19 February 2014

Back in the Day...

February is Black History Month in the U.S. And I could talk about that fact

but not now.

Predating Black History Month, February is also known as Girl Scout Cookie month in many parts of the U.S. I was never a Girl Scout. I suspect my parents just didn't have the time or energy for any more extracurricular activities than the four of us were already engaged in. Beyond that, it would have required my mother to deal with other mothers on a frequent basis and I don't think she was much interested in that.

Cookies didn't appear annually in our house:  with so many overweight adults and children in our extended family, my mother was diligent about limiting the sugar and caloric intakes of her kids. But as an adult whose acquaintances included Girl Scouts and parents of Girl Scouts, cookies were often on my mind come February.

When a CA friend mentioned Girl Scout cookies in a Facebook update this week I realized I hadn't seen a Girl Scout or a Girl Scout cookie in the entire year and a half I've lived in MS. I started talking about it, online and in the real world. Could it be there were no Girl Scouts in Holly Springs? Surely not! One would think in a community with so many churches, there would be several troops. Internet research yielded no listing of a troop in Holly Springs. The closest was Byhalia, about 18 miles away, and the date, time and location of cookie-availability was to be this Saturday. I made a note.

On Sunday, after attending services at the Lutheran church (where I am the new pianist beginning this week), I stood chatting in a small group in the front foyer. Somehow Girl Scout cookies came up. T_____ said he had a cookie connection and would hook me up.

And he did. The Girl Scout in question is a beautiful, precocious 6-year-old girl named Kennedi. She and her mother stopped by around 5 to deliver my cookies. When we spoke on the phone earlier in the day, I mentioned that I taught piano and had openings if her daughter was interested in studying. The piano was the first thing that caught the child's attention when they entered the house.

I asked her if she played and she said her grandmother has a piano and she always plays when she visits. "Splendid!" I said. "I'd love to hear you play if you're up to it." She was shy for a few seconds -- a look at mom and then down at the floor, a little body squirm -- and then she walked to the piano and sat down. With her head tilted and her eyes on the keyboard, I watched her enter "the zone" of music-making.

Using mostly her right hand, she played a longish -- perhaps 35 seconds? -- single-note melodic line. Hand position was outrageous but the musicality was there. The melody was graceful, compelling, with varied dynamics and a satisfying harmonic resolution.

"She's musical!" I said with surprise to her mom. "It's in our family," she replied. "My brother is working on a masters degree in music at Ole Miss."

"Does that song have a name?" I asked. "Did you write it?"

"Yes, I made it up. It doesn't have a name," she responded.

The miniature Etch A Sketch on a side table caught her attention next. After a whispering a request for permission to my housemate (her mother and I were engaged in conversation), she settled into the blue velveteen recliner and ottoman with the toy. One of the first drawings was of a city skyline. "You drew skyscrapers," I commented. "Where did you see skyscrapers?" There are no skyscrapers in Holly Springs. "In Memphis," she informed me. She goes to Memphis once a week for dance lessons.

Later, I asked if I could play piano for them and they said yes. I chose Chopin's "25th prelude," the Op. 45 that I've been working on for several months. While I played, Kennedi found the drawing pad and crayons which reside on the same table as the Etch A Sketch. She drew a picture of a princess bearing the caption (written in cursive!) "You are a princess."

There's so much to notice about this drawing but nothing moved me more than her decision to give the princess brown skin. The sun peeks out of the upper right-hand corner of the drawing much asit did on drawings I made as a first-grader over 50 years ago but brown skin on any figure, let alone a princess? If it ever happened, I don't remember it and it would have been rare. To me it speaks a level of self-confidence and positive self-regard that I would hope for all little girls everywhere.

When I asked her to sign her work, she hesitated. "I want to take it with me," she said. "Oh, we can make a copy if you like. This is my guest book -- it has to stay here." So she accompanied me and I showed her how to make a copy. She wasn't pleased with the results; the color was off and needed retouching. We returned to the living room and she set to work with crayons to correct the color values while the adults continued talking.

It was during this part of the conversation, in response to my query about whether school was providing ample challenge and encouragement for a student as advanced and eager as her Kennedi, that she confessed the "down" side to her daughter's multiple gifts:  she gets in trouble at school for "talking."

Ouch! Though it rarely happened, I well remember the sting of being reprimanded in class for talking. I also remember my mortification on the long walks home from school carrying a report card with lower than an "A" in "Conduct", with a note from the teacher about "talking."

By now Kennedi had finished her touch-up of the photocopy and was standing near her mother. Her mom looked at her as she shared with me the story of Kennedi's progression from one color group to another -- I think it was from blue to red...to "you know what comes next," she said ominously, looking sternly at her daughter, who was by now bent backward over the arm of the sofa and squirming. Mom turned her lower torso slightly and smacked herself once on the butt. "You know..."

 "Mommy...." Kennedi whined.

"Oh, wasn't I supposed to tell anybody about that?"

"Well, it is rather embarrassing," I offered.

"They're still doing that?!" asked C___________, his shock only barely masked. Mom allowed that yes, they are; although after a bit of controversy a few years ago, she added, the schools adopted a policy requiring parental permission (I think in writing....) to apply corporal punishment. She said she didn't want to "have to" do it but she had felt she was losing control of the situation. "I just figured that if I was doing it at home and they were doing it at school, together we'd be able to correct the problems."

Ah, yes. I remember corporal punishment from school days, too. I never received a spanking at school. I knew kids who did and in my mind it was no less unique and mysterious an experience than flying to the moon. My parents were vehemently opposed to anyone else striking us and made it known in unequivocal terms at the beginning of each school year. I think they were especially disturbed by the prospect of a white person hitting us. Based on my limited experiences in the schools here as a substitute teacher, better than 70% of the teachers are black. I don't know what part, if any, race plays in the willingness of parents to let other people hit their children.

Artist:  James R. Eads
I am sad but not surprised to hear that in Holly Springs it is still widely acceptable for large people to hit small people as long as the small people are children for whom they have responsibility. It's sad and disappointing and frightening to see that this culture of violence against children yet persists in the 21st century; to encounter a consciousness that could condone violence, for any reason, toward a child as physically beautiful, cognitively vibrant and spiritually intact as Kennedi.

I didn't launch into my thoughts and feelings about corporal punishment yesterday. It is mostly none of my business. Still it seems my business if I think of us as coexisting in an interdependent web or think of myself as an elder with a kind of mentoring responsibility toward this young mother and little girl. Perhaps she will enroll her daughter as a piano student with me. If she does, there will likely be opportunities to invite her to rethink the hitting-as-a-way-of-teaching approach to parenting.

It's been a pretty long time since I knew anyone who hits their children. Bumping into this archaic and barbaric holdover (or throwback) from less-enlightened days triggers a fantasy of how the last five dinosaurs might have looked to new-and-improved life forms. "What?! Wow.... I thought all you guys were gone by now..."