I didn’t set out with the intention to teach music. Becoming a teacher was something that happened somewhat gradually. I was in the music store one day after a particularly trying tour with my high school orchestra, eyeing the cellos, when the owner drifted down to the aisle towards me.
“I’ve seen you here before.” She swept her long blonde hair over her shoulder. “Are you in the market for a new instrument?”
“I wish.” I was certain in that that moment that I’d never play again, having just completed a clinic at Marquette University that ended when someone from another school put their foot through my cello during lunch break—a cello I had spent years of allowance and birthday money on.
“Well do you play?”
The clinic story spilled out in a rush, ending with me crying on the bus home with my arms wrapped around the neck of my wounded cello, wondering how I would ever replace it.
She said nothing in reply, just plucked a cello off the rack and placed it in my hands. It was a lovely red shade of wood, the pegs constructed in a way slightly different than any I had seen before. Following my eyes, she told me, “Those are Canterbury pegs. For an extra fine tuning. And I’m Jamie, by the way.”
I knew I should shake her hand or something, but I was too entranced by the instrument I held to follow social niceties. “It’s the most wonderful cello I’ve ever seen,” was my only response. After another minute I added, “I can’t afford it though.”
“Have you ever taught?”
I hadn’t, not then. But she was in the market for a teacher, and I was in the market for an instrument. We needed each other, so I would find a way to make it work. And work I did. I had always been told I had a musical gift—cello, piano, voice, guitar. I was seventeen, but I taught kids of all ages, from a fourteen-year-old just starting the cello to a ten-year-old who’d played for years to a five-year-old who wanted to learn piano. All of them eager, all of them with enough money to afford lessons in a private shop.
But I didn’t teach voice until Katie. She was twelve then, with stringy brown hair and a voice that wasn’t quite there. But she reminded me of me, and I had the hopes of a fairly new teacher. So when she came up to me one night after a youth group I was leading, knowing I was a music teacher, and asked if she could have voice lessons, I couldn’t decline. I knew she couldn’t afford the shop prices, so I made her my private student with no intention of charging her.
The plan was that we would walk over to my apartment after youth group Monday nights for a lesson and have her mother pick her up from there. I had an organ that I stuffed into the large walk in closet next to my bedroom; there was just enough room for the organ, the bench, and a small shelf of music. I figured we could both fit on the bench and called it the perfect setup. She was quiet coming in for her first lesson, bending down outside my music room to pet one of the cats.
“That’s Tigger,” I said as I opened the door.
“Oh, like in Pooh.” It was the most words she had strung together the entire evening.
“I named him when I was three,” I excused my former-child self’s behavior.
Katie followed me into the room, and we settled on the bench. Tigger came too and threw himself into her lap with the abandon of a cat long without pets. I checked her range, and then she flipped through my music books to find a song to sing so we could get a feel for her skill level.
“Maybe…this one?” She pointed to ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ which was the big hit song of the time. I played while she tried to sing, and eventually joined with her to give her a little boost. I could tell already that she’d be a lot of work.
Before we could try the song with her on her own again, she interrupted me to ask, “What happened to your arm?”
I stopped playing and looked down. A crisscross of white scars marred the skin of my left arm. No one had ever commented on them before, outside my therapist when they’d happened. I was surprised she’d even noticed. And I didn’t know how to explain them to a kid. “I was…sad.”
I watched as Katie chewed on that thought for a moment. “I’ve been…sad.” She rolled up her sleeves and held arms out to me that were more marked up than mine. And where my arms held scars, her arms were fresh wounds.
Panic flooded me. What was I supposed to say? Did her mother know? Was I technically a mandated reporter? What was I supposed to do?
When I said nothing, Katie hesitantly asked, “Why were you sad?”
I took a deep breath, choosing my words carefully. “I…my life was not what I wanted it to be. I was confused. Hurt.” I didn’t tell her that I’d been in the hospital when it happened, that they couldn’t cure me of my eating disorder, that I’d found out I had to cure myself and I didn’t want to back then. I didn’t tell her the things I was getting over. She didn’t need to know.
“My dad died.” Once she started talking, Katie didn’t stop.
I ran my fingers across the scars on my own arms as she told me her story. Her dad had been epileptic, and one day on their way to the grocery store, he had a seizure behind the wheel. The car went off the road, down an incline, and smashed headfirst into a tree with Katie in the backseat. She told me how she’d tried her hardest to wake him up, poked him and shook him by the shoulders, but his head was bleeding. He hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, and he never woke up again.
“So,” she finished, “I guess…I think it was my fault.”
“Well, he was…and I was…” She started to cry quietly. “I was okay…”
It occurred to me in that moment that perhaps she hadn’t wanted a voice lesson at all, that perhaps she had noticed my arm in youth group and wanted to talk to me alone. Maybe this was the only way she knew how. “That’s good,” I told her. “You know that, right? It’s good that you were okay.”
Katie sniffled as she stared at the cat, at the organ, into her lap, anywhere but at me. “I’d rather he was here than me. I wish I had died.”
“I bet he’d say just the same of you if he were the one still here.”
Her brow wrinkled as she considered that.
“I bet he loved you.”
“He did. And I loved him. A lot.”
I closed the sheet music. ‘Katie? He wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.” I laid my hand lightly on her arm, and she didn’t pull away. “No matter what, I don’t think he’d want that.”
“You don’t know him.” She snatched her arm back, cradling it in her lap. “You didn’t. Know him. You never will.”
‘But I know that a parent is supposed to love you, protect you. So he wouldn’t want to see you hurt. Right?”
Katie ignored me, instead pointing at my arm. “How did you stop?”
I found I once again lacked an easy answer. “Because…” I paused, and then started again. “Because I realized that it’s more important that I love myself than that I fit precisely into the world. I am important. I have a place. Even if I don’t know what it is yet.”
She met my eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks, but she said nothing.
“It didn’t matter what had been done to me; it didn’t matter what had happened in my past. I am not those things. I’m just me. And if I don’t love myself, who will? Does that make sense?”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that your dad loved you, and he would want you to keep loving yourself, even though he isn’t here. What happened wasn’t your fault.”
The only sound in the room was Tigger’s purrs as he snuggled comfortably in Katie’s arms.
“For real. You couldn’t have stopped what happened. And you shouldn’t have to carry it. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You are worthy of love; you deserve it. We all do.”
Katie sat up, pulling down the sleeve of her sweatshirt and using it to wipe the tears and snot from her face. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed her a box of Kleenex to use instead. “Do you love yourself?” she asked. “More now than when you…hurt yourself?”
“I do,” I whispered, and I realized that I really believed it. “Knowing that it wasn’t my fault was so, so important to me. To helping me stop. Because it’s okay. To love yourself. To stop. It’s okay to be…okay. But you have to want it, I think. You have to want to stop. No matter what, your father wouldn’t want this. He would want you to love yourself.”
“He would want me to love myself,” she repeated hesitantly.
The doorbell rang. Katie pulled on her coat and left the music room to meet her mom.
I got a phone call the next day from her mom. After she left my house, Katie showed her mom her arms and tried to talk about what she was feeling. Every Monday after that, she came back to my house for lessons that were mostly talk. I asked her each week if she had cut anymore, and sometimes she had, but sometimes she hadn’t. And I lived for those moments when she hadn’t, those times when I knew that I was enough, that my words were enough.
It was then I knew that I wanted to be a teacher for the rest of my life, because, for the first time, my pain had use. My pain wasn’t about me anymore. And I wanted to use it to change the world.
Sara Tickanen is a graduate of The New School, where she obtained an MFA in Creative Writing Nonfiction. She is currently working on a book about her life experiences with the help of her cat assistant, Sami. You can read more of Sara’s work in Gravel, Pithead Chapel, The Rectangle, Brain: Child, and more, or follow her blog at https://girlinterrupted28.wordpress.com