One of my earliest memories is of peeking into the living room while my mother taught piano lessons. I was pre-school aged and I could not wait until I was old enough to sit on the big bench, spread my books across the music rest and tap out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” just like my mom’s students.
A few years later, my mother finally deemed me ready and set me up with a piano teacher of my own. Once a week I would ride my bike to her house, climb up on the bench, spread out my books … and drum my fingers impatiently while my teacher droned on about the mechanics of playing the piano.
She tried to make it fun with clever mnemonics for memorizing the notes – Every Good Bird Does Fly, All Cars Eat Gas, Great Big Dogs Fight Animals. But I wouldn’t have any part of it. I didn’t care what the notes were called or what they looked like on paper. I wanted to skip right to the part where I was a piano virtuoso, ready to take over as lead synthesizer for my favorite group, Jem and the Holograms (a band that I should note was both fictitious and animated).
Week after week I would “forget” to complete my music theory homework until my piano teacher finally stopped assigning any. I’m sure she felt justified in doing so since I was playing just fine – something I managed to do because during my practice sessions at home I pushed keys at random until I found the ones that sounded right and, through trial-and-error, I memorized my pieces each week.
That is how I managed to complete eight years of formal music instruction without ever learning how to read music. I faked it, and as a result I learned nothing. To this day, if you were to ask me to identify a note on a piece of sheet music, if it ain’t Middle C it might as well be named Fred.
One year after shutting schools down for what we had initially hoped would be two weeks, K-12 students in our community are making their way back to in-person instruction. Next week students in the Moscow School District will increase from two days a week to four. Students in Pullman have been gradually returning in stages, starting with the youngest grades and working their way up.
If there’s one thing we have learned in the past year, it’s that today’s children – the COVID generation – are resourceful and adaptable. It is exactly because of that proven pluck that I am worried sick about their hidden educational deficits.
I’m worried for the kids who already struggled, like my youngest who already was receiving extra help from the literacy specialist before the pandemic. During distance learning, the specialist continued to provide materials and support, but the execution fell to his parents – his overburdened, underqualified, wildly incompetent parents.
Who I really worry about, though, are the kids on the other end of the spectrum – the ones who find school easy enough to have faked their way through the past year without actually having learned much at all.
I have one of those in my household, too – a student who 100 percent phoned it in over the past 12 months. It’s not that he’s fooled his teachers – they know it wasn’t his best effort. But I worry that because he’s good at skating by we may never know exactly what foundational knowledge he’s missing because I failed to effectively teach it to him.
I worry. I don’t know how our teachers are going to do it – how they’re going to hunt down each student’s hidden educational deficits like the least fun game of Where’s Waldo ever.
Then again, I don’t know how they did all that they’ve already done.
I do know that however this all turns out, I will be singing our educators’ praises forever and ever – just as long as someone else accompanies on the piano.
Jade Stellmon set sail for a three-hour tour on the Palouse in 2001. She is now happily marooned in Moscow with her spouse and five children.