I wasn’t going to bother reading Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. From all the descriptions, reviews, and reactions, it just seemed too… too stereotypical to be believed… too outrageous to take seriously.
But now I just might — April’s issue of ‘The Atlantic’ has a series of essays regarding the book in particular, and education and childhood in general, that got me thinking it might actually be a worthwhile read. If and when I do actually get around to it (there are how many books on my bedside table waiting to be read…?), I’m sure I’ll have plenty to reflect on and write about.
A couple of the pieces — Sandra Tsing Loh’s, which emphasizes the Chua’s laser-like focus on building a classical-music career for her daughters; and Caitlin Flanagan’s, which discusses the utter ridiculousness of the college admissions process in a world of ever-more-ubiquitous tiger children — really started me thinking about my own upbringing and its consequences.
I have to trust my mother’s word that I was the one insisting I start piano lessons. I’ve always told people it was because my grandmother was a piano teacher, thus my sisters and I didn’t have much of a choice. It probably doesn’t matter in the long run — I started studying the piano around age five and apparently displayed enough talent for it that, by age eleven or so, it dominated most of my non-school time and attention. By the time I was in high school, I was “the guy who played the piano,” and it was pretty obvious, and seemed entirely natural, that I would continue studying it in college (naturally, the story is more complicated than that, but there are only so many details worth getting into right now).
It doesn’t help that I was also what I guess is called “academically gifted”. That is, I spent every school year from fourth to twelfth grade in that educational enclave known as the “magnet program” (read: ploy to keep high-achieving white kids at increasingly minority-populated schools). It was something my mother absolutely insisted on — there would be no regular/average/middle-of-the-road classes for her children. Mediocrity was simply not condoned or approved of. So, in addition to keeping my musical abilities up to par, there was the constant expectation that my academic performance would be outstanding as well. To be fair, mom never explicitly expected me to outdo my peers — she simply wanted me to do my best. She also conveniently believed that my best was better than theirs (once, after receiving what I guess was a C or C- on an assignment, I tried that old chestnut of an excuse, “maybe that was my best effort” — as I recall, she didn’t even honor that with a response). I should also point out that my particular class was exceptionally — I would almost say sociopathically — competitive. If I’m not mistaken, the difference between our valedictorian and salutatorian came down to a hundredth of a grade point. In fact (and keep in mind, that with South Carolina’s weighting system, it was possible to achieve a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale), I graduate with a 4.49 and was still only ranked thirty-sixth in my class. Thirty-sixth!!!
Anyway, all these things more or less converged to make for a pretty high-pressure senior year. Granted, I’m not about to complain, seeing as though I wasn’t even bothering to consider Ivy Leagues like many of my peers (okay, that’s a lie… I did apply to Columbia and Juilliard’s dual-degree program… it’s a long story that I don’t enjoy telling…). But, since I was “the guy who played the piano,” there was a certain expectation that I would get into a kick-ass music school and in short order be gracing the world’s finest concert stages.
[sidenote: also on my need-to-read list is Alissa Quart’s ‘Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child’, whose premise is partly that being labelled “gifted” as a child can build up unrealistic expectations and concomitant feelings of failure in the adult]
And when I say high-pressure, I mean that I was on more medications as twelfth-grader than my grandfather at the time. Between the acid reflux, the tendonitis (oh yes, TENDONITIS, when I’m supposed to be auditioning for music schools!), and the never-ending bout of bronchitis… Also, I was anorexic. I can admit that now with no shame. It happened, I’m over it. I also had a strange pattern of waking up in the morning and getting myself completely ready to go to school — contacts in, clothes on, books packed — and only then realizing it was actually three in the morning. Weird.
Again, I didn’t have it nearly as bad as some of my peers — some of whom took only AP classes senior year (ONLY AP CLASSES — like, how STUPID is that??? Sorry, it just makes me mad to think about…).
Lost in all of this was the fact that fall of my senior year, I wanted to audition for our high school’s musical. The drama teacher was considering ‘My Fair Lady’, in which case I was desperate to be Henry Higgins (and, oh-my-god, would Sarah Swinson not have been the most perfect Eliza Dolittle?!?). But my mother said no — I couldn’t spend time working on a musical because I needed to be practicing so that I could get accepted into a good piano program. Never mind that due to my tendonitis I couldn’t practice for the entire month of November anyway. Never mind.
I didn’t get to do the musical, and I practiced, and I got into the IU School of Music. Which, I discovered after getting accepted, is regarded as one of the two or three best in the nation. So not too shabby, right?
Well, except for the fact that — for reasons that will require another lengthy post at some point — I really, really sucked as a piano major. In fact, sucked so bad at it that I left the music school so I could focus on — wait for it — musical theatre! Which I now do for a living. Go figure.
This much needs to be made explicit: I don’t regret a bit of it. I imagine you’d expect, from the tone of much of this, that I’m at least a teeny bit bitter. But the truth of the matter is, if my mother hadn’t pushed me to practice, hadn’t insisted I was capable of attending such a top school, it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have had the experiences I had here at IU that convinced me my passions, while still in music, where just a few degrees away from the path I’d initially chosen. Truth? I couldn’t be more grateful to my mother — my domineering, controlling, over-protective mother — for her willingness to ship me off to an out-of-state school (do you REALIZE how expensive that is?), knowing the risk that I could at any time fail to achieve what we both thought were my goals in life; and for her eventual acceptance of my change in direction, knowing that it was not what we initially thought we were investing in but realizing it was where my passion lay, and that I would therefore be unhappy, and likely unsuccessful, pursuing anything else.
Ultimately, my mother is something of a hybrid between Chua’s “tiger mother” and what Flanagan calls “the good mother” — that is, she realizes that her children will only be successful if allowed and encouraged to work “deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives [them] the most pleasure.” But, dammit, you’d better be willing to give it your absolute best because, well, if not, I’m not gonna bother paying for the lessons, the tutors, or the college fees.
I’ll withhold my judgment on tiger-mothering until I actually give the book a read. But my pre-impression is that all the fuss is much ado about nothing. For all the panic about American kids being outpaced (which, admittedly, they are), from where I’m sitting, it has far less to do with differing cultural approaches to child-rearing than with the fact that we’ve stopped letting children be children, that we’ve sacrificed actual thinking for standardized-test performance, and that at some point having an education was reduced to just being an economic step-up, rather than being that but also an enriching experience in its own right.
And now we’ve gotten to the point where I’m simply rambling. Which means I’m done for the night.