Posts Tagged ‘find my voice’

Laugh Lesson

Dame EdnaThe lesson was not taught in her grade ten class, it was learned in my grandmother’s grade nine class sixty years ago.  You might think it odd to have such a memorable lesson skip a generation, rather the lesson was learned through a generation and will probably continue to be told.


Barbara you laugh like a horse.” Her teacher had declared one day over the classroom din. If you were Barbara in that moment I imagine you’d cling to a faint hope the sting would be lost in the clamour that is a grade nine class.  More than likely Barbara should have been crafting English lettering rather than her lesson.  Otherwise it is hard to imagine why any adult given charge over children would compare a young girl or more precisely, the laughter of a young girl to that of a horse. Big stain topped teeth, enormous lips, sloppy saliva, horses don’t actually laugh, but neigh and whinny; who knows why, certainly not because they have found humor in the oats. Barbara expressed her boredom with education by practicing the art of English typeface, the anatomy of which required painstaking attention to craft the ascenders, descenders, serifs and stems. Fluid and flowing bowls and bars measured up to invisible lines that kept them straight and for Barbara, was demonstrated in copying one of her favorite poems; “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone”; page after page, much like her hands’ ability to fly over piano keys for she could already translate what she heard as music, it was just a matter of getting the keys to repeat what she felt, or lend her own harmony to the songs she knew.


He was right you know – really, for she did laugh. Not the measured restraint of polite society, but the stuff of deep bellies, head thrown back, mouth wide open –  laugh. I suppose it was not very lady-like back then. I’m sure her very proper mother disapproved.  Barbara spoke bluntly, loved fiercely and more often than not, her humor bordered on the bawdy.  She was not a submissive, quiet type.  She had no need to find her voice, it had pretty much found her and once settled in, spoke with frequent passion and as she aged. She was never afraid to laugh, whether at embarrassment she herself had caused, or at the foibles of others who were often at her mercy. Grade nine marked the end of her scholastic career.


That story was often repeated as I grew up.  Or maybe not – maybe it was only told once and the memory of it stuck.  Children can manufacture absolutes, believing in a moment a thing accomplished only once is a thing that was always done so the story might have been always or only once but it’s too late to say. I’ve lived the story for a lifetime.  My own had no horses but brief quiet lapses of time where silence hung before it was snatched away by the jerk who exclaimed; “Ya think you could say that louder?”  Recollection saves my ego for I’ve lost count of the number of chances I was given as stories were told, jokes repeated, sympathy was shared. A combination of clues recognized too late; the hand at shoulder height, elbow bent, brushing the air up and down alternatively bringing forefinger to lips in a plea to keep it down and a shushing motion to just be quiet.  I would sense rather than know it was coming, always after the punch line or the story’s finish. I couldn’t take the words back and try again but I’d vow the next time, the next time I would know or stop or be somebody else before it went too far, before the eyes darted away from my face to the faces of others looking for a place to escape. There was always the unseen hovering authority like a trip wire that if ignored, would bring a ton of bricks down on your head.  The authority had those unspoken (yes they were always unspoken) set of rules that meant you were not to talk a lot, preferably not at all; in the schoolroom, in the workplace, in the choir practice, over drinks. I tried so hard for so long to be that somebody who politely shook my head in acknowledgement of a conversation going on around me instead of jumping in with both feet – yes, I must say it – usually in my mouth.


After years of practice one day she came home and said; “My teacher asked me today if I had to talk that loud.” My heart sank. Progressive grades had seen a jigsaw puzzle of desk displacements, always to temper the chatter, reorganize classroom dynamics, shift focus – still the tongue.  Out of the class.  In the hallway.  In the principal’s office.  Stop talking. Other parents shared the back seats of their cars for their little girls to chatter, but mine would be asked to lower her voice.


I hate art. Art doesn’t matter.  Who cares if I do the assignment on perspective?  What difference does it make if I pass in the shading homework?”  Two weeks for vacation and missed art assignments and no attempt to catch up. “Who had asked you if you had to talk that loud?” The art teacher. And then I hear from the art teacher.


Up until yesterday your daughter has done no work or made any effort to catch up on the work she missed when she went away.  She’s now making an effort to do the currently assigned work.  She is welcome to come in at noon or after school to get caught up with her pen and ink drawing and the “wall paper” assignment. I’m here all lunch hour except for Tuesday and Friday when I do 20 minutes of duty. I’m here most days after school until 5 pm.  She should have an “A” in this class. She’s more than capable but needs to put in the effort to complete assignments.


I thought about Barbara, my mother. I thought about her a lot and then I wrote to the art teacher;


“Thank you for letting me know how my daughter is doing in your art class.  I think it’s obvious you care about how she is doing or you would not have taken the time to write.  I think it’s safe to say you probably care about all your students, or you would not be teaching art.  Because you care about her, I’d like to share a bit of background with you so I’ll ask for your indulgence for just a moment.


When my mother was in grade nine, she became more preoccupied forming intricate old English lettering and practicing the art of calligraphy than her school work and it wasn’t long before that became a problem for her teachers.  The story that resounded throughout my adolescence was the one where she was in class one day and in front of all the other students the teacher turned to her and in exasperation declared; “Barbara!  You laugh like a horse!” You can imagine how that must have made her feel. The fact that 60 years later, I can still recount that story tells you of its impact.  Fast forward to my own school years and I, as I was often told, was very much like my mother. Outgoing, friendly, enthusiastic, moody, animated, talkative (sound familiar?) and I remember vividly the number of occasions I gave people the opportunity to similarly declare how very loud my voice was. It left such an impression on me I have told both of those stories to my daughter many times.


Many years practice have allowed me to distance myself from the resulting inferiority and dismay those comments brought to me.  I have learned to love the person God made me to be and when I am now given the chance, I make that love affair what I share with others – and that includes my loudness.


My daughter loves art Ms. Art Teacher. She is an artistic, gifted, sensitive young woman, who loves to express herself, give of herself to others and cares very deeply about how people think of her.  I have been adamant and consistent in my attempts to help her be glad for who she is – loudness and all.  In time, age and maturity will factor out the loudness and give her the discernment necessary to use that voice of hers when it is most effective.


I am sorry Ms. Art Teacher, but I cannot advise you on how best to coerce my daughter into doing as you instruct in class.  I cannot even advise you on how to get her to pass your class, that is up to her.  If you love art Ms. Art Teacher, I am sure you will find a way to share that love affair with my daughter.”


I never heard what Ms. Art Teacher thought about my words because she chose not to respond. I know my daughter was mortified that I should write to a teacher of hers. That I would express confidence in an ability she herself did not believe she possessed. “I think you think I’m better than I really am.”  she told me.  Frankly I was a little offended.  I had ridden in on my valiant steed and rescued the fair maiden – all be it a mix up of fairy tales, I did think I had behaved appropriately – for once.   A few weeks later when my daughter came home from school she casually mentioned Ms. Art Teacher’s mother had died.  I sent her a note of condolence and it too was accepted without recognition.


So be it. Another story filed in the annals of memory, if that were the end it would have been enough.  But it was not the end for you see in the weeks before school finished something quite marvelous happened in art class.  I only know because amidst guitar lessons and rugby practice my daughter happened to mention that Ms. Art Teacher had given us a different type of assignment.  We get to decide what to create; there are only a few guidelines.  She said it was more like the art we’ll take in grade eleven. We can use our vision to come up with whatever we imagine.  As if that was enough, no wait – there’s more.  A week later Ms. Art Teacher caught herself saying; “My! But aren’t you becoming artistic.”  I’m not sure how or why my daughter passed grade ten art. I’m not at all sure whether her art appreciation has been expanded or narrowed, but I am sure Barbara taught me more than how to laugh.

Words Past