Kathy A. Graff

A fictional account of art gone wrong?

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The Last Suzuki Lesson

This year's program was off to a late start. She got the child up early so they could eat a hearty breakfast of hot oatmeal topped with brown sugar and butter. They packed up the half-size violin and lesson book, and headed to the bus stop. There had already been an October snow and it was cold enough that the child didn't need much urging to keep moving even though he had resisted wearing his rummage sale parka.

As they stood on the sidewalk at the corner waiting for the bus, she remembered how the child had discovered singing before he was two years old. There were some tentative notes in the bath one evening, then the next day he was skipping and singing The Alphabet Song in tune to the delight of passersby as they crossed campus. One day he was singing an unusual tune and she asked him where he heard it. He said it was on Sesame Street. She couldn't remember it, but asked him to tell her when he heard it again. When he did, she discovered that he had been singing the bass line of a do-wop tune transposed up two octaves higher and at a much slower tempo, apparently just for the joy of voicing the sequence of notes. As he grew older, he sang a "baby oratorio" to celebrate any event of consequence. When the public school announced they were sponsoring a Suzuki Violin program last year, she signed him up. Finances were tight, but with careful economizing, there was some money left for little luxuries.

The lessons started with the group of children learning the names of the parts of the violin, the ritual of applying rosin to the bow just right, standing strong and tall. The first song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, was mastered then others followed. The instructor was enthusiastic and although it was a long bus ride to a middle school in another part of the city every Saturday morning while school was in session, they didn't miss a class. The child practiced, learned new tunes, then he figured out how to read music. His ear was good, she thought it wouldn't hurt. Like the other children in the class, he put on a new attitude when he picked up his violin. At the end of the school year there was a glorious recital with hundreds of children from every neighborhood scrubbed shiny and in their Sunday best at the big auditorium downtown. Every seat was filled with proud family and friends.

That was last spring. Over the summer there were threats of budget cuts and calls to get back to basics, but program survived due to its popularity. The major concessions were that lessons were reduced to 20 minutes and were to be offered at fewer school sites at a higher fee. The child was an early reader and although he still regularly checked out books to read from the library, he had started to complain about having to fill in the spaces in workbooks at school instead of writing stories. He probably wasn't going to be patient much longer and she was counting on sports and music lessons to keep him interested in school.

They started early that morning as the bus routes to the school in the inner city were not as familiar as the ones she took to work on week days. There were fewer trips on weekends and the drivers sometimes couldn't keep to the printed schedule. The bus arrived and the warmth inside felt good as they boarded it. They took seats near the front so they could watch for their stop. It started to snow lightly. When they got off the bus they found the walk to the school was about three blocks. The school clock in the entry hall showed that it had been over an hour since they left the house she and wished she had brought some snacks. The child wasn't easy to get along with when he was hungry, but they wouldn't be allowed to eat inside anyway. They were directed to an auditorium where they were to sit quietly with rows and rows of other parents and children. The instruments were to be kept in their cases until the child's class was summoned, no playing around. Finally the call for the second year violin students came.

An older student lead them up a flight of stairs and down a hall to a classroom. The desks had been pushed to one side of the room to make an open area. The new instructor was an attractive, well-dressed young woman. This was a plus. Although the child was far from puberty, he frequently expressed appreciation for pretty women, like the other boys his age who kicked soccer balls and rode their skate boards in the alley. The instructor greeted the children and had them open their violin cases. The parents squeezed into the chairs of the child-sized desks. All eyes were on the instructor.

The child was wary from more than a year's experience of public school so he cleverly avoided being first in line. The instructor started to tune the first child's instrument. After a few minutes there were signs of frustration. The instructor struggled to be polite as she explained that they had such a short time and that the parents were less than responsible if they didn't plan extra time to prepare for class. When the children's violins got cold they were extremely difficult to keep in tune, so from now on parents should get their car out and run the heater for at least 15 to 20 minutes before time to go so it would be warm enough to transport the violin properly. Parents exchanged guilty looks. The child's eyes sought hers, but he didn't volunteer any information about how they got there.

The first child stood tall, put her feet into the proper stance, lifted the violin, tucked it under her chin, and was about to apply the bow to the string when the instructor noticed that the positions of the stickers on the instrument were not right. The instructor took the violin back and carefully peeled the old stickers off, grimacing as a manicured fingernail chipped, then cut new ones and applied them to the tiny violin and bow as the first student stood by. She repeated the process with the second student. By the time the third student's violin was finished, the lesson was over. After another reminder to come prepared, the parents and children were dismissed until next Saturday morning. No student had played a single note of music.

The child put his violin back in its case. They bundled up again, left the school and waited in silence almost half an hour for the next bus. When they got home, she cut thick slices of whole wheat bread and spread them with peanut butter and honey for a late lunch. To cheer him and warm him up she made his favorite treat, hot chocolate, but she could tell something was different.

During the week the child didn't practice and the next Saturday morning he refused to leave his bed.

October 2002