Why didn’t I learn to play the piano? This question came to me a few years ago as I looked through some photos of my youth and began to recall the fairly extensive musical experience I had had since childhood.
I had sung in performing choirs or choruses in elementary school and in high school. During high school, I also sang soprano in a church choir and in the choruses of three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In addition, I participated in an elite 15-member Madrigal Group that sang at meetings of local civic groups. And in my junior year I won a two-week scholarship to the high school All-State Chorus at what was then known as the Interlochen National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. As an adult, I sang in a church choir for about 15 years and in a private performing chorale group for about 10 years.
My high school madrigal group all gussied up and ready to perform. I am second from the left in the first row—the one not looking at the camera.
On that day, all those years later, when I no longer had a good singing voice and being able to play piano would have still allowed me to personally participate in music, I asked myself, “Why, why didn’t I learn to play the piano?”
As I pondered the question, the images and memories, squashed into my subconscious more than a half century ago, began to come back. . .
. . . I was nearly 12 years old and in sixth grade when someone gave my family a piano. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they both loved music and arranged for me to take piano lessons with another student from the music teacher at the school we went to. Taking lessons with someone else made the cost affordable. I had had a couple of piano lessons when the teacher made another offer to my parents that was too good to pass up. Since I was taking piano lessons from him, he would give another girl in my class and me free singing lessons at lunchtime.
At the first two voice lessons, he had each of us sing scales. As I sang up the scale, he put his hands on my buttocks and squeezed them as if to help me go higher. Other times, he pressed his hand against my budding chest while urging me to sing higher.
It was creepy and I didn’t like it. But he was authority, he taught at my school and belonged to my church, and in those days and even for many years afterward, people didn’t openly talk about molestation or warn their children about it.
I didn’t understand what was the matter, but I wanted out. Even if I had had the right words, which I didn’t, I unconsciously knew I couldn’t complain about the teacher to my parents. The teacher was educated, and they, having limited schooling, were in awe of him. Instead, after the second singing “lesson,” I firmly told them, “I don’t like and don’t want piano lessons.” My dad, who had a beautiful voice and loved music, was likely disappointed, but he could ill afford to spend money on something I didn’t want, and so I was allowed to quit piano lessons. No more piano lessons meant no more singing lessons and no more close contact with that weird teacher.
Looking back at this freed memory, I feel sad that I didn’t have piano lessons, but I also admire the pre-teen I was for her resourcefulness in thinking of a clever way to outsmart that teacher.
Sixty years later, I again experienced authority taking advantage of my vulnerability.
I have been getting allergy shots for inhalant allergies on and off for many years. The shots would alleviate my allergy symptoms and I would quit the shots until they started acting up again.
A few years ago, I went to the allergist’s office to have the allergy tests that are periodically administered to see how well the shots were working. After the test, the nurse who had administered the test sent me to the doctor’s office to get his interpretation and prescription. While examining me, the doctor who was in his seventies, put his hand on my chest as if to brace me while putting his stethoscope to my back. I felt uneasy and silently questioned myself. “His hand is fairly high—but it feels as if it is on the upper part of my breasts. Is this the way my doctor listens to my heart and lungs and I just don’t notice it because my doctor is a woman? “
At the end of the exam, the doctor, who only worked part time, insisted that I return on Saturday morning for him to read the result of one test that was on my arm. I replied that I couldn’t come then because I had a nature hike class at that time. He prodded— couldn’t I stop on the way home or on the way back? I replied that no, I couldn’t stop because traveling to and from the hike and the hike itself took the full morning. Facing my firm resistance, he backed off his insistence that I come in and told me to call him on Saturday and report how the testing site looked.
As I left, he told the nurse not to bill me for this visit.
At home, I placed my hand where he had put his hand, and yes, I could definitely feel my breasts. Still, perhaps this was a usual way of listening to a patient’s heart and/or lungs and I just hadn’t been aware of it or had not previously experienced it done in this manner.
When I returned home from the nature hike on Saturday, I called the doctor’s office. The doctor wasn’t there and I told the nurse who took the call that the doctor asked me to call to report on the tested spot on my arm. I told her it was fine—there was no sign of inflammation. She acted confused at receiving the message and seemed to consider my message unimportant.
A few weeks later, I had my routine physical examination with my primary care physician. And no, she did not place her hand on my chest while listening to my heart and lungs. I felt confused.
I also began to feel guilty as I pieced together the larger picture. Guilty because I hadn’t recognized his touching me as groping and tried to avoid it; guilty because it seemed I had been paid off for my “services” by getting a free exam; guilty because aside from never going to his office again, I hadn’t made a complaint about his behavior.
A month or two later, I received a letter notifying me that the allergy practice had moved one of its practice sites to a location not far from where I now live. The notice also mentioned that the doctor who had groped me was retiring.
I was relieved, but still felt uneasy about my experience with him. Should I report him? But I knew the doctor’s cursory and casual behavior I had experienced would never be taken seriously if I reported him. There was no proof. He could easily explain away his behavior and cite my ambivalent response during the examination and possibly sue me for character defamation.
Reflecting on the situation, I realized I no longer had the energy to take on the battle that would likely ensue if I challenged him at this point. But there was something I could do that might help others who might encounter a similar situation. I could tell my story to the world, to the future. I could post it on the Internet. Even though he would not be named in the account, his actions would live in infamy among those who read it.
Note: The above post is not fiction. The events described actually happened to me.