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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I was looking the other way

Tonight I am in a very sober mood. I am reflecting on failure tonight. It's a particular type of failure that could happen to any one of us, all while we believe we are doing our very best.

Many years ago I had the privilege of teaching music in an extremely high-quality private school. I dealt with many very talented young musicians every day, and their dilemmas were many and varied- if, for the most part, very much 'First World

I dealt with many adolescents who were crushed by the constant competition, shoring up their egos and their abilities and their confidence until they were in some sort of shape to pass their exams. How many hours I spent trying to defuse performance nerves!

I dealt with others whose shy talents needed my encouragement and time to flourish. I gave them that time with enthusiasm, and took great personal pride in their achievements under my watchful eye.

I dealt with many, many 'tiger mums'. They were, universally, a nightmare. I admit it: they put me off their own daughters. They prejudiced me against their offspring. And some of those young musicians didn't even need their tiger mums to help them- they did the pushing and the competing all by themselves.

I found that repellant.

In my defence, I was young. But I know I gave less of my time and patience to those who pushed.

I was too busy looking the other way. I thought there were others who needed me more, and I justified my decisions about how to spend my time easily. It seemed right to give my attention where it was needed most.

Some twenty years on from those years, today I was told that one of those young and (if truth be told) rather pushy prodigies- an extraordinarily talented young woman who seemed bound for concert hall success under her own steam- was dead. I know few details- nor, given my past attitude, do I deserve to- other than that it seems she killed herself.

And I sit here shocked to the core, because it never would have occurred to me in a million years that such a thing could happen to someone who seemed to have it all together from such an early age.

Now, I have no illusions of responsibility for what happened to this young woman. Mental health issues are terribly complex, and well beyond my field of expertise; perhaps the demons were circling back then, perhaps they were not. But the thought torments me that perhaps, by some miracle, my engagement with this girl way back then might have made a difference.

I am so aware of my failure all those years ago: I didn't even try to engage with that child as a human being. I didn't give her anything of myself, really, because I thought she had what she needed already.

I am so terribly aware that I made an assumption based on appearances alone. Because that young girl appeared to need me so much less than many other girls, I paid her little attention.

I thought she was okay.

Do you see where I'm heading?

I am so much older now, and so much more experienced. I've seen a lot of different scenarios, within families and within educational settings, where some children have appeared to have much greater needs than others and so have been given the lion's share of attention, resources, time and effort. I've noticed, increasingly, how much grease the squeaky wheel gets, and how easy it is to just assume about children who seem to be coping just fine.

I'm not saying we shouldn't invest vast time, effort and resources in those who need it. No way. Of course not.

But I do want to say this to you: every so often, look the other way.

A child with any sort of special need does need your extra help. Of course they do. And give that help you must, and you are probably completely exhausted from trying to provide as much help as you can. But every so often it's important to stop looking at that particular child, and look the other way.

One terrible true story: a parent who was so busy brilliantly looking after the rights and needs of one of their children, who had a special need, that they didn't notice that another of their children was being sexually abused.

Another terrible true story: the child whose academic success blinded her parents to the fact that she simply wasn't eating. At all. They were looking at only one part of their child, until she ended up in hospital on a drip.

Try not to be blinded by the obvious, as I so often was. Take the time to engage with all your children in a meaningful way, not just with the squeakiest wheel.

I don't want you to find yourself sitting many years from now, as shocked as I am, only just seeing in brilliant technicolor that all children have a need for our attention- whether that need screams in our ear, or just whispers a dangerous script inside a child's head until it's far too late to save them.


  1. Wishing you comfort as I've read this. Very good thoughts- I am always impressed by your writing and your wisdom!

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  3. As someone who is a mother, a wife of someone with bipolar, one of your students and someone who was in the year above this talented violinist, THANK YOU for your insight.

    1. Kathryn, thank YOU. I'm so glad you got to read this. :)

  4. Thank you for your honesty and perspective. I wonder what you would do differently now, how would you treat those "tiger girls" with the knowledge you have gained, especially given they did not appear to need anything at all from you. Grateful for your insight, as I am a student teacher.

    1. Good question. I guess for starters, I wouldn't make the same assumptions. I might ask them why they had a need for the things they wanted, and spent time talking those needs through. I'm sure I would smile more. I might say things like "You sound really angry- do you want to tell me about that?" and see if I could get them talking about something other than their obsession with profile and kudos. I would spend more time with them. And I wouldn't assume that their pushiness was a failure of personality or upbringing...

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