With only a few weeks until Christmas, I want to make it clear that this story is about my mother, Mary, and not THE well-known Other Mary. This is one of my favorite stories about how my mother used music in a surprising way to teach young children.
See the picture below of my mother in her 20s, weighing 98 pounds, and teaching kindergarten in a Kansas City school. Mom is in the top row, third from the left end. My cousin Beth, now a grandmother herself, was 5 and visiting my mother’s class that day; she is in the first row, left side at the end.
This story is about a young boy in Mom’s class, a very active, non-attentive, uncooperative, rambunctious boy. One day, after he’d pushed a child, punched another, and grabbed crayons from a third, my mother broke away from the expected discipline. She put her hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Oh, Tommy, you must be very tired or I’m sure you wouldn’t act this way. So I’m going to help you find a place to rest.”
She took his nap mat and spread it out behind the old upright piano that sat at an angle near the corner of the room. Tommy had plenty of private space to stretch out behind the piano, but he could neither see nor be seen by the others.
Mom seated all the other children on the floor and she sat at the piano. She began playing and singing nursery melodies about little hands that go clap! clap! clap! and eyes that go blink! blink! blink! and so on. One song, then the next, happy children singing loudly and laughing along with their teacher.
When they stopped to catch their breaths, a little voice behind the piano called out. “I’m all rested, Teacher. I know how to act now.” And he did. Tommy was very helpful after that. And any time he began to slip, she asked if he needed another rest. He didn’t.
Many years later, when I was teaching Transcendentalism to my high school English students, one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau was this: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
It was then that my mother told me the story of Tommy. She laughed, adding, “That works, as long as the individual steps to his own music without stomping on others.” She was very encouraging of individuality, of each person following his own inner beat of a different drum, as long as it didn’t hurt someone else.
This ends (the other) Mary’s lesson, for both children and adults, just in time for the push-and-shove, sugar-high, holiday chaos. And also, if it weren’t for her dementia, my mother would probably remind us to never give young children drums for Christmas. Or any time, actually, unless they live somewhere else and will take the drums with them.
67 responses to “(the other) MARY’S MUSIC”
I love this. And your mother’s reply to Thoreau is just right – as long as he doesn’t stomp on anyone else. She had so much insight. What a wonderful mother you have.
Thank you, Julia. Before the dementia, she had practical, kind, effective ways of helping children be the best they could be. Now, she spends much of her time thinking she’s a young girl back on the farm, so it’s a full-circle glimpse of her life.
When I think of your mother I feel so torn. Sad and grateful at the same time. She has lived a remarkable life.
That’s how I feel, too, Julia.
Like so many others this story of your mother is fantastic Marylin. I don’t know if you’ve read Pratchett’s Witches series with Granny Weatherwax? She practices ‘Headology’ which is probably the common sense psychology that your Mother used. I wonder if he knew her. She would always step in to protect the threatened without ever causing harm to the threat and what she did with Tommy was proof of that. A wonderful woman just like her daughter.
xxx Massive Hugs xxx.
I’ve never heard of Pratchett’s Witches, David, but “headology” does sound like the approach my mom always used, and the techniques she used to step in and change things.
You are so sweet, and I thank you for the compliments. Massive hugs to you, always.
Marylin, I’m always amazed at the insight your Mother displayed. Her approached to things always seemed different with a perspective and a perception permeated with love and understanding. When I look at our society here at the moment, I wish we had more people like her, especially when it comes to working with children. Wonderful and inspiring story.
Thank you, Don. There are still many times as I watch the evening news when I wonder what my mother would say and do. Not about the situations, but how she would react personally to those involved. I think she could have made a surprising difference.
Having just been exposed to some Christmas shoppers this afternoon, I would quite like to be put behind the piano for a rest. I feel as agitated as young Tommy. 😉 Love the fruit wreath under the figurines.
I’ll bring the snacks and meet you behind the piano, Gallivanta. Even the grocery stores are chaos. The holiday spirit has become very commercial.
Sounds like a good plan to me.
Do you have nap mats, or shall we bring sleeping bags? I might need a very long rest. 😉
A lovely story, Marylin. A very sensible way of calming the unruly spirit. We have some Hummel figurines too. Our favourites are the Windy Boy & Girl and the little dog. Such fun. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas with nobody behind the piano.
At least there are no longer any wooden spoons hidden behind the piano, Andrew. Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas, too.
My mother bought several Hummel figurines when we were in Germany in 1970, and they’re still my favorite keepsakes, especially the singing, music-playing children.
Your mother is leaving a wonderful lacy in your stories – you are so blessed to have had her in your life, and she is blessed to have you, so appreciative and caring.
That should be legacy – stupid autocorrect!!
I didn’t even notice! But now that you’ve pointed it out, lacy is actually a nice alternative! 🙂
It is a double blessing for us. I wish I’d started writing her stories earlier, when the dementia was just beginning and she could have told me more stories about when she was growing up on the farm and then going to college and getting married.
A wonderful story. If only everyone realized that there are different ways of disciplining that are much more effect. I wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas with not too much sugar and hype.
And the same to you, Darlene. This will be your first Christmas in your new home, right? Isn’t retirement wonderful?
I´m still getting used to it. I miss the social interaction of work. I realize it is a transition. It is fun to be in Spain for Christmas though.
Another touching story. There are so many different ways to discipline without ruining a child’s self esteem. Your mother found the perfect way to do so. Bless her heart.
Thank you, Gerlinde. She was never one to spank, slap, yell, or say hurtful things. But she had many gentle, effective ways of getting children back on the right track.
Very sweet, Marylin–and great advice. What a treasure the old photo is. Thanks for sharing.
That photo is one of my favorites, Nancy. I have another, smaller photo of Mom posing that same day with one of the other teachers in front of the school. They are wearing high heels and hose with seams…and they were teaching active 5 and 6 year-old children! :0
The way the “other” Mary handled the young boy was so sweet, and his response was precious. 🙂
I wish I knew if it made a permanent change in his attitude, Tracy, or if he just hated pianos after that. He’d be in his mid-seventies now, and when Mom told me the story years ago, she said she wished she knew, too.
Your mother’s gentle wisdom must have caught the unruly boy off guard, one who would probably be classified as ADHD today. In my opinion, this story should be included as an anecdote in every psychology text. This Mary’s solution went right to the heart of the problem doing no harm to the child’s self-esteem. I’d like to think that the other, well-known Mary was mild in manner and effective in discipline as well.
You know, Marian, ADHD is the first thing I thought of, too. But young, bored children–especially if they’ve had sugary treats–can really act out.
I wish my mother’s child discipline techniques were part of a common-sense philosophy. I’ve seen parents dishing out some scary punishments, even in public places.
LIke you, I’d like to think the well-known Mary was mild in manner and effective in discipline.
Awesome story Marylin, which I will whole heartedly pass along to my young mother friends and teacher friends. Your mom was so rich in her wisdom. What a perfect way to handle an unruly child and in such a positive way.
Thank you, Joanne. Let me know how the young mothers and teacher friends respond. I’d like to add it to the booklet I’m putting together for her great-grandchildren.
Obviously your mother was born to teach, Marylin and thanks to you, she’s still teaching so many. My mother has a large collections of Hummel figurines also. Our mothers are so much alike. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.
They do have many similarities, Jill. So often, your comments here–and also the family details in your posts–make me think that our mothers were cut from the same bolt of cloth. We both were fortunate to have such good mothers.
Yes we are!
Ahhhh – the power of music! Your closing comments reminded me of a story my own parents tell. Early in their marriage, they would buy gifts for my father’s few nieces and nephews. Within a few years, the number of children kept growing and my parents didn’t yet have children. My father suggested they just exchange gifts with the adults. His sisters gave him a lot of grief about how cheap he was just b/c he didn’t have kids yet himself. Soooooo, they bought the noisiest gifts they could find – yes, drums were included – for each child. According to my father, the next year when they proposed cutting back on gift-giving there were no objections!
Oh, I love it, Shel. What a great response from your father. When you came along, do you remember the aunts and uncles paying him back by giving you the noisiest gifts they could find? Sounds like adult sibling payback! 😉
I always dreamed of having patience like your mother’s. I never made the mark but did my best. I subbed in a low income school for ten years. It was a challenge! But you know, I think it enjoyed it the most of all my teaching!
You might not think you had the patience, Claudia, but it sounds like you certainly had the talent and ability to relate to the children you enjoyed. Subbing in a low income school would have had its own kind of challenges.
Marilyn … Your mother was wise. I always thought that any one who gave noisy toys … or toys that made noise … had a secret vendetta against the parents. 😉
Your Mom’s solution to the rambunctious Tommy was brilliant. Sometimes the quiet lessons are the ones that last the longest.
Especially if, at home, the lessons were neither quiet nor consistent. When I was still teaching high schoolers, Judy, sometimes the worst students and troublemakers seemed surprisingly normal after I met their off-the-wall parents at conferences.
Wasn’t it the norm at one time for elementary school teachers to have a piano in the classroom? Or some type of instrument — the autoharp! Yes, I remember that instrument being popular during my school days. Soothing music coming from the teacher might be just what some of our children need in school these days. As for drums — I allowed my son to have a drum set in his bedroom and I survived!
You’re a strong woman, Darla, but I’m guessing your son wasn’t in kindergarten when he got the drums. 5-6 year olds do not tire of pounding away on their drums, sometimes with more than drumsticks! 😉
I think pianos were part of many elementary school classrooms. I remember on rainy days we pushed our tables and desks to the back and sang and marched as our physical activity (we didn’t have a gym, just an auditorium that doubled as the lunch room.)
There was something very special about music in the classroom.
My son was playing the drums before he was in kindergarten. We had a drum set in the den because his father was a drummer and practiced there. So, I learned patience from both ends! He got his own set when he was 12 or 13. I gave him a set amount of time and then busied myself with housework. It wasn’t all that bad and he let me know in many ways how much he appreciated my “suffering.”
We didn’t have a gym, either. Did your auditorium have lunch tables like ours, that lifted up and stored against the walls?
A kindergartener who has a drummer father role model ~ we had only drumsticks and kitchen utensils and our hands to beat on our drums!
Oh, yes, Darla, we had the lunch tables-with-attached-benches that pushed up against the wall. And when the custodian pulled them down each day, somehow he usually found missing homework papers, notes passed during lunch, and all kinds of interesting things. 🙂
It was part of our education!
What a wise woman Marilyn! Your anecdote of your mother reaching out to Tommy the way she did is a story that I will always remember … thank you for it!
It would be so great if music was part of our children’s education … there are such benefits. And, as you say in your post, marching to our own drum beat (without stomping on others) would be the most beneficial.
Welcome, Susan! I appreciate your comment.
All those years I taught Thoreau and “…the beat of a different drummer…” improved when I added my mother’s one stipulation that made all the difference, reminding us to do it without hurting anyone else or getting in the way of them following their own drum beat.
She was a remarkable woman before the dementia, and even now she has a calm, pleasant way about her.
The abitily to think like that is always a joy to behold
Thank you, Edgar.
Another imaginative story with a lesson from our Mary in the classroom. Love her. Mary seems such a natural, creative teacher. I wonder if she ever told you that she regretted needing to leave teaching to tend to the family business?
She really enjoyed working at the dealerships with my dad, Jim, but I know she also missed teaching. She substituted at the elementary school–in the kindergarten classes, especially–every chance she got. And on those days, she had the sweetest stories to share at dinner. 🙂
What a delightful tale from your family lore Marylin. Oh what a wonderfully wise and perceptive teacher your dear mom was, she knew just to handle Tommy didn’t she? I just love reading about the way she lived her life and her nuggets of widsom. The Thoreau quote is great and reminds me of my middle boy Nicky. I remember his fourth grade teacher telling me once that he often needed to be reminded to pay attention as he was known to ‘drift off’. But, she said, this was a good thing, as he always had such unique and clever ideas when he did. It’s just that he had them at the wrong times and also it meant he wasn’t concentrating on what he should have been! I hope that this holiday season is as stress free for you as possible Marylin. Have a wonderful week my friend 🙂
My grandson sounds like your Nicky as a boy, Sherri. Even when he was very young, Gannon would be working on something else, writing or drawing, etc., as the teacher read. She would pause and ask him a question about what she was reading, and without hesitation he’d answer, also adding minute details. He and Nicky both followed different drummers, I’d say, and they did it without stomping or getting in the way of others.
A calm, happy and joyous Christmas holiday to you, too, Sherri. This week is very busy for me, but after that, things should slow down considerably.
Another beautiful story, Marylin. What a natural gift your mother had already in her 20’s, to deeply understand how best to handle individuals in the classroom, to help them conform to the requirements of discipline and self-control, without squashing their spirits.
Ken often says about the most annoying people, “let’s give their children drums and cymbals for Christmas…” 😉
I’m supposed to ask you how the organizing has been going… you picked a busy time of year for that!
I am still inspired, Tracy, and also determined. It’s slower going than I imagined, but I haven’t given up. I’ve now filled one big box and two sacks for Goodwill, and one box with extra-nice things I really don’t use or need (that was a difficult box to fill) for a PEO fundraiser for a scholarship. The really surprising thing is that along the way I’ve also found two notebooks and a pack of pictures that I’d forgotten about!
Your post still motivates me to keep working. It’s coming along, much more slowly that I anticipated, but I’m not giving up!
I find that EVERYTHING takes longer than I anticipated.
Hang in there. Slow and steady wins the race….
Got it, Tracy. I’ll keep plugging along.
I read a Helpful Hint recently: when tackling a major clean-out/clean-up job in a room, take 4-5 pictures around the room. Then tackle the contents of each picture, one at a time, and then take an “after” picture.
Your mother is a wise and compassionate woman Marylin. Thank you for sharing this story – it reminded me of how in our quest to ‘make’ our sons ‘musically gifted’ hubby and I bought them almost every musical instrument you can think of (thankfully all they have now are guitars). Our house was always filled with noise (and not enough ‘music’) 🙂
There is a difference between noise and music, Yolanda. But all we can do is the best we can at the time as parents. Now your sons are playing guitars. We’ll see what my grandchildren end up “really” playing. 😉
Reading this story, definitely makes me thing that we need a piano in my classroom…I am sure that I could still play Chopsticks and Heart and Soul….but music really does have a calming effect on children….and having “behind the piano” to use as a second classroom would be awesome!
I think that the things that grandma came up with as ways to work with children were so very phenomenal….
Thanks for a great story!
If you’ll remember, Mookie, you were offered Grandma’s piano (and the old Hammond organ, too) when we moved Grandma and Grandpa to Presbyterian Village. But its so hard to move (and store) a piano, and actually, I’m now sure where you’d have enough room in your classroom! Grandma would be happy to know you can play Chopsticks and Heart and Soul!
I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely post, Marylin. Your mother looks beautiful as a young teacher. The class looks like a fun bunch of children. Your grandchildren are adorable! I loved this one, especially about marching to each inner drummer, the essence of your mother’s message, Hugs and happy holidays, Marylin!
It’s one of my favorites, too, Robin. Thank you.
I think Tommy learned a lot that day, and now we’re all learning the lesson.
Gosh, I don’t know how I missed this post last week, it’s lovely. Your Mom teaches us all a great lesson here – we must always be aware that folks have their own beats and we should respect them for it, not try to force them to tap along to ours.
I would love to know where you got the image of the St. Augustine saying!
A friend let me take a picture of her framed poster. She said she received it as a gift, and it’s one of my favorites.