My kindly Chinese immigrant father was consumed with making a living so my mother ruled our home. She was critical; I was “stupid and ugly,” and “why couldn’t I do anything right.” Growing up without praise, encouragement, and emotional support, there was also no dinner table talk or talk of any kind, no birthdays or holidays, and no outings, not even playing outside.
My eyesight severely disabled at birth by a medical mistake, I wore thick glasses. As you can guess, I was teased. I also didn’t know a word of English until kindergarten [the poor teacher], so more teasing. No ESL programs existed then.
In fifth grade, a woman came and introduced something new to me—the violin. When asked who wanted to learn, I raised my hand without a thought to what my mother would say. Despite her regular ridicule, I kept going like an Energizer bunny.
In sixth grade, we moved from San Francisco to Utah where at recess, I experienced my first incident of racism. I still remember the boy—chubby, nothing to look at, shouting “Ching chang, china, ching chang.” I’d never known racial taunting, but I learned fast. My race was something shameful.
Thereafter in junior high and high school, even college, taunting followed me like a shadow–in the halls between classes, at pep rallies, and on the streets of Logan, Utah. I had few friends, teachers ignored me, and I had only one date before eighteen. By then, I wore contacts so I was even quite pretty.
Throughout those painful years, I played violin in junior high, high school, and college orchestras. Earning practically every cent myself for tuition, the first of any generation in my family to graduate, a music scholarship helped me persevere.
Not until later adulthood did I realize that that music program in fifth grade had saved me from gross isolation and loneliness. Playing violin was my refuge, friend, and salvation. For this, I feel deep gratitude. I also realize that my orchestra teacher, Mr. Haslam, was kind, like he let me play first violin even though I wasn’t that good. My father even bought me my own violin–and they, my parents, never attended one concert.
Now with cutbacks of school music programs, I feel sad and helpless. There is no price tag to how I benefited from that lone music teacher visiting our school that day so many years ago.
How can you measure feeling worth as you play your instrument when your mother, schoolmates, and community gave you little? What better way to feel inclusive when people were exclusive? How do you deal with clockwork taunting and not wish you were someone else—or worse—dead?
Although my eyesight has worsened so that I cannot see the music to perform in symphony orchestras—the love of my life—this I believe: music and music programs save souls, and possibly lives.
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