Like most women, I have assumed a variety of personas during my life—daughter, sister, wife, mother, student, banker, teacher, divorcee and now, widow. By far my favorite role besides mom has been “Miss Mary.” I think of her not as me but as a character I play while working, most often teaching Kindermusik classes to very young children. Miss Mary is a great part to play. She is patient, kind and fun. As my actual children (the ones I live with) can attest (and have–loudly) she is nothing like me.
Last week one of my all-time favorite 2 year-olds, an adorable bespectacled tot named Elliott came running into the class, hugged me hard and planted a big kiss on my cheek while saying “Miss Mary! Miss Mary! You’re my FAVORITE teacher!” At age two-and-a-half Elliott has not had many teachers, in fact I’m pretty sure I am the whole list. Still, it is always nice to be a favorite. Today a Kindermusik mom told me that at their house the manger scene includes Baby Jesus, Joseph and Miss Mary. Kind of reminds me of my religion prof in college who could never remember my name until the day he was struggling to come up with it and I tried to help by issuing the prompt “VIRGIN………….?” He never forgot again.
There is the occasional downside to what I do–like when I roll straight out of bed and off to the grocery store only to bump carts with a student who is either thrilled to see my disheveled, bleary-eyed self (“Look, Mommy! It’s MISS MARY!!!”) or completely flummoxed to find me out of context. Because most of them think I live at the Rec Centers where I teach they must be shocked that my meals are not provided by the recreation staff. Me too. And what about that reserved parking space!?
If Freud is right that the basic requirements of a good life are love and work, it has always been work that saved me when love seemed in short supply. Losing Tom was the worst thing I could ever imagine happening in my life. Because I teach in our tiny home and his hospital bed was right next to the piano, I had to cancel piano classes during his final month of life. I also took time off after he died because I needed to cry buckets before trying to teach again. But I scheduled friends and family to stay with him during my Kindermusik classes because I could not bear disappointing the tiny kids and their sometimes desperate-to-get-out-of-the-house moms and, truth be told, because I could not deprive myself of all that toddler love at a time I needed it so badly. Even if they didn’t hug me and tell me it’s their birthday (each and every week) and sometimes share their potty training triumphs, the fact that they wait in line at rocking time to have me ride them on my legs is enough to make my whole week. And their dance moves alone would put anti-depressant manufacturers out of business. Today we had Ruth doing an incredible fast feet routine that looked like Mexican jumping beans, Olivia in a non-stop 360 twirl and Dax doing the famous toddler rhythmic knee bend—his body stock still but his knees going to town, up and down and up and down to the beat of the song. They crack me up and fill my mornings with sunshine.
I was a banker for 20 years and liked it well enough but it always felt like wearing shoes that were half a size too small. I quit to become an inner-city classroom teacher (pure middle-aged liberal white guilt and I was no good at it) and then quit that when my youngest daughter was born. I was just starting to go crazy at home when I saw an ad in a magazine at the dentist’s office that said “You could be a Kindermusik teacher” and I thought, ”Yes, I could.” Teaching music in my tiny little town and watching the kids here grow up over the past 15 years has been a joy and a privilege. It made me laugh and feel happy the year that the mom planning the 5th grade send-off party said they were seriously considering having a Miss Mary table because the committee had figured out that nearly every kid in the 120 member 5th grade had at one time taken a music class from me. I just ordered a congratulatory ad in the band concert program because I counted over 50 middle and high school band members who were current or former students.
My new minister included in a recent sermon the idea of a 6 word epitaph. He asked us to consider what ours would say if we had to write it. The launch point for this was the idea of a 6 word story challenge to which Hemingway famously responded: For sale, baby shoes, never worn. Proving definitively that I am no Hemingway, my six words would be far less profound and yet as true as I can muster: She loved kids. They usually reciprocated. Grown-ups make me nervous and I can take them only in small doses. I’m positive I know exactly what they should all be doing to make their lives and the world better and yet they refuse to make me queen. Years after I stopped cramming my square self into the round hole of corporate America I can finally say with complete honesty that I don’t play well with others. Other adults that is. Give me a room full of two-year-olds and I am in heaven. Some people are amazed by that in the same way I can’t believe there are people who voluntarily teach middle school. I tell any such folks I meet that I KNOW the entire front row in heaven is reserved for them.
I suppose it is possible to feel sad while teaching music to kids, but I have never managed to do it. No matter what is going on in my life, I always feel better when I am working. I can slip on my Miss Mary identity like Clark Kent in the phone booth and go out and save the toddlers of the world from boredom and Teletubbies or whatever the 2015 equivalent is. I recently ran into a mom who brought her sons to Kindermusik 10 years ago. She told me that her best friends and some of her boys’ best friends are people they met in my class. Helping people enjoy music, bond with their kids and meet their neighbors is a pretty great way to spend one’s working life. It is the perfect antidote to grief. If widow is the worst role I’ve ever played, being Miss Mary has been one of the best. Mary’s heart might be breaking, but Miss Mary has classes to teach and that requires getting out of bed and slapping on a smile that just might start to become genuine someplace around the third or fourth song. Fake it ‘til you make it is not the worst advice ever given. That’s what Miss Mary says and she’s never failed me yet.