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Home Education Magazine

July-August 2001 - Articles and Columns

My Word! - David H. Albert

Solomon Heads Home

A mother, an old e-mail friend who I first met in person at a music festival where she recognized me and the kids from our pictures in my book, approached me in the crowded hallway of a large homeschooling conference with a problem.

"It's my son, "she said. "He wants to stop playing the violin. I can't get him to practice anymore. And his teacher can't seem to get through either."

I could easily see she was asking for more than sympathy; she wanted an answer. She knew I have two committed musicians for daughters, and she hoped I would have some magic words, some mystical formula that would cause her son to recommit and reapply himself.

"How old is he now?" I asked, falling into a thoughtful, rabbinical mood that seems to come fairly naturally to me when I am called upon to play Solomon, whom I most definitely am not.

"He's just turned 13."

"And how long has he been playing?"

"Three-and-a-half years, with a little time off after the first."

"Has he experienced different teachers?"

"Yes."

"Has played different types and styles of music?"

"Yes."

"Has he played in a group, with his peers?"

"Yes."

"Can he play reasonably well?"

"Well, yes. He's no Hilary Hahn (the young classical homeschooled virtuoso) or Mark O'Connor if that's what you mean. But he plays well."

"Have you ever invited him to try another instrument?"

"Yes, but he's just not interested."

"And does he like music?"

"Oh, yes, he enjoys music of several different kinds. He just doesn't want to play anymore."

"I see." Now was the time for the talmudic pronouncement. I would have tugged at my long, gray, wisdom-signifying beard, if I'd had one.

"Go home. Discuss this with your son. Gently suggest that he prepare one piece of music to the best of his ability. Throw a party. Invite his friends and family. Then have a graduation ceremony. Tell him how proud you are that he'd put in so much effort over such a long period of time, and that he loves music. And that he is now capable of making decisions himself about his educational future." (And remember, the graduation is just as much for you as it is for him!)

Had I been thinking quicker on my feet I would have added, "Give him two gifts: one, a symbol of music or a CD of music that he likes, and another related to any new learning enterprise upon which he is now or soon to be embarked. And tell him how much you love him. Thirteen-year-olds need to hear it, even when they give you that 'Mom, I'm too old for this' look."

* * * *

Most homeschooling parents I know have a knack for keeping the kids busy -- whether it be with flute lessons or tap dance classes, robotics clubs or wilderness tracking workshops, horseback riding or watercolors, gymnastics or clogging. Indeed, if your family is like mine, you can rename your education practices "car schooling," as you juggle the three kids ("three" is like the Biblical number "40," and can stand for any number above one) between fencing practice and guide-dog training.

Of course, many of us will claim that the decision to play the accordion (Heaven forbid!) or take up competitive ballroom dancing was "theirs," not ours. Perhaps, but in most cases we as parents made the decision to "expose" our kids to the possibility, knowing full well (or maybe less well than we might have imagined, in hindsight) the potential impacts upon our pocketbooks, the shape of our transportation (anyone out there with an 11-year-old double bass player?), or our weekend schedules! (I do so love the word "expose" -- isn't that what we did with ours when the neighbor's daughter came down with chickenpox?) And after screening the possibilities, didn't we also provide the subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle cues as to what might be acceptable to pursue?

As parents, we each come with our own, sometimes strange, histories. Both my kids turned into musicians, perhaps partially in reaction to my desire as a seven-year-old to play the saxophone, only to be given just the mouthpiece until I got to fifth grade. That wasn't going to happen to my kids! (Although they both know that I now absolutely hate saxophones, and, I have to add, accordions, though the latter dislike may be due to my having to listen to my friend Arthur interminably butcher "The Lady of Spain" - that's how he became a heart surgeon.)

Now the entire family must suffer through my crude attempts to play Bach or Transylvanian folk music on my new violin (made from wood from the Rodopi Mountains -- get out your atlases!), an instrument I had never even touched until age 39. (Lately, sometimes, I can even get away with leaving the music room door slightly ajar! Ah, small victories...) So we, subtly or not-so-subtly, encourage our kids to engage in activities that we enjoyed in our own youth, or maybe just the opposite, in activities which we feel in retrospect were unjustly denied to us. Gosh, this gets awfully complicated!

What is this all about, really? Few of our sons and daughters are going to grow up to be professional steeplechase riders, ballroom dancers, or woodcarvers, and there are precious few chairs in the big orchestras. And no, it is unlikely that country tap-dancing, fencing, or even accordion playing leads to higher SAT scores independent of the concentrated energy that goes into them. (I wish I could take one of those standardized tests at age 55, with those having high enough scores being allowed to retire early!)

I like to think of what I am doing as assisting my children in equipping themselves with life companions. This should not be confused with making them "well-rounded," a strange notion that originated in upper class Victorian households where people had extra time on their hands. Of course, many of us, as we get older, do tend to become "well-rounded," but in the literal rather than metaphorical sense of the term. Unless we have an independent source of wealth (my honoraria for writing this column hardly qualifies), most of us spend a goodly chunk of our day at our jobs; dealing with the needs and maintenance of our families and the education of our children; addressing our material requirements for clean and presentable clothing and at least marginally nutritious food (make sure everyone takes their vitamins!); fighting the entropy law of messy homes; keeping up on our church or other spiritual commitments if we have any; and maybe, if we are fortunate, maintaining one or at most two hobbies. (Don't you just hate it when somebody suggests there is a book you just have to read?) That's about as well-rounded as we are ever likely to get.

But these life companions are important. As adults, who we are as individuals and as communities is very much determined by the companions we bring along with us. Perhaps I'm stretching the point a bit, but don't the life companions we've acquired along the way help define who we are and who we become, as they help us recreate (re-create) ourselves anew?

And, knowing I am in danger of becoming overly sentimental here, do I want to be remembered by my children every time they balance their checkbooks (which probably won't exist in ten years anyway) for making them count and recount the decimal places? No, the legacy we leave to our children can be in some way measured by the quality of the life companions with whom we've helped equip them. If we've done our jobs successfully, they will bring joy and color to the path our kids must ultimately choose for themselves, and will help expand their notion of what it means to be truly, and fully, human. Or so it seems to me.

Even if it means playing the accordion.

(c) 2001 David Albert

July-August 2001 Issue

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