I shed the first of what are sure to be many tears today as I reflected on one particular student’s journey. My strength as a teacher (and possibly as a human) is the same as my greatest weakness: I invest deeply in the people that stick with me. This makes walking away very difficult. How to do it without feeling as if I’m punishing my students for their unwavering trust and loyalty is still a mystery to me.
I started him as a slightly grumbly pre-teen and am handing him off to his next teacher as a paragon of everything that could go right in a young man. His family has taken me in as some sort of peripheral crazy aunt, keeping me after lessons for dinner and wine and comfort. His lessons began just after he was diagnosed with Tourette’s. Being 11 is hard enough without the pain and unpredictability of such an unkind revelation. Yet he bore it with levity and grace and the cello became a powerful vehicle for coping with what are at best the most disconcerting and strange years of life. I remember his first recital: he was so afraid to perform that I had to go up with him. Now he’s looking at conservatories and is about to attend his second year of Idyllwild. Just like me, he has tried his best and still failed on his first attempt at most everything. I don’t know if another teacher would have steered him to success sooner, but I think the tenacity and humor it takes to get back up after being kicked in the gut may end up serving him just as well as being made a man of steel in the hands of someone with a different approach.
No steel here. I’m pretty shattered. But it’s always worth the risk, every time. Although the odds of having a relationship like this with most students are similar to those when you play the lottery, I see it as more of a 50/50 shot: either it happens or it doesn’t. You have to risk big to win big when it comes to emotional situations like this. It hurts big, too. But I know from my own experience that it will yield to something fantastic. My lifelong relationship with Cathy Graff, my own formative teacher, shows me the path, in more ways than one.
Photo from IAmAgonistes.