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The piano teacher had a shocked, even horrified, look on her face.
“Doesn’t your daughter like the stickers? All the other kids do.”
“Of course she does. In fact, she has an entire collection of them at home.” We’d had this discussion before with violin teachers for my older one, so we knew where this was headed.
“So why can’t I give them to her?” The teacher now looked pained.
“Oh, do give them to her,” my wife replied. “We don’t object. But don’t give them as a reward after she finishes and perfects a piece of music. Paste them on the page to mark where she is supposed to start a new one.”
And she did.
For years, what would happen next became routine.
“It’s too hard!” We would hear Meera’s plaintive voice emanating from the living room.
We learned to butt out. We were meant to overhear, but this was a conversation Meera was having with the piano, and, progressively, with Grieg, Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Granados, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, not with us. Twenty or thirty or forty or fifty minutes later, or maybe even in two or three days, her playing of the new piece would be like breathing.
And somewhere along the line, and I don’t remember where or when, the complaints disappeared. And so did the stickers.
There is an old expression, “Experience is its own reward.” Of course, just because it is old, doesn’t necessarily make it true, but in a world rife with uncertainty, and often fixated upon punishments and rewards, an attitude that enables one to find at least some satisfaction in the learning that comes with experience – academic or otherwise – might be worth cultivating. Or so seems reasonable to me.
The problem is, how does one learn that “experience is its own reward” unless one has had experience? The answer is one doesn’t, until one has the experience of it! And if you are always seeking external rewards, or avoiding punishments, it is easy for this learning to pass you by.
What to do? I think it might be worthwhile to take a page from other cultures and traditions. In many places in the Islamic world, a child is given dates in a sweet syrup before learning their first words from the Koran. In the Jewish tradition, children are given bread soaked in honey prior reading their first words from the Torah. In fact, I have heard tell of at least one rabbi who places a drop of honey on each letter as children learn the Hebrew alphabet. They lick the honey off, and the letter is revealed.
When I lived in India, I witnessed a holiday that is celebrated every January/February called Saraswati Puja (simply, “Saraswati worship”). Saraswati being the goddess of memory, knowledge and music, children are brought to the temple on this day to learn their first letters or to have their first music lesson under her blessing. Adults will also bring newly purchased tools of their trade – farmers with sickles or tractors, accountants with computers, photographers with cameras – so that they may be blessed with the knowledge to use them wisely. School children will bring new pencils, pens, erasers, empty notebooks and unread textbooks, lay them at the foot of the altar and cover them with flowers.
And there’s more. Saraswati Puja is the one day each year that very young girls are allowed to wear sarees (clothing normally reserved for adult women). It is a celebration of anticipation, an expression of the excitement — and the fulfillment — that is to come with the experience that lies ahead.
Translated literally, Saraswati means “the flowing one.” She is the goddess of rivers, and hence of purification, but she also represents the flow of experience that is to come. The prayer to Saraswati is one to trust in her blessings without fear, the anticipatory knowledge that we will all some day “grow into our sarees,” into the people we were truly meant to be.
I guess all this amounts to for us in our day-to-day life learning practice is relatively simple: regardless of how you approach your children’s education, be sure to provide them, continuously, a honeyed taste of the future that lies ahead with the knowledge yet to be attained. Read books to them that are currently beyond their own reading capabilities. Bring home videos from the library on scientific or mathematical topics they have yet to explore. Before starting geometry (if that’s what you and they have decided to be doing), have your children go out and meet an architect. When learning about the Constitution, have them go to your local courthouse and watch the judicial system in action.
And when there is a subject you are sure they are really excited – really passionate – about, make sure they have at least one challenge in front of them that you think is just too hard! You never know….
The point is not whether they remember the information or are able to regurgitate it on demand, but that they are afforded the opportunity to develop an expanded sense of themselves, and an attitude toward the knowledge quest through which they are truly to be made whole.
* * * * *
Meera, now 12, put on her bathing suit, and a tee-shirt and shorts on top, and a pair of pink rubber flip-flops. She had been home from piano camp, held at Washington State University, for a week now. It was an unusually warm day.
“Dad, can you take me down to the fountain?” (Our town has a public fountain, an interesting sprinkler system that squirts water out of the ground and where hundreds of people go to cool off in the summer.)
“Sure,” I replied, rescuing my sandals from underneath a panting, July-affected canine curled up by the foot of the couch.
On approaching the fountain, I quickly realized that this was a bad idea. There was a community fair happening only two blocks away and parking looked like it was going to be impossible. I made my misgivings audible.
“Actually,” suggested Meera casually, “could we go to the music store instead?”
Just then, not half a block from the fountain, a car pulled out directly in front of me.
“Are you sure?” I asked, seeing a parking space there for the asking.
“Yes, let’s go to the music store.”
Hijacked, I drove past the fountain (and the parking space!) and a mile up the hill to the music store.
We shuffled over to the music racks.
“That one,” she pointed, with just a hint of hesitation.
Alexander Scriabin – Complete Etudes.
“Why that one?” I gulped, but trying to sound as nonchalant as I could.
“Everyone at camp said it was too hard, and no one would try them.”
I handed her the book. She took it over to one of the practice pianos and started to play.
“So?” I asked.
Meera smiled. “Can you get it for me?”
More of the family jewels left at the music store. Home we go. Meera sits down at the piano and does a little “sampling,” three or four or six bars of each (there are 26 etudes, each seemingly progressively more difficult), then puts on her helmet, climbs on her bicycle and races down the driveway to play with her ten-year-old friend at the end of the court. I’m used to this routine – it could take days or even a couple of weeks before she finally decides which piece she is going to try to master. Or, maybe, the book will just sit for a month or two (or four or five, except watching Meera’s drive of late….) I have enough experience to know that sooner or later it will rise to the top of the pile again. Her teacher will gulp, too, but he won’t say no.
During my lunch hour, I intend to take a trip downtown to a toy store located one block from the fountain and purchase a big Teddy Bear sticker.
It’s going to get pasted on Scriabin.
(I’m a lucky guy!)
David H. Albert is a homeschooling father, writer and speaker. He is the author of a number of books, including And the Skylark Sings with Me, Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery, Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love, and What Really Matters (which contains some of his essays from Life Learning Magazine. He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington. Some of his essays for Life Learning Magazine include The Tenth Intelligence, Workbooks, Socializing Remy, Parts is Parts, The Curriculum of Beauty, and Ovum Organum and The Killer Shrew: Science as a Subversive Activity (July/August 2012). Check out David's website for speaking engagements and books.