“Tell me,” began the music director, “is your daughter a disciplined child?”
“Ellie is … a 3-year-old.”
The director pursed her lips. “Are you a disciplined family?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Though she frowned at my non-answers, the director acknowledged that my daughter, so eager to learn an instrument, had passed the music test and would be admitted into the school’s Suzuki violin program.
Ellie adored her class. She loved the enthusiastic young teacher and her fellow “musicians.” She got a kick out of handling her teeny fiddle. The class started with two-note intervals, gradually advancing over the semester to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Kids who stuck with it through grade school would graduate to Mozart.
Parents were expected to observe every session. From week to week, I noticed that Ellie was making progress — she mastered positioning the violin under her chin and producing simple melodies — but not as quickly as the other children. She preferred skipping around the room and making faces in the mirror to repeating the same exercises. At home, she balked at practicing, opting instead to host tea parties for her stuffed animals.
Still, my husband, Michael, and I were proud of Ellie for her enthusiasm about the class. We anticipated the thrill of seeing our daughter play her pint-size violin in her public debut at the school’s winter recital.
The night of the concert, inside an intimate hall, we listened as an array of talented young musicians performed. Finally, the littlest students walked onstage, a dozen tiny boys and girls in suits and festive holiday dresses. The audience oohed and aahed at their collective cuteness. I easily picked out Ellie, done up in her brand-new red velvet dress and matching shiny shoes.
On the teacher’s cue, the 12 children placed their instruments on the floor in front of them and stood to face the audience.
“Lift!” the teacher commanded.
Eleven kids lifted their violins and bows. Ellie lifted her dress.
She hiked it right over her head, giving the crowd — 400 parents, grandparents, and students — a look at her white tights and little belly.
Michael and I buried our faces in each other’s shoulders, trying to suppress our giggles. The crowd tittered. Eleven children began “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” while Ellie lifted and lowered her skirt in time with the music.
Aghast, the director dispatched a teacher to run onstage and stand in front of Ellie, attempting to hide her from view, while the kids played on. But Ellie continued to lift her dress; the crowd howled. In a flash, a second instructor darted out, hoisted our daughter under his arm, and carried her off the stage.
She was out of sight before the second verse was over.
As the other students took a bow, Michael and I sprinted backstage to rescue our little flasher. She wondered where her classmates were but seemed otherwise unfazed.
Not so the enraged director, who phoned me that night. “Your daughter is not welcome on our stage,” she hissed. “She’s not permitted to attend class. She is not a disciplined child.”
Our kid flunked Suzuki.
We tried to laugh it off, even entertaining friends with the tale. I impersonated the director, who became closer to the Wicked Witch of the West in my retelling: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little violin, too!”
Expelling a 3-year-old for acting like a 3-year-old was absurd, I told myself.
A “disciplined 3-year-old” is an oxymoron. Right?
On the other hand, 11 preschoolers had successfully performed the song that night. Was something wrong with my daughter?
Was something wrong with me?
“When is my violin class?” Ellie asked. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her she’d been kicked out. “The classes are finished, honey,” I said.
“But my teacher said to practice.”
We took her to private lessons for a while, but she quickly lost interest. And I lacked the maternal rigor to push her — a deficit that I worried might prevent Ellie from reaching her full potential. Did I delight too much in her mischief, spontaneity, and silliness? Was it wrong to prioritize her happiness over her achievements?
I brooded over this for months. But whenever I thought of Ellie lifting her dress and the crowd’s chuckles, I couldn’t stop my own. It reminded me of the wedding vows Michael and I wrote, which hang on our bedroom wall and include the line “We will embrace the awesome unpredictability of parenting.”
Unsettling as it had been, the Suzuki ordeal reminded me what was important to us as a couple. Eventually I realized: Our daughter simply took after us. Michael and I are both performers who, in the theater as in our social lives, love making people laugh.
It came as no surprise, then, when Ellie caught the acting bug. Her aha! moment came in third grade, when each student wrote a monologue for a historical figure and recited it in character. Ellie played Annie Oakley. “I can shoot a dime,” she drawled convincingly, tossing an imaginary coin in the air and nailing it with a cardboard rifle.
Are we a disciplined family? Nah. And we like it that way.
Alice Eve Cohen is the author of the memoir The Year My Mother Came Back, to be published by Algonquin in March.
Illustration Credit: Christopher Corr