Growing up, I lived on a dead-end street. There were only nine houses on the street, but there were 16 kids among the families on Glen Road. On a summer day, with the windows open (nobody had air conditioning), you could hear a steady hum of children’s voices punctuated by shouting, laughter, and crying. Another noise that carried through the windows was the sound of piano music.
At any given time on Glen Road, someone was playing the piano. Mrs. Kleber, who lived in the last house at the bottom of the street, was a retired concert pianist who was responsible for teaching the kids on the street how to play. We took turns sitting at the gleaming Steinway in Mrs. Kleber’s living room and tried our best to follow her instructions.
Whenever I visit my mom’s house, I enjoy sitting down at the piano and playing the songs I learned over the years during my lessons. Occasionally, I try a new song. It’s during that process of stumbling over the keys and stopping to recall a note, when it sounds less like music and more like a mess, that I am transported to Mrs. Kleber’s living room. I remember the frustration of plunking out notes when I wanted my fingers to glide effortlessly over the keys. I also remember how it feels to bang out the same notes over and over, until miraculously, it becomes beautiful music, a song played with fluidity and expression. And I remember the feeling of accomplishment that came if I kept practicing, if I persevered.
Learning this lesson of practice and perseverance is empowering. Young children confront new ideas, intense feelings, unfamiliar tasks, and challenging interactions with peers on a daily basis. They are just beginning to develop the capacities necessary to become thinkers, problem solvers, creators. In the Lower School, we emphasize the idea that you might not be able to do something YET, but if you keep practicing, if you try a new strategy, if you consider looking at it from different perspectives, you will improve. And over time, you can master that thing that frustrated and defeated you. When young children experience the reward of accomplishing something difficult, they feel competent and confident. They draw on that feeling the next time they find themselves facing an obstacle to gather the strength to keep going.
In a few weeks, we will gather in the auditorium for the Mini Candlelight Recital. We will listen to budding musicians who are just learning to play an instrument. They might forget the notes or make a mistake, but we will cheer them on because they are doing the hard thing of trying something new and having the courage to share it with us. In just a few years, if they stick with it, they will show up at the Candlelight Recital like grade 4 student Parker Aven, who brought down the house with an original song on the drums, or Simone Boyiadzis, who brought tears to our eyes when she sang and played the piano. If they keep practicing and persevering, they can join the Strings Squad, like grade three student Alessia Raman and grade 2 student Ariana Taylor, who, along with the other squad members, rocked the room with their violins and cellos when they played the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles at an assembly last month. That morning we were also treated to a piece played by Simon Cummings, Ellis Strings Teacher extraordinaire and founder of Cello Fury, who showed us the result of years of practice and perseverance.
Every day, in classrooms, on stage, in the STEM lab, the art studio, and the gym, our students are putting themselves out there, working hard, and learning to see mistakes and failures as opportunities to grow. This doesn’t happen by accident. It flourishes in an environment where adults are intentional about explaining to children the amount of effort and dedication it takes to learn new things. It happens when we remind them of past defeats that didn’t stop them or when we point out ways their peers have overcome obstacles. It happens at Ellis because we understand that a girl who is self- assured earned that right to be confident in her abilities through hard work and perseverance. One of my favorite things to hear at school is a student exclaiming “I did it!” I know the pleasure and excitement of that moment will fuel her desire to try new things, take risks, and be bold.