Today marks the first time I have ever deliberately labelled Zoe as a special child to others. She has been asking for piano lessons for the longest time, so I finally got in touch with a piano teacher who has experience with physically limited children. This teacher has a student who is currently preparing for her Grade 6 exam – and she has only two fingers on each hand. Zoe and I arrived at the teacher’s place a few minutes before this student’s lesson ended, so we got to see how she played. To say that I was impressed is an overstatement.
Even though she has been tinkling the ivories at home daily, Zoe refused to touch the teacher’s piano. I don’t know if it was just a simple case of shyness, the new environment or shock at the marked difference between her hands and those of the earlier student, who offered a handshake to Zoe when they were introduced. Since she wouldn’t sit at the piano, we spent the hour playing with percussion instruments like claves, maracas, shakers and rainsticks to the tunes of Old MacDonald, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and assorted bible songs. Zoe was enthusiastic enough, but both the teacher and I concluded that she is not as keen about learning the piano as she says she is. When I asked Zoe what she enjoyed the most about the session, she mentioned the claves and said she wanted to come back next week to play them again. So maybe drum lessons are more her speed.
I came away from the lesson with mixed feelings. I was happy to have found a teacher who is willing to teach Zoe, and a little sad that I had to make such an arrangement in the first place. I’m also unsure if I did the right thing by looking for a teacher with special needs experience, even though I am fully aware as a pianist myself that is difficult to play without a thumb. The teacher herself was not really convinced that Zoe needs to be taught by a “special” teacher. In fact, the only time she had to come up with an adaptive solution for Zoe during the lesson was when she was playing the finger cymbals.
Arranging this trial lesson also detracts from how K and I have been parenting Zoe all this while. We work to help her lead as normal a life as possible – so normal, in fact, that we don’t highlight her difference. We didn’t tell her kindergartens about it, and neither did we inform her art school or ballet school when she started classes there. Everyone has always just accepted Zoe as she is, and the matter of the missing thumb evaporates into insignificance once they are charmed by her sparkling personality. Zoe herself doesn’t think there is anything “abnormal” about herself – while she does ask us from time to time why her thumb hasn’t grown, it’s not something she dwells on. She certainly doesn’t let it hinder her from doing what she likes.
There is bound to come a time when Zoe will face teasing from her friends. Children can be cruel and I wonder whether it is better for us to have told Zoe that she has an impairment, or that she is made a little differently but can still do everything that other children can do if she puts her mind to it, as we have been doing all this while. Which will help her cope better when she comes up against discriminatory attitudes? I don’t know. I just pray that come what may, she will be resilient enough to pull through and be stronger for it.
So it doesn’t look like Zoe will be starting piano lessons. For one, it is extremely expensive – many times more so than regular piano lessons. I don’t know how middle-income parents with more severely disabled or impaired children can effectively provide for their therapy and enrichment needs at such prices since Singapore’s government subsidies for special needs are paltry when compared to the costs, and are limited in their scope anyway. For another, I suspect that Zoe’s interest is a passing one and definitely not on the same level as her passion for art. This means that my recently tamed Saturdays can continue to be so; the rushing around from dropping K off to tuition to picking K up to art class and then ballet can be really draining!