I signed the possums up for piano lessons at the beginning of the summer. Seemed like a good idea as Poppy has been whistling since she was three, scatting since preschool, and compulsively drumming her way through family meals no matter how many times her father and I repeat, “Quiet hands at the table!”
Charlie was game, too. He has always enjoyed sitting down at the piano plunking out a little melody. (In fact, he’s informed me that he plans to write an opera about Amelia Earhart for the PTA contest this fall. Um, we’ll see about that.) But to tell you the truth, he would have been just as pleased to hear that I signed him up for shuffleboard or dominoes camp. Just point that boy in a direction, give him a little nudge, and he’ll do it. Usually with much obliviousness, but he’ll do it.
After just a few lessons, I could tell that history was going to repeat itself…again. Charlie took to it like a fish to water. Poppy took to it like a fish to roller skates. He had a natural understanding of patterns, finger placement, timing. She did not. When Charlie advanced to more difficult songs, she often had to repeat her lesson. I asked the teacher to give them different assignments so the comparison would not be so obvious. By the fourth week, Poppy asked me, “Why is Charlie so good at piano…and I’m not?” Oh, that hurt my heart. Once she made this observation, her little light dimmed and she started losing interest.
I resolved to not let her give up. I wanted her to break through the barrier, gain self esteem, and have success in the end. I wanted for her to have a lifelong love of playing music, just as my mother gave to me. I wanted her to know that it wasn’t a sprint to the finish, but a walk to be enjoyed. I naively thought it was as simple as mind over matter.
As I sat beside her night after night on the piano bench, I started noticing things. When I prompted her to play with her right hand, she placed her left hand on the keys instead. When I asked her to step up to the next note in the scale, she stepped down. When I asked her to play a note with finger #1 (Mr. Thumbkin), she played it with finger #5 (Miss Pinky) instead. It was opposite day, all day long.
I reflected on the times we had been down (and up) this road together before.
When Poppy learned to write her letters in preschool, she wrote her name as a mirror image. When she was five and started to read, she instinctively recited letters from the right side of the page to the left. My simple mind was blown. I wondered if this behavior was normal. Or would she outgrow these tendencies? Or was there anything at all to be concerned about?
In addition to the reading and writing curiosities, we struggled together through other activities that have nothing to do with schoolin’. She cannot unlock doors (or sometimes even open them). More often than not, she emerges from her bedroom with her pajamas on backwards. (Sometimes, her Hello Kitty underpants, too.) When she plays soccer at the Y, she often zigs when everyone else is zagging. Just last week, she came home from camp with a shiner because she “thought TJ was going to run the same way as me”. All of these quirks are just part of who Poppy is. Just like her father is a nerd (I adore nerds) and I am impatient.
To be honest, I am often impatient with her quirks. When my arms are full of groceries and she cannot open the front door to let me in, I am not very patient. When she flings the Frisbee directly behind her every single time she throws it at the park, I am not very patient. When I drop her off at school on picture day and realize her dress buttons should be in the back and not the front, I am not very patient.
This week, when we sat down for another trying piano practice, I pushed her too hard. We were reviewing flashcards of five notes that she learned at her most recent lesson. She could not tell me what they were. We reviewed them again (and again). No luck. I prompted her, “Well, is it a space note or a line note?” She always gave me the opposite response of what was shown on the card. I got increasingly frustrated. “It cannot be a space note if there is a line going through it, right?” I tensely reminded her and made her try again. She folded her arms, narrowed her eyes, and sighed deeply. “Well, that doesn’t make any sense to me!” she finally rebutted. “All the notes are in space. And sometimes they are sitting on lines. And sometimes they are below the lines. And sometimes, they have lines going right through the middle of them!” She did not appreciate at all that I didn’t get it. She got up with tears in her eyes and ran down the hall to her father. I overheard her sniffling, “I don’t like piano anymore. Mom just does not understand!” And she was right.
My heart felt Grinch-like and two sizes too small.
I assumed she was looking at the notes in the same way I look at the notes. It never occurred to me that you could look at them any other way. By forcing her to repeat the flashcard exercise ad nauseam, with no apparent progress, I made her feel like she just wasn’t trying hard enough. The fact is she tries so hard, it breaks your heart.
While I sat there, alone on the piano bench, the following quote popped into my head: “Because I know something you don’t know. I am not left handed!” It’s from the epic sword-fighting scene in Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya reveals to the Dread Pirate Roberts that he’s been using his left hand all along. He then tosses his sword with a dramatic flair to his dominant hand and proceeds with renewed optimism.
I am not left handed either. She is.
Back to the drawing board I went. I spent hours Googling terms, in infinite combinations, like: left handed, child, mirrors stuff, space, reads, backwards, opposite, looks at world completely differently than her mother!
From what my unscientific brain gathered, she is not just left handed. She is extremely left handed.
I then spent the better part of a day reading articles, medical journals, abstracts, forums, and even polled my left-handed friends on Facebook about their experiences. I wanted to understand my daughter better. I wanted to help her without making her cry; I wanted to help her without making myself cry.
Here are a few tidbits that leaped off the pages: (Yes, I know these tidy little bullet statements do not universally describe every left-handed person. But these are the ones that caught my attention.)
- “Left-handers’ brains are structured differently from right-handers’ in ways that can allow them to process language, spatial relations and emotions in more diverse and potentially creative ways.”
- “The study reported that very strong left-handers were 11 times as likely to have dyslexia than very strong right-handers.”
- “In the first study, involving 253 left-handers (gleaned from patrons of a shop for left-handers in London) and an equal number of right-handers, the left-handed group was found to have 12 times more learning disabilities.”
- “The anomaly is left-handed people make up the extremely gifted and the extremely compromised,” said Hopkins. “The rest of us make up the middle ground.”
After coming up for air, and giving myself a little grace for being so obtuse, I realized I still had a lot of work to do. Not to make Poppy conform, but to allow her to learn, grow, and thrive in her own quirky world. She has already done a remarkable job of covering in a right-handed universe. (Turns out she had been memorizing all her piano songs instead of actually reading the notes.) Does she have a dose of dyslexia mixed in with her atypical view of the world? Possibly. Does she work twice as hard as her peers (and siblings) to achieve what comes naturally to them? Definitely. Is she a complicated and amazing little girl? Without a doubt.
We made up. I made pledges. We even came up with a left-handed version of the I Love You sign that she flashes when she feels I need a reminder to consider her point of view.
I showed her pictures on the computer of left-handed people who made history. Did you know that six of the last seven presidents were southpaws? Her face lit up when she heard that Leonardo da Vinci often wrote his name backwards, too. And Jimi Hendrix played the guitar upside down and backwards for heaven’s sake! There seems to be some debate about whether or not Poppy’s favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh, was consistently a lefty, but she assured me there was no doubt in her mind. I was actually starting to feel a little jealous of this prestigious club. Here are a few other members who have, you know, changed history forever: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Babe Ruth, Marie Curie, Aristotle, and Ned Flanders. (I need to remember to ask my nerdy husband and devoted Simpsons fan if he knew that last one. Who am I kidding?)
Impressive as this list of names is, nothing compared to the grand finale, the icing on the cake, the cause for my daughter’s triumphant victory dance around the living room – Justin Bieber is also left handed. Someone, quick, flash me the I Love You sign!
I may never truly understand what makes my beautiful daughter tick, but I do know that she deserves my patience. I also know that she is quick to forgive, has my favorite curl, and tells me she loves me more often than I deserve. I’ll take those things over the “middle ground” any day.