped right over me. I raised my hand and announced that I would be playing the latter.
“No you won’t,” said Miss Steiner, shaking her head. Her face was scrunched up like an angry, shriveled apple.
“You like my ‘Three Blind Mice’ better?” I asked.
Her eyes popped open, as if she were noticing me for the first time that day. “Why are you STILL HERE?” she shouted.
“I’m enrolled,” I explained.
“YOU DON’T HAVE A PIANO!!!”
“I have a keyboard,” I reminded her.
Miss Steiner was so angry she bit the top of her clipboard, which was a first, growling and swaying her head as if she were trying to bend the metal ring with her teeth. A few kids started laughing. Others were too scared to move.
When she was finished with this she gasped and the blood drained from her face. Then she paused, breathing heavily, with the same look she had had right before she’d devised my keyboard. Finally she stormed to the front of the room and slammed her clipboard on the top of her piano.
“Come up here and play,” she said. “Jacke Wilson. Come up here and play.”
I walked to the front of the room. “Which song?”
“Either one,” she said magnanimously. “Your choice.”
I started on “Three Blind Mice.” I stopped halfway through. For some reason it sounded terrible.
“There must be something wrong with the piano,” I said.
Miss Steiner reached forward and for a second I thought she might choke me. Instead she seized her clipboard and flung it halfway across the room. It bounced off the top of a kettle drum.
“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE PIANO,” she shouted. “IT’S YOU—YOU CAN’T PLAY!”
“It sounded fine on my keyboard,” I said. “Maybe I can use that instead.”
“Your keyboard is a PIECE OF PAPER!” she screamed.
I shrugged. I could not deny the truth of that, but it didn’t seem to capture everything important. “It sounds great when I play it,” I said. “I practice every night.”
Miss Steiner shook her head again. She appeared calmer, but that was always deceiving, like an active volcano in between eruptions. Her shoulders were heaving. Her voice was low and full of menace. “You are NOT playing at the recital.”
“I’d rather not play on the piano if it’s broken,” I agreed. “It would be better to use this.” I took off my backpack and pulled out the keyboard, assuming she’d want to hear how it sounded.
“JACKE WILSON YOU WILL NOT BE TAPPING YOUR FINGERS ON A PIECE OF PAPER AT MY RECITAL!”
It was as loud as I’d ever heard her shout anything, but it failed to discharge her anger. She snatched the keyboard out of my hands and ripped it in half. Then she stalked around like a wild animal, tearing it into bits. Now none of the kids were laughing. A few of them started to cry. Even for Miss Steiner, this was an abnormal level of anger. She stomped to the corner, threw the scraps of paper into the metal wastebasket, and kicked the wastebasket several times.
My face felt hot. The other kids, terrified, came up and played their songs. I couldn’t stop staring at the wastebasket, which had many dents and contained the shreds of my dream.
Frankly the other kids did not sound very good. I doubted that anyone had been practicing as much as I had been, if they had even been practicing at all.
As you grow older, you learn to push incidents like this one into your past. After you become a parent, you see how difficult it is to do things like maintain control over a kindergarten class or keep a lunchroom cafeteria quiet or teach something simple like music to complete beginners. I felt sorry for Miss Steiner, who had put in all those years of service in spite of her frazzled nerves. It had probably seemed to her like she had no other options, and maybe she didn’t. Maybe she’d been afraid to give up.
But of course, I never forgot my dream. And when my oldest son turned four, I made sure our house had an empty wall long enough for a piano, and I signed him up for lessons.
Following the studio’s practice, we observed for several months before actually playing.By the time we started, I was tremendously excited to put my son on the path that had always been closed to me.
Of course, I was mature enough to know that forcing my dreams on him could produce some unhealthy dynamics between us. I had to be careful not to push things too hard and damage our relationship. For example, our first lesson ended at night and it was all I could do not to suggest he practice a little after dinner even though it was already past his bedtime. Luckily his mother intervened and took him off to put on his pajamas.
“You know,” I said as I was tucking him in. “I’m really excited that you get to learn piano. It was always my dream. But I’ll try not to pressure you just because I didn’t get to. I want you to have fun.”
He sat up in bed. “Why didn’t you get to play piano?”
“Oh, well…” I chuckled. “It’s a long story. But the short version is that Grandpa and Grandma’s house didn’t have a piano.”
He nodded, unsurprised. “Right. Like how they didn’t have a computer at their house either. Or video games.”
“Sort of,” I said with a smile. “We had to learn how to use our imaginations in those days.”
My son laid back down on his pillow and was quiet for a moment. I stood up.
“Good night, son,” I said.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I walked around his bed and switched off the light.
“You know what, Dad?” he said, stopping me just as I was about to leave. “I’m going to learn how to play the piano—and then I can teach you how to play!”
I smiled in the dark. My nose was itching and I felt myself choke up. “That is a beautiful idea,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “Thank you.”
I heard his head fall back against the pillow. After I left I stood outside his door, just as I had all those years when he was in the crib, waiting to hear the steady breathing that assured me he had fallen asleep. It was one of those heart-wrenching fatherhood moments that make you think of everything you’ve been through and everything still to come, and how little time you really have. I savored the moment, feeling all the emotions of the past and present and my anticipation of the future, all flooding through me, all at once.
Then I walked across the hallway, entered my study, and locked the door behind. I opened the top drawer of my file cabinet and pulled out the battered paper with the faded black marker and yellowed tape, the one I had rescued from Miss Steiner’s wastebasket, all those years ago.
I smoothed it out on the desk, sat down, and began playing Chopin’s Sonata #2 in B-flat Minor.
It sounded great—but then again, it should have. I had been practicing every night for more than thirty years.
Ack, another crazy one. Sorry, loyal readers! I can only do my best.
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Free review copies are available! If you’re interested in posting a review on your blog, or if you’re willing to write a review at Amazon (or anywhere else), just let me know and I’ll ship you a book. And many thanks for helping to get the word out!