Just Different


Many years ago, before I had children of my own, I taught a very talented little girl I’ll call Natasha.

Natasha was the most talented student I’d ever taught. So I made exceptions. She and her family were extremely poor, having just immigrated to the United States from Russia. They couldn’t pay me for lessons, so we bartered. Her mother was a talented bodyworker, so she gave me a massage in exchange for each lesson. Except that sometimes she didn’t. Exception number one.

I took Natasha to play for my former teacher in Seattle. I managed to do this by getting another elderly student of mine to take her under his wing and pay for her flight. Exception number two.

Her mother got a job and couldn’t do the barter any more, but I kept teaching her. Exception number three.

We felt bad for the family because they had so little, so we gave them lots of presents: things we no longer needed and presents we bought for them. Exception number four.

Both my husband and I got overly involved in every aspect of their lives. We did care about them and I believe they cared about us, but we let the boundaries blur. And the underlying cause of all of it was my wish to teach a particularly talented student.

As you can probably guess, after a little more than a year she decided to change teachers. At the time I thought it was a horrible betrayal. My inner dialogue went something like this, “After all I’ve done for her, I can’t believe she isn’t more grateful. Doesn’t she know that I’m the best teacher for her? No one else will ever love her and care for her like….” You get the idea.

This week a delightfully talented little girl came to play for me. I’ll call her Anna. I was honest with her mother that I would be happy to teach Anna. I told her how I felt about the child and her obvious gifts. But inside I didn’t really care whether she came to me or not. Don’t get me wrong. I still love teaching talented kids. But I have learned not to get overly involved with any particular student right from the start.

Anna’s mother had already paid for a year of lessons with another teacher through her private school. She wasn’t sure she could get her money back. She suggested that maybe she could have lessons with both the other teacher and with me. I patiently explained why that might not be the best solution. The mother truly didn’t have any idea how these things worked.

One thing I’ve developed in my many years of teaching is the ability to disconnect my opinions of what might be best for a particular student from what I think I need to be happy. I am already happy. I love teaching and playing and composing and being a musician. No particular student coming my way or going another is going to change that.

A lovely side benefit of this is that I’m free to be honest. I don’t have to try to talk anyone into anything. I can just give them my honest, educated opinion about the situation and trust them to make a good decision. Notice I didn’t say the “best” decision or the “right decision”. There are just different decisions. All parents try to do the best they can. Encouraging them to see options like these as simply different and not “right or wrong” can be incredibly liberating. It also happens to be true.

Are there times when you’ve had student relationships that became overly complicated and what did you learn from them?