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The Quitter

By Sandra Clark

I let my daughter do that thing that I swore I WOULDN’T do.

Hot tip to younger parents- promise nothing- you’re going to spend a lot of time eating so many of vows.

I let her quit piano. After years of playing while visibly and vocally and powerfully sharing her displeasure with everyone in the house; she had been begging every way possible. During that and after, she asked and asked and asked to take up the flute. I punted figuring it was a deferment strategy; another thing to try and quit. I’m into teaching GRIT, so allowing quitting felt like failure. But I my desire for her to love music was stronger. She won. 

“Okay,” I bargained, “just plan to stick it out when it gets hard. Plan to practice every day, even when you’re tired.”

Her chin enthusiastically bobbed up and down.

I released the end of my resistance in a steady stream of air: “let’s do this.”

—-

Now six months later, she has done that; exactly what she promised. Every single day she sets up with her tiny instrument case, gleefully assembles the silver stick, and plays her assigned pages.

She’s good. Shockingly good for a beginner. I’m amazed at how easy it has all come to her and how steadily she’s worked at it: the ambiture, the trilling, the tone. She’s not a quitter when she wants something.

—-

I also played the flute at her age. While my parents did NOT let me quit piano, I was delighted to live out my fantasy of carrying around that trim little instrument case and assembling the exquisite silver baton. Reality smiled on my fantasy. Luck had it that my rental was a brand-new instrument: unscratched and untarnished. Packed into an unmatted, lush blue velvet-lined case, my flute stood out against the second-hand rentals in my 5th grade band section. My band director noticed.

“It’s a shame someone who has such a pretty instrument can’t play it well.”

Middle of the elementary cafeteria, faded red paper peeling from the wall, smells of canned corn warming for lunch, I froze. Shame-smacked into a sinkhole inside myself. I was a disappointment. Maybe I’d have been less noticeable if my instrument hadn’t been so shiny?

But there I was, the girl holding the best instrument in the room; lighting rod. Playing like, well, a bleating beginner.
There was a bar- perhaps a pristine silver one, the enviable flute I was holding? And I had fallen flat beneath it.

I said nothing, only sunk. I quavered. Shook. Trilling without trying. Choking back tears, I mimed the rest of the practice, gasping air with the ticking of the wall clock’s second hand until I could escape.

—-

I’d like to think “I showed him” by quitting, but the truth is I was too ashamed to go back. My hand couldn’t lift the nifty little flute case- I tried and could not. It was a first. I didn’t quit things. I pinched my toes into favorite shoes I loathed growing out of and stuck out friendships well into an awkward phase until the other person quit first. I usually take and take and manage and deal, because I didn’t want to be a “quitter.” I was capable and strong, that’s what my mother always said.

I had such a beautiful instrument.

For the first time I quit even though I hadn’t ever thought of it until that minute of hot shame. My band teacher’s cruelty- to a child (something I often forgot that I was)- and the everyone, everyone in the room watching. I couldn’t just suck it up and go back.

My mother has no memory of me telling her about the incident. I didn’t want to tell anyone. However, the 5th grade isn’t known for secret-keeping, so everyone, everyone in the fifth grade knew. I was called into to confirm the rumors and reason I had declined to go to band.

The other band director sat with me in the library, apologizing profusely and inviting me to return. Ashamed to be a quitter, but it was just too visible to walk back into that cafeteria and listen to the clock’s second hand metronome again. I just wanted it all to go away and to go back to being the girl who tries really hard, doesn’t need help, and gets along pretty great. The band director was fired, but still I didn’t go back. I quit.

—–

My daughter sounds like a natural on her flute. I’m eager to watch her keep at it. I feel like the universe smiled a bit when she asked if it would be possible to buy a forever flute of her very own last fall, just two months after beginning. The next week, I happened into a rummage sale two blocks away. On the make-an-offer table was a stunningly pristine silver-plated flute in a blue velvet-lined case. The sound was exquisite. The happy seller was delighted to accept my lowball offer of $25 when I said it was for my daughter who knew when to quit what you don’t love and go after a new thing and commit.

—–

What if I rewrite the story I’ve been telling myself? The one where I am not measuring up to the great expectations for someone who lucked into so much privilege and fear I’m a quitter, so I’m now afraid of letting go too soon and at times holding on long.

What if instead I thank the shame that protected me? I let myself lean into that little girl anxiously bouncing her knee to distract others from seeing her shake in pain. That shame swift-kicked me out of that toxic space and onto find something else— Maybe?

What if I embrace knowing when to quit is actually a good thing? I get over being a band dropout 11, and finally release the fear that I’m not enough now at 38? 

—-
I look at my daughter’s flute case splayed open on the counter, crushed blue velvet drawing my eye. What were the odds of finding such a beautiful instrument waiting for us both at a rummage sale around the corner? Maybe quitting is really just creating an opening to pick up a new instrument. I don’t know how I would have ever seen that flute or what it really was unless I did. 

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

7 thoughts on “The Quitter”

  1. I had a similar experience with a music teacher in fourth grade, in regards to my singing. Looking back, he actually was fairly nice about it, but I didn't want to be singled out in front of everyone for singing flat all the time. I still sing flat and have a terrible ear, so I just don't really sing except for goofy songs for my kids and cat. It did lead me to develop my piano skills so I don't ever have to sing.

    I have one kid who is enthusiastic and over-committed to everything, and she keeps having to learn that it is OK to stop doing some things. Several years ago I ran across a quote that said something about "saying 'no' to something is actually opening space for a 'yes' to something else". It's fairly simple and obvious, but it's helped her and me see that sometimes you really do have to quit and change directions.

    My second kid was the one who spent several years of piano complaining all the time, and I had the same difficulty in letting go of how I had planned for things. They did guitar lessons for a few years, and now they are doing percussion at school, but they're probably going to drop all music next year in high school. It makes me a little sad because I really want my kids to be musical, but for some it just isn't their thing.

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  2. Yes! Rewrite the narrative! I love all that is bringing as you look at how it created triggers you can now let go. Surely the flute around the corner is a magic one.

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  3. Thank you for this, Sandra. Two of my biggest parenting regrets center on times when I dragged my you-will-not-quit-this heels instead of listening deeply to the hearts of my children's concerns behind and beneath their words.

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  4. I know the point of this story is not how the band leader treated you, but I also had a similar experience in 4th grade when I tried violin. I, unlike you, did not practice as I was supposed to. When it was time to play the song (called The Snowman, I still remember even after more than fifty years!) the teacher told me to stand and play it solo. I told him frankly that I had not practiced it. He told me to stand up and make a fool out of myself then. So I stood up and painfully stumbled through it, but that was the last time I ever went to that class. In all honesty, I hadn’t (nor have now) any musical talent. I took the violin simply because my mother’s friend played and she wanted me to play. Still, although I am fairly certain nothing happened to the teacher, I remember his cruelty to this day. Teachers must always remember that they hold all the power and to never make an innocent child their victim.

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