Friends Loved, Friends Lost

Yesterday I learned I had lost a very dear friend and mentor, one of the knights of my Round Table.   Carole Bigler left this world last April after a long battle with a debilitating illness.  She will be sorely missed by students, parents and teachers all over the world.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of her success as a teacher and a person is the fact that I can't be sad about her death, much as I might try.  I'm sorry for myself, of course, as I'll never get another chance to joke around with and learn from her.  But I can't be anything but grateful for her life and ministry, so much so that it's hard to feel angry that she was taken away.  I feel as if humanity never deserved her in the first place.

How can I describe Carole?  She was a study in paradoxes.  She was the tiniest teacher I've ever met, but had the biggest personality.  Her goofy sense of humor hid a dazzling intellect; she was always acquiring knowledge from the most unlikely sources.  She was completely silly, but she meant every word she said.

She believed in being completely positive all the time.  "Criticism doesn't help anyone," she once said.  "It just makes them feel rotten."  She didn't believe in lying, of course, but she would always find something to praise even after the most disappointing of performances.  She would compliment the student's smile, his attitude, his big strong hands [that had just played all the wrong notes.]  Then she'd find a way to make him do better.

If a student made a mistake, she said, the teacher should take the blame: "I'm sorry.  That's my fault.  I haven't been a very good teacher; I didn't explain that clearly enough.  Will you forgive me?"  It sounds ridiculous, but it was born of pure, clean humility.  She believed it; she believed in taking the fall so that the student could feel more successful.  Once I ventured to ask her whether that wasn't a little degrading, constantly telling the student what a poor teacher you were.  "So what?" she said.  "The student should be your first priority -- not your own ego."  I remember this exchange verbatim, because I wrote it down.  I needed to hear it.  And although I have never been very good at keeping my pride in check, I'm getting better at it.  Because of Carole.

She was a staunch populist in a field populated with professionals whose insecurity drives them to snobbery and elitism of the worst type.  She didn't care if her students won awards.  She wanted them to love music, and she wanted them to be good, kind people.  Skill was a distant third.  There are many who disagree with her, but really, in the end, what matters most?  The heart.  Carole's heart was bigger than all 90 pounds of her frail body.

I asked her once what I should do about a "Suzuki" piano teacher who wasn't really teaching Suzuki.  I'd received several of her students, and I complained that they didn't appear to know any fundamentals of the method.  "You know what I'd do?" she mused.  "I'd take her out to lunch.  I'd be her friend.  No matter how lousy of a teacher she was, she obviously did one thing right.  She taught her students to love music -- otherwise, they never would have come to you."

Last week, in a flash of inspiration, I followed that advice in dealing with a colleague who had previously been combative and negative at every turn.  She always said that if you wanted someone on your side, you should ask for his help.   So I did, and suddenly he was transformed into an animated, gregarious, and articulate ally.  I almost fell over when he actually complimented me on the results of my work, something he had never done in all the years we'd worked together.

In our teacher training classes, she re-iterated over and over the importance of seeing lessons from the child's point of view.  95% of student misbehavior is due to a fear of failure, she explained: students are so petrified at the thought of disappointing you that they will goof around, refuse to play, pout or even throw a tantrum to avoid doing it wrong.  I try to remember this when I have a student who's smug or defiant or mopey.  Usually, my impatience gets the better of me, but occasionally I'm able to do what Carole did -- to look at that child and see the image of God, marred but intact, and treat her accordingly.

The world needs more people who see only good, all the time -- and where they don't see it, they create it.  This was Carole.  I am so thankful for the blessing of having known her.