Though I started formal piano lessons in first grade, I had already loved the instrument throughout my childhood, and my father had already taught me to play Chopsticks and the chords of Heart and Soul. Despite my small hands and short, stubby fingers, I displayed an aptitude for music, and picked it up quickly under the tutelage of the sweet music teacher nun at my Catholic school.
At the end of second grade, though, Sister decided that she had too much on her plate and would only retain a handful of private piano students. I was one of the students jettisoned to take lessons instead from the young, pretty Miss D.
Initially I was excited about this, largely because Miss D gave little gifts to her students, dropping off little bags of candy for them at Halloween and Christmas. When I watched my classmates accept these small tokens with envy, I was grimly informed that the bags of candy were basically bribes to buy their silence for how mean Miss D actually was behind closed doors.
This did not worry me as much as it should have.
I will add here that I was one of Miss D’s favorite students. I say that not to brag or pump myself up. It’s simply the truth. I was chosen for various music themed outings with her. I was entered into multiple music competitions, and have an assortment of ribbons and trophies to show for my efforts. I don’t even think it’s an exaggeration to say that Miss D loved me, in her own self-serving way, to the degree that my ribbons and trophies were a reflection of her teaching.
Which makes the way she treated me all the more horrifying, and makes me wonder how awful it was for the students who didn’t have my Teacher’s Pet standing.
From third through eighth grades, I continued to take weekly lessons from Miss D. And I lived those years in a constant state of anxiety about the verbal beat-down I would get during those thirty minutes each week. I didn’t even get a break during the summers – she continued to offer summer lessons with her star pupils.
It’s been over 25 years since I last saw her, and I couldn’t tell you anymore what she said when the yelling and berating began, but I can tell you exactly how it felt. How my fingers would shake and go cold in fear of hitting a wrong note. How dread would settle in the pit of my stomach. How the inevitable mistake would make it that much more impossible to play correctly.
How my knees went weak with relief and I felt like a boulder had been lifted from my shoulders when my 30 minutes of torture ended each week.
The real kicker, though, is that I did have that Teacher’s Pet status, so it wasn’t like that every moment that I spent with her. I also had effusive praise heaped upon me. Both directed at me, and, at competitions and recitals, directed at my family, who were told in ebullient detail about my natural ear for music.
This made it worse, for two reasons.
The first was that the praise naturally made me crave Miss D’s approval, but the threat of her ire was ever present underneath it. She only got upset with me because she knew I could do better. It was for my own good. It was not unlike being a battered spouse, hoping that this time I would make a good enough dinner to avoid a beating, never understanding that the quality of the dinner was never what the beating was actually about.
The second was that the praise that my parents heard ultimately made it impossible for me to ever tell them what those lessons were actually like. By then, I knew that what my classmates had told me about Miss D back in first and second grade – classmates who, incidentally, had long since quit piano lessons – was horribly true, but who would believe it of someone so outwardly sweet and generous who obviously thought so highly of my talent and skill?
As far as I can remember, I tried, once, to tell my father, in about fifth grade. I had to work my courage up to initiate the conversation, and when I did, I lacked the adequate vocabulary to describe what really went on in those lessons. Miss D is mean, I told him. She yells at me. I hate the lessons, and I want to quit.
My dad was patient and kind, and he listened, and then he told me gently how he wished he hadn’t quit guitar lessons, and he didn’t want me to give up on something I was so good at – and wasn’t it true that I could probably stand to practice a little more?
In saying this, my father was not being cruel negligent of my emotional health. He was genuinely trying to do the right thing, and he did not have the information he needed to know how bad it really was.
It confirmed my worst fears, though. I would not be believed.
I never tried again to quit.
If I’d had the vocabulary then that I have now, I would have told him that Miss D was verbally and emotionally abusive. That she was cruel and vindictive in her words. That her gifts were grooming, and her praise was gaslighting. I would have told him that I spent the night before my lesson lying awake in fear of those 30 minutes, and her verbal barbs were as painful as being slapped.
I didn’t know how to say all of this to him. And after the first time he didn’t believe me, I stopped trying.
The end of eighth grade finally provided a welcome separation point. I was going on to a different high school, and my parents agreed that I could try out a different teacher. The only caveat was that I had to tell Miss D myself. The final lesson when I told Miss D I would no longer be her student was fraught with stress. I have always been conflict-averse, and I spent the entire conversation on pins and needles. She tried to manipulate me into staying under her thumb, telling me that the music teacher at my new school wouldn’t be entering me into the competitions and recitals that she always had. I think it was the first time I actually realized that those events were far more important to her than they were to me. I just wanted to play music. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I do remember the relief of finally walking away from her for the last time.
And here’s the thing: she was a piano teacher.
Not my parent. Not a family member. Not someone I depended on for food and shelter and love. Not someone I loved and needed to love me back.
I was an adult before I ever revealed to my parents how bad it actually was with Miss D. That it was, in fact, abuse. And clearly I was not alone in this. (In fact, I ended up attending high school with Miss D’s niece. When I mentioned that I’d taken lessons with Miss D for years, my classmate’s response was, “Oh, God, I’m sorry.”) She was teaching before I started lessons with her, and she continued to teach after. No one ever fired her. No one ever investigated her. Some kids were at least able to convince their parents to let them quit lessons, but to my knowledge, no parent ever called the school to complain about her methods.
In the meantime, I had a family that loved me, parents who supported me and were proud of my accomplishments and who, while as imperfect as any other parents out there, were warm and kind and never let me doubt my value. I was able to emerge from the experience relatively unscathed.
Imagine what it must be like for children who have someone like Miss D as a parent. Or a grandparent. Or a family friend who everybody likes.
If it was as hard as it was for me to talk about the abuse of my piano teacher for fear of not being believed, how hard do you think it must be for a child to tell anyone that their parent is hurting them? Or that mommy’s boyfriend is touching them in ways he shouldn’t, even though he makes mommy so happy?
How hard must it be to tell when telling might have one of two outcomes: either you won’t be believed and you’ll get in trouble for telling, or you will be believed, and everything you know will be torn apart?
And how hard must it be to tell on someone you love?
I don’t want to be alarmist here.
But my general philosophy is that when a kid says a grownup is hurting them, or is making them afraid, it is imperative to believe them. And then take action.
You might be the only person who does.