My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.
That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.
Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.
There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.
MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.
She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.
Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.
MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.
MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.
NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)
NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”
Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!
And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.
Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.
Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?
I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.
This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!