The Voice of a Generation

The Voice of a Generation

In the graduation speeches delivered this month by students from Brattleboro Union High School, I recognized the overarching theme of inclusion, connection, and belonging which seemed to spring from a deep well of recognition and appreciation among the student speakers and their cohorts.

When senior Malcolm Toleno referenced “What’s next?” in his address at the Baccalaureate ceremony, he cast a broad net of post-graduation paths: from starting a job to enlisting in the service to exploring gap years & travel to continuing studies, encouraging his fellow classmates to approach the world with curiosity, from a place of not “knowing.”

When class speaker Kathyrn Paige Wocell addressed the graduating class on the football field, she spoke of the “adult companions” who shaped the lives of graduates, referencing a quote from the school security guard, “Gordy,” who characterized the Class of 2019 as “spunky and determined,” certain to impact the world.

When Ari Essunfeld delivered his Valedictorian address, he spoke of the “positive influences” of a community that respects and treasures differences and values art & music, points scored & records earned, risk-taking and compassion. Among those influences, he included teammates and coaches, custodians and special education teachers, and his fellow classmates who over the past four years shared not only common physical space but collective memory, differing perspectives, hard apologies and the intertwining of stories, in which he honored the fullness of each individual story and its unique path.

These children have come of age in the chaos of climate change and school shootings and the immediacy of oppression and violence and hate.

Like no other generation, they reside within our interconnection, and in doing so, I see their capacity to create larger and larger containers of belonging, celebration and love.

To this I would add the voice of their English teacher Bennth Sauer who retired this year and offered this witty and insightful address at the Baccalaureate Ceremony, revealing the brilliance of educators whose light is often dimmed under mounds of class hours, meetings and paperwork. (Of note: Bennth doesn’t love this image but I think it captures what students found so engaging about her classes.)

ENGLISH I. & II.

I want to thank the senior class for including me tonight, as it gave me time to think about some things that really matter—which was especially meaningful during my last few weeks of teaching at a place where I have learned so much. And as I was contemplating things we all share—aside from the memes you have so generously shown and then explained to me—I started wondering about what we might have gleaned from some of the works we read in English I and II.

[My notes here say, ignore muffled groans and proceed as if I had not heard them].

[I should also note that the working title of this talk was “Why I Hate Romeo and Juliet,” but I decided that was too narrow, so it’s now called “Why We Should All Love Holden Caulfield but Shouldn’t Vote for Him.” I believe he’s running as the 24th Democratic candidate.]

So, what did we learn from them—and what didn’t we learn, which maybe we should have?

These are not idle questions. If the point of going to school is to acquire the skills that will help us become thinking citizens, ideally compassionate towards others both within our sphere and without, and engaged in the lurching-but-worthwhile experiment we call democracy, then assumedly these books were chosen to instruct us about a particular aspect of being human.

So let’s start with a book most of you probably [?] liked, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the “tired old town” of Maycomb we saw just another version of our national emergency being enacted, with Tom Robinson falsely accused of rape by the ne’er-do-well Ewells, and then shot as he tried to escape a system that was rigged against him. We all recognize that emergency, still being played out on the national stage and on our Facebook feeds. We paid heed to that emergency in our own school as we raised the “Black Lives Matter” flag amidst much controversy.

And in Jem and Scout’s burgeoning awareness of injustice we recognize our own coming to terms with the failures of our democracy: How Scout had to mull over the fact that a teacher praised the Jews by saying that “there are no better people in the world” as they faced the scourge of the Third Reich in Europe, but apparently said and did nothing about the plight of the Black citizens of her own town under Jim Crow. Jem, as we know from Scout, grew angry and withdrawn, and refused to speak about it, which I suppose is one way to cope. And of course we all admire Atticus, who was derided and spat upon for his convictions.

But there are a few less-examined moments in the novel which I would like to talk about now. You all remember the mad dog in Chapter 10–[and not just because he has the same name as a local celebrity]. When Calpurnia realizes that Tim Johnson is rabid, she runs to the Radleys’ to warn them to stay inside. In her haste, Cal goes to the front door, and watching her, Scout remarks, “She’s supposed to go around in the back.”

In the symphony of the novel, this is a moment in which the reader should notice a false note. Jem responds that it doesn’t matter in this case, as it’s an emergency—but it should matter to the reader. It’s symptomatic of growing consciousness that it comes in fits and starts, and Harper Lee is showing us how pernicious this sickness of racism is—how hard to cure. Likewise their discussion as they walk back from their church outing with Calpurnia: They are having the first really personal talk in the novel, and we realize that Scout doesn’t know when Cal’s birthday is, despite the fact that Cal has cared for her all of her life. (Worse, Calpurnia herself doesn’t know.) These lapses may seem minor but in the mosaic [this is the very definition of mixed metaphor] of “What We Can Learn from Literature,” they are like missing tiles which mar—or highlight, depending on one’s perspective—the art.

Noticing the small broken-off bits in the mosaic, of course, is not enough. We have to notice them, and then do something about them. And so I don’t want your takeaway from what I’m saying here to be that in being a careful reader you are doing your utmost—you have to not only see the places where things are broken but also work to fix them. Of course, we are not going to shout at Scout over the distance of almost 60 years that she should look up “hypocrisy” in Miss Caroline’s dictionary, but we can notice these lapses in ourselves and make amends. It requires a humility and a willingness to make mistakes—something that after a teaching career of thirty-plus years I have perhaps more experience with than most.

And speaking of humility, how about those Montagues and Capulets? Should it bother us that we never, EVER, in “the two-hours’ traffic of our stage” learn the source of their “ancient grudge”—a feud so potent that even their servants bite their thumbs at the other family’s staff when they run into one another at Price Chopper? In a time when our nation is more divided than it’s been in years, perhaps we should read this play as a warning: that we should be able to identify the sources of our polarization but more, we should work to bridge the same lest we lose what we treasure most. Romeo and Juliet’s parents planned to commission a statue of pure gold to commemorate their children’s death and the end of the adults’ strife—what kind of statue will be erected here in the future? Will it be one which future generations will have to take down, as the statues celebrating the Confederacy are slowly being toppled on their plinths? Will it be pure gold, or will it be hollow? And who will decide?

Guess what—you will. It is a sad truth that as the people who have worked hard to teach you retire and continue to lose their hair, the responsibilities for shaping a world you want to live in will be increasingly your own. Sorry, not sorry; sad, not sad—I am quietly ecstatic to think that you—with your fine minds and character, your acronyms [GOAT: “Greatest of All Time”] and silly antics— will be determining what happens in the world “out there” rather than just in our classrooms.

[Maybe leave the tractor tires at home though.]*

So what will you do when you encounter the Tom and Daisy Buchanans of the world, those who in the insulation of their own privilege have only to put up statues to themselves— those who can ignore the shadowy figures toiling in the valley of ashes as they ride through on the train to somewhere clean and safe and exclusive? An uncomfortable truth about Fitzgerald’s novel—which I thought about a lot while planning this diatribe, I mean speech—is that The Great Gatsby is almost exclusively about people who just…stink [synonym for the perfect word, which *this refers to a prank students pulled a few weeks ago I can’t use here]: their living rooms, their hotel rooms, their mansions, their icky personal lives—and so little about the world that surrounds them, which they exploit but which is beneath their notice. You will have to face the Buchanans and the lesser mortals of the world as you inherit the environment they have despoiled. In the final lines of his masterwork Fitzgerald writes that we are boats beating on but borne back ceaselessly into the past. It’s a romantic and true notion—certainly there are things we will want to hold onto from the past and even from the present—like Easy Bake Ovens, bell-bottoms, Moana, the rolling-eye-emoji—but as the caretakers of our planet you will have to think about and do things in new ways to stem the tide of apathy. Google Greta Thunberg to see what one seventeen-year-old and a sign can do.

And thus we arrive at Holden Caulfield, anti-hero of his own narrative [The Catcher in the Rye]. In my experience students are 50/50 with or against Holden—he’s Everyman, or he’s no one. As a teacher, I love him; the fact that he doesn’t do the reading is infuriating, but his heart is in the right place. And at least he has one. What is heartbreaking to me is that the adults in his life seem to have largely deserted him, except perhaps, for his English teacher (SURPRISE!), Mr. Antolini. (And no, he wasn’t creepy.) Holden doesn’t do his homework, but he has principles—he just doesn’t have power. So find your power—whether it’s beating a drum or besting your teacher in debate [shout-out to my AP students], singing your heart out on stage or stinging the vanity of those who abuse their power, wielding your sense of humor or welding alliances between people who thought they were enemies.

But in this era in which fact is continuously being called into question, what do we make of Holden’s use of the word “phony”? It’s important, because it is one of the reasons many students dislike him: “He hates phonies, but he’s a phony himself.” I mostly disagree: I think that Holden appropriately recognizes fakery but is too caught in the mesh of his own coddled upbringing to totally escape it. It’s unclear that his parents’ plan to send him to a military academy will remedy this. We all know that teenagers have the best boloney-detectors and (speaking to the parents and other significant adults here) it is wearying to have one’s own trespasses pointed out, over and over. But I thank the Buddha for my students—they are so often right, and they—YOU—have certainly kept me honest. Now you’re graduating, and I urge you to prime your baloney-meters as you enter your next sphere.

As for my own graduation, which is what we’re calling my retirement in our household…I was talking with Amelia Graff [♥] the other day about Jane Austen—how Austen’s women characters are “badass” [I can say that here because I’m quoting Amelia] even as they’re caught up in the mesh of their own severely constricted futures, in which finding a man is the ultimate end, and the “plain” sister is plain out of luck…And after Amelia left my classroom I thought to myself—I’ve made a terrible mistake! There are so many fabulous, important discussions I haven’t had! So many books to talk about! And I never taught anything by Kurt Vonnegut! etc. After those moments of panic, I calmed down and realized that the discussions and the new thoughts about familiar things will happen anyway, because you know how to have them. You don’t need me. It’s a truism of teaching (like parenting, I suppose) that the ultimate goal is to render oneself obsolete. It has been an honor to participate with you in this endeavor. I have never laughed as much as I have when spending time with “my” kids, and I have learned more than I can quantify.

When Holden is being kicked out of Pencey, his third (?) prep school, he goes to visit his former social studies teacher, “Old Spencer.” I’ll spare you the details of their interaction, but in short Spencer, in trying to make a point about Holden’s inability to “apply himself,” makes him feel even worse. As Holden is leaving, he thinks he hears Spencer shouting “Good luck!” after him, about which Holden says, “I hope [he didn’t]. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.” So I won’t either. Like Beowulf [you know i had to work him in here somewhere], you have the power to make your own fate. Of course, I hope that all good things happen for all of you, but I know enough of your resilience and tenacity to know that you will also make good things happen.

And in a nod to Kersey, I will close with a quotation from my favorite poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote of the future—your future—in a section of Leaves of Grass:

“It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and father—it is to identify you; It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided; Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you, You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.“

And so you go, with all my love.
Thank you so much.

Beneth Sauer, BUHS Baccalaureate Address, June 2019

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The moral consequence of acceptance

The moral consequence of acceptance

Uncertain of our place, but standing with my sister and husband nonetheless, shoulder to shoulder, for others. Brattleboro Rally for Trans Justice. 2018.


I don’t feel safe to be a part of any community 
outside my own.

Of all the words spoken at last month’s Rally for Trans Justice | Brattleboro, these are the ones that most pierced my oblivion.

How affronting my hubris. How careless. How dangerous even. To dismiss another simply because he/she doesn’t look the way I expect she/he to look.

Acceptance is protection, declared one of the rally signs. I nodded my head in sobriety.

I have a responsibility here.

Hate is a choice. Trans is not, expressed another.

I felt that inside.

“Do better,” the speaker offered to those of us who identified as the sex to which we were born. “Talk to each other. Educate yourselves.”

I am and was so grateful to all those who were courageous enough and vulnerable enough to gather with people like me who want to be allies, but who have so much to learn.

I hope there are more and more spaces where people who identify as Trans feel safe and accepted and most of all feel that they—belong.

At one time I felt awkward around “them,” and then confused, and over time curious, and finally accepting, but now my heart is made glad when I see the woman at the register who kinda looks like a man but who is clearly a woman inside.

She’s always been warm and funny with me even when I accidently use the pronoun, He.

A budget is a moral document.

A budget is a moral document.

I guess it’s been said before but it landed in me for the first time when I heard it spoken last month at the Rally for Trans Justice | Brattleboro.

I jotted those words down in a tiny notebook that I keep in my purse:

A budget is a moral document.

Over the weekend, my husband and I revisited our budget which has long been neglected. Years ago, as my hormones began to change, I turned it all over to him; and as our kids came of age, I looked at it less and less.

We began budgeting when we became parents. I didn’t want to do it, but it was 1995, and it was the first time that I didn’t earn a substantial income. I was home with a child, which is where I discovered I had to remain, but I couldn’t figure out how to avoid credit card debt with my husband’s salary as a new teacher at $20,000 which didn’t include health coverage for the new baby or me.

A budget is a moral document.

I felt so ashamed when I reported to the State Office to arrange for supplemental food and medical care for our son. “I’m not taking this from others am I?” I asked. “I’m a teacher. This is a choice for me. I know it’s not for others.”

A budget is a moral document.

I learned to track every penny then so that we might afford to provide our children with a parent at home, and unpoisoned food, and health care and education that was integrative and whole.

Fuel assistance and the Reformer Christmas Stocking (providing winter wear for the kids each year) helped us get by.

A budget is a moral document.

It was a long haul. There were no true vacations. No dinners out. Not so much as a coffee at a cafe. Our clothes were second-hand. Our gifts were re-gifted. Even the presents under the tree were recycled from the previous year as long as our kids were too young to notice.

“Why don’t you ski?” my father asked, when he came with his doctor friends to ski in Vermont. “You live here. Why don’t you have skis?”

Years later, after my husband’s income climbed, we built our first home, and then he went two years without a teaching salary.

A budget can shrink and expand. We didn’t accrue any debt. I’m so proud of that time. We pulled together as a couple and as a family. The kids gave up their allowances.  The community supported my husband with side jobs. We got by with the unemployment provided by the state.

A budget is a moral document.

Last week I read that the United States is second among developed nations with credit card debt. Close to half of us carry that weight, while in say France or Germany or Australia, less than ten percent do.

With more and more education, and more and more experience, and with the opportunity that comes from that, my husband’s income grew exponentially and we neglected our budget more and more; while simultaneously my opportunities exponentially shrunk, as did my willingness to do just about anything for a buck so that my life could remain shaped around the home.

Instead I’ve began shaping my life around writing.

Is a budget immoral if it provides for an aging woman?
No one wants to sell the house.

Not only did our first-born put himself through college, but he makes more in a summer than I can scrape by in a year.

He called last night from a rally in Burlington–Bernie, Christine, Zuckerman. He was coordinating volunteers. I put him on speaker phone.

“Dad and I are working on the budget,” I said, a phrase which no doubt is a trigger for him given the financial struggles of our family’s early years.

He told us about the inspirational speeches and the enthusiasm, and then he had to go to the next event.

Turning back toward the budget, my husband and I were reminded about what’s at stake. How we provide. What we prioritize. And how spending time with the budget allows us to question this.

A budget is a moral document.

I’ll never forget the cartoon I saw when I was a young teacher. It made me question what was always taken for granted–that money was meant for “things” while “lives” went wasted.

Dear Bernie,

Dear Bernie,

I moved to Vermont in 1993, the year before I turned thirty, two years before my husband & I became parents.
 
It was in Vermont that something else was conceived inside–a growing awareness & engagement in politics; Because it was in Vermont that I first discovered politics beyond the pocketbook.
 
Bernie, it was in our early years in Vermont that my young family sat beside you at the Chicken Supper when you were our Congressman, and where we later watched with pride as our son joined you in the Strolling of the Heifers parade down Main Street during your campaign for Senate; and when time sped forward and that same son went off to school at the University of Vermont, my youngest son and I were with you on the waterfront as you announced your campaign for President; which is to say that Bernie Sanders & Vermont are inextricably linked in my understanding of both the rights & responsibilities of citizenship.
 
But it’s not that for which I’d like to thank you now, Bernie. It’s something larger than one family. It’s the way your presidential campaign gave young people, not just in Vermont, but around this nation, hope. It’s the way you tethered their hearts and minds to a purpose larger than themselves, and to the possibility of something more than the cultural shadow assigned them–ignorance, irrelevance, consumerism & self-absorption.
 
Bernie, your campaign, your voice, your tenacious heart woke the heart of a nation and seeded a sense of possibility that is taking root in the consciousness & action of our youngest citizens in this most troubling time for our democracy.
 
Bernie, you have shown them how to fight the good fight.
 
You have proven to them that they are not alone.
 
This has inspired them to lead with love.
 
This has inspired them to vote with passion & purpose.
 
This has made the privilege of citizenship–whole.
 
~Kelly Salasin, age 54

Mother of Lloyd, 22, and Aidan, 17, ready to vote in the next election.
 
 
Orange, Chocolate-Chip Scones~the preservation of democracy

Orange, Chocolate-Chip Scones~the preservation of democracy

Wednesday mornings at the old Sweeties Market
Wednesday mornings at the old Sweeties Market

A rainy Wednesday in March brings to mind the memory of orange, chocolate-chip scones.

This would be just the day to sit a spell at the counter at Sweeties on Route 9 in Marlboro–sipping a latte, taking in the aroma of bacon, the morning conversations, the ebb and flow of townspeople and tourists beginning their day

Sweeties has been closed now for a handful of years and we’ve all grown accustomed to having to leave town for gas or a six-pack, but the absence lingers like a loved one, and sometimes rises like an ache, particularly in wintry months or on rainy days like today.

“After the General Store, comes the Post Office,” says a neighbor. “Then the school.”

Marlboro School was at the center of last week’s Pre-Town Meeting  in response to Act 46 which seeks to consolidate school governance.

“Forced, short-sighted, rushed through legislation,” is how one woman described it.

Marlboro Pre-Town Meeting, Kelly Salasin, 2017
Marlboro Pre-Town Meeting, Kelly Salasin, 2017

A discussion of the unintended consequences of Act 46 ensues; and I’m surprised by a consideration that hadn’t occurred to me until then, and how deeply it shakes me–not the loss of our precious Junior High, or the loss of our vibrant voice; or how these losses will reshape our school, and our town; but something that strikes at the center of self-governance:

Town Meeting.

I know not everyone can make it on the first Tuesday in March, and I know that efforts in other towns to shift the meeting to an evening or a weekend haven’t produced the desired results; But our old Town House fills up with body heat and breath and voice and community, and that’s something.

And even in the years when you’re not in a chair or on a bench or at that front table or up at the podium, the gathering holds space for who we are and how we live and what happens here, not just in Marlboro, but all over the Green Mountain state, and even across our nation, as Bernie proved to be true.

Sure Town Meeting would continue for awhile; the old timers here are hearty like that; but the absence of the school budget–ie. the absence of children at the heart of decision making–would hollow out the gathering, until it became a dusty relic of itself.

16998821_10155188169798746_4073628770178210955_n
“New Stairs,” Marlboro Town Hall, Kelly Salasin, 2017

Just before our Pre-Town Meeting closes, a follow up question about our “Geographically Isolated” and “Structurally Isolated” school comes from the floor:

“If we find that it doesn’t work for our town, can we go back to what we had?”

The response sends a chill through my body, particularly this year:

“Once you take it apart, you can’t build it again.”

The Christmas Season that won’t end…

The Christmas Season that won’t end…

IMG_1518We tucked our celebration away at the end of December, but the holiday season has dragged into the New Year for our family–by the Merry Mulch Fundraiser.

On any given day, we receive 7 to 21 calls about Christmas trees. (Of note: Despite a progressive populace, not a one referred to theirs as a Holiday Tree.)

Our son volunteered to receive these calls to offset the cost of his highschool band trip. His mother, who did not play a band instrument, is a writer. Self-employed. In the home. Which is why it was both necessary and excruciating to succumb to this daily intrusion. (I stopped answering the phone in 1989.)

On any given evening, my son spends 20 to 60 minutes replaying (and replaying and replaying) messages; compiling information; and making follow up calls.

More than the volume of Merry Mulch activity, we are surprised by the volume of good will. This is its 27th year of the Music Department fundraiser at Brattleboro Union High School.  Some of the callers let us know that they have been participating since its inception. One woman informed my son that she was the one to conceive of it.

Our hearts are equally touched or tickled or annoyed by the characters we find on our  answering machine. The warm and gravelly sound of an older man. The busy staccato of the cell phone caller. The confused caller. The comedic one. The irritated. The kind. The repetitive. The overly informative. Their quirky names. Corky. Junio. A woman named Mann. (My son wishes he could meet them all!)

When Aidan showed up at school that first week with close to 100 orders, the band director offered to place our phone number last on the radio and newspaper call list instead of first.

I am almost certain that we will never (or always) do this again.

~

Note: if you live in Brattleboro, here is the link to more information. There is one more pick up Saturday remaining. Calls must be placed by Thursday. Please don’t call the first number. http://buhs.wsesu.org/merry-mulch

PLaYing with DaVid

PLaYing with DaVid

I think my parents suggested fiddle because there was this insane teacher named David Tasgal. He was kind of nuts, but he had an amazing ability to communicate music to little kids…. He was definitely an inspiring figure for me, not only musically, but also because he had this slightly cracked sense of humor.
He had this deadpan vibe that I thought was hilarious.
~Sam Amidon

CCI16102015

play |plā|
verb

  • engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose
    • amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
    • (play with) fiddle or tamper with: has somebody been playing with the thermostat?

I never thought about David’s age before, but if I had to guess, I’d say early sixties, which is why I dismissed the news that a 72-year-old man was struck on his bike on Bernardston Road in Greenfield, Monday afternoon.

David has been a part of the Marlboro Elementary School family in Southern Vermont for over a decade. His quirky, fun-loving approach makes this classical instrument accessible to all kinds of kids; and his death this week leaves our school family aching–especially as I imagine all those young children–with their tiny violins–waiting for him on Tuesday morning, ready to play (and I mean play.)

A list of David’s original compositions for the violin lends insight into his heart for children, while revealing his characteristic playfulness:

David's books
David’s collection of music instruction books.

Blast Off,
Marching to the Practice Room,
The Tough Cat,
Goldfish Variations,

Cha Cha Cha Cha,
The Rabbi Dances with his Dog
and
Bingo Suddenly Meets Mozart

My youngest son, Aidan, who studied with David from 1st through 8th grade, believes that one tune in particular had a handful of title changes over the years: Song for a Pet Who Died became Song for a Pet Who Ran Away became Sad Clown Fish became The Lonely Fiddle–all in attempt to make the children less sad.

Aidan also marveled that David could compose a tune such as The Duck Song–from a single note–and still make it “interesting and satisfying.” As a parent and a teacher, it was particularly pleasurable to see so many children, of all ages and skill levels, play together, and David’s unique approach made that possible.

David swept in for school events wild hair and wild shirts, and then began without fanfare, keeping the focus on the violinists, while enthusiastically accompanying them on piano. In fact, it’s at the piano that I remember David best. I loved the mornings when he’d arrive a bit early for lessons–at the tail end of All School Sing–and then slide his way onto the piano to add pizzaz to our last song.

On the evening after David died, I entered the school auditorium to teach yoga, but felt his presence so strongly that I could barely begin my class. To soothe myself before I left, I placed a small light on the piano to sit shiva with David’s spirit through the night.

We lit a candle at home that night too. Our older son, Lloyd, 20, who was in David’s very first class at Marlboro recalls how perfectly David tailored lessons to engage him and his more sports-oriented peers:  “At one point, he gave us percentages so that we’d compete with each other,” Lloyd recalled.

Aidan was uncharacteristically quiet as his brother reminisced. Aidan graduated from Marlboro in June, and on that night he tucked a small gift aside–a bar of soap–his favorite because of its crazy colors and textures and how he gets to slice it to size–and especially because of its name: Dragon’s Blood. He thought David would like it too.

Aidan gave himself whole-heartedly to music during his years at Marlboro and has continued on at the  highschool just as enthusiastically; while Lloyd just about gave up on the violin in Junior High.  At the time, I drafted a parenting piece entitled: The Violin Wars, which alas, I never finished, until now…

Our boys playing together, many moons ago.
Our boys practicing together, many, many moons ago.

The Violin Wars

My 13 year old sits slumped behind me in an arm chair in my office while I blare Dave Matthews, Ants Marching and then Last of the Mohicans–two “cool” songs with engaging strings that I hope will entice him to play along and reignite his lost passion.

The violin sits on his lap.

Things between them almost ended–abruptly–two weeks ago, though truthfully, they’ve been on the rocks since Lloyd was about 10–the time of the First Violin War–an apocalyptic parenting moment–complete with yelling and threats and stalemates–followed by the stark realization that I had crossed the beginning of the end of my role as commander and chief.

Lloyd with his first set of strings
Lloyd with his first set of strings

But a deeper truth is that Lloyd and the violin have been together forever, into their ninth year, and they courted even before that. As a toddler, Lloyd offered rapt attention to any string music he came across–live or recorded–contemporary or classical; and as a preschooler, he brought the same toy guitar to show and tell every Friday, while truly longing for a violin.

When we finally found a toy one to match the guitar, he was at first delighted, and then quickly disappointed with its inferior sound. He insisted he needed a “real one,” but as neither my husband or I were musicians, we didn’t know how to go about that for such a small child.

One afternoon, while walking down Elliot Street in Brattleboro, however, Lloyd pointed to a sign above the sidewalk–with a picture of a violin–and said: “Let’s go up there.”

We climbed a set of steep stairs, and entered a small shop where violins–of all sizes–hung from the ceiling. I felt like a fish out of water, but Lloyd looked up in wonder. Reverent. Riveted.

The shopkeeper came around the counter, took out a tape measure from his apron, and sized Lloyd up.

Lloyd in kindergarten
Lloyd with his first “real” violin.

“Come back in a year,” he said.

Lloyd was devastated.

But when he entered kindergarten that fall, something magical happened: the school instituted a pilot program with the Brattleboro Music Center and Lloyd came home carrying a case with the real thing inside.

Despite his passion, Lloyd was not a virtuoso, but he stuck with it, year after year, and so did the school–deciding to continue the program until the fourth grade when children could begin traditional band instruments.

Many of Lloyd’s peers gave up the violin in favor of a flute or a trumpet or a drum, but not Lloyd; he kept playing until he was the only one holding a violin, which is where we find him now, at the beginning of 8th grade:

“I want to quit,” he says. “I can’t take it anymore.”

But he isn’t resolute. He is miserable. Torn. Angry and frustrated. Feeling betrayed, by himself.

I’m not sure how to help.

Our tempers mount.

With so much at stake, I feel the Second Violin War coming on, but now I am a wiser or at least less foolish parent, so I suggest we reach out for support. I quickly compose an email to dispatch to family members–cousins and grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and regular ones too.

The replies flood in.

Do what you want, says one. You can always pick it up again.
Stick with it, says another. You’ll never pick it up again.

With each response, Lloyd feels tossed about–first one way; then the other. In the end he does. Stick with it. But half-heartedly. And once in high school, he leaves it behind, while watching his little brother, 5 years his junior, follow in his footsteps, sticking with violin, through the 8th grade, but so whole-heartedly that it inspires Lloyd to pick it up now and again… “just to see how it sounds” (and to see if he can still play better than his younger brother.)

Lloyd is grown now, a man of 20, and to our surprise, he recently called to say: “I think I want to start playing again.”

We don’t know what will come of this spark, but it warms us, particularly in its timing.

We attended David’s funeral together. No one even balked at the suggestion. Not Lloyd who was leaving that afternoon on the train for Burlington. Not my husband who had to arrange coverage for his classes. Not Aidan who was… well… 15.

The music was exquisite. The service solemn and playful and irreverent. At one point, a handful of children came forward to play some of David’s pieces for beginners. I nudged a reluctant Aidan to join them. He sat firm in his seat until he saw another same-age peer, across the room, move toward the altar.

Aidan playing at the last concert with David at Marlboro Elementary.
Aidan playing beside a younger peer at the last concert with David at MES.

Aidan swiftly brought the violin case, hidden between his knees, to his lap, and as he did, I felt the collective attention of all those who shared the private mourning space around us.

We watched transfixed as he opened each latch, and carefully lifted the instrument from its bed, and then there was a palpable embrace as he approached the altar on our behalf.

When the children began the last of three pieces, we were invited to hum along, after which we accidentally broke into the applause we had held inside for the soloists who had so stirred us earlier.

As Aidan rejoined us at the end of the pew, I turned toward him to mouth the words: “Thank you,” just as he locked eyes with mine, nodding his head, offering the same, not once or twice, but a handful of times: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…”

The sky was a stunning blue as we exited the temple doors that afternoon; the surrounding streets lined with the cars of those who came to grieve David’s departure–students, colleagues, family, friends.

As we walked, Lloyd spoke to me of the music–of the viola solos–played by loved ones.

“I could barely breathe,” he said. “I couldn’t remember how.”

Temple sky over David's Send-Off
Temple sky over David’s “Blast-Off”

David Tasgal
1942-2015

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To find out more about David’s approach to teaching violin, or to purchase his curriculum, see his website: Strings Fun and Easy.

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