Episode 013 Transcript

Mother’s Day with Gretchen (6/2/18)

CINDY ASSINI: This is Cindy Assini, proud mom and proud educator. Welcome to the Point of Learning podcast with my friend Peter Horn. [To son:] Is that so funny?

PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today's show …

GRETCHEN MEISTER BRAND: Everybody needs to know that he or she is worthy, and he or she is cared for. We all respond to the encouragement that comes from the faith that somebody has in you, and then the request to move a little farther, to climb a little higher, to be a little better.

[VO]: Welcome to Season 2 of the Point of Learning podcast! In more and less direct ways, the 12 monthly installments of the first season explored strong early influences on me as an educator, highlighting ideas interesting, I hope, to anyone curious about what and how and why we learn. During this Mother’s Day special, I am circling back to the first influence on me as a teacher, as a learner, as a person. When I asked my mother Gretchen which aspects of her biography to play up or down in introducing her, she led with a reply that was at once surprising and totally characteristic.

GRETCHEN: I think that you should know that I was—I don't think I've ever said this before, but born to be loved. I was very much cherished as a kid. And I was born to teach, because I was the oldest of the three in the family, and at many points I got to teach my brothers. I'm not sure they would agree to that, but probably they would at least smile!

[VO]: All our mothers teach us things, if we’re lucky enough to know them. My mom taught me how to bake crusty bread and a flaky pie crust that still gets love on Facebook from friends who last tasted it 15 years ago. She was my first violin teacher. In fact, during group violin lessons she led, when I was about 11 or 12, she allowed me to do my first teaching—10-minute mini-lectures on the lives of the great composers. (So she may be partially to blame for the podcast habit I developed decades later!) She taught me how to disagree with people respectfully, which I still hold to be at the center of the civil discourse our country so badly needs right now. Some of my most popular blog posts feature ways to honor others that she modeled, not to mention dozens of the stories I’ve shared with my own students over the years. In addition to running her private business, the Violin Studio in Buffalo, New York for over 20 years, Mom has taught Sunday school, and US history, Global Studies, and psychology, in independent as well as public high schools. Still, as good as she is as a teacher, I’ve long been struck that when she was a kid, what she wanted to be first and more than anything else, was a mother, as she emphasizes in this quick story that got me giggling. 

GRETCHEN: I grew up wanting to be a mother so much that when my parents gave me a big doll—I called it my Bobby Doll. So there were the three Meister kids and this doll. And I made my mother tell the babysitter that it was our fourth child in the family, and I don't think the babysitter, Mrs. Heilman, believed that, but I was excited about having another baby in the family. [To Peter:] I didn't tell you that, you're laughing!

PETER: If she had believed it, maybe Momma and Poppa would not have left the house. I mean, right? Probably not.  

GRETCHEN That's right. You've got a good point, although I have to say by that time, I could probably have handled things. At least, of course, I thought I could, but—I had this strong matriarchal archetype, and it I think really promoted my years until I could be a mother.

[VO]: My mother Gretchen was born to The Rev. John (fondly known as “Jack”) and Miriam George Meister in Steubenville, Ohio, moments before the Baby Boom began in the mid-1940s. She grew up with her younger brothers Gregg and Peter, mostly in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a gang of preacher’s kids renowned for their kickball skills and occasionally willful dispositions. Mom notes that she and her brothers were deeply influenced by the life of service to others that they felt was their duty and mission. This was a time—the 1940s and ‘50s—when ministers and their families occupied an unusual status in the United States. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of money, but most people in town knew who you were. The role of minister’s wife, which my grandmother (and later my mother herself) held, was not only homemaker, but hostess for all manner of church gatherings, and very often counselor—to the minister, as well as at least half the congregation. We’ll get into a bit more on that in a few minutes …

PETER: I like to ask guests—because of course, this is a podcast about what and how and why we learn—I like to ask guests about a strong memory of a teacher. It could be positive or negative, and any kind of teacher. If I asked you that question, who comes to mind?

GRETCHEN: I think the person that comes to mind is Lutie Young, who was my high school teacher in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for my sophomore math experience. And it really was an experience more than a class, because I went into it thinking that she physically was challenged, and I think I was just beginning to come of age or something with how people looked and she—

PETER: “Physically challenged” in terms of just not being attractive, or—?

GRETCHEN: Well, she was she definitely was not attractive. And her eyes crossed. And I didn't like the subject, and I thought I wasn't good at geometry. Yes. And so my defense mechanism was to corral the kids in the class to help me make fun of her and to help us not pay very much attention to the subject, and I suppose we'd been into it a couple months when she called me to talk with her after school, and—

PETER: So you were kind of a ringleader. I mean, I've heard variations of this story before, you’ve shared it with me. I think I processed that you were acting up a little bit, but you were also prompting others to follow your lead …

GRETCHEN: Yes, yes. It must've been a difficult period for her, you know, period of the day, classroom period, because it bordered on impossible. You know, we giggled, we’d pass notes, we didn't pay attention. We really didn't respond to her work. And so she called me in to talk with her and she told me how— She told me first how very much she'd been looking forward to having me in class, because she was a member of the church, and she admired my parents so much, and she couldn't wait till she had Gretchen Meister in her geometry class. And right then I began to feel sad, because I felt I was letting her down, but letting Mom and Dad down too. So she said, “You know, you can do this math, you can do this. I need your help. I'd like to have us have a fresh start.” And the next day, we had a fresh start. And I went in and paid attention to her, and I actually sort of fell in love with her. I did very well in geometry, although that was really the last math I remember getting excited about, but she, eight years later came to my wedding to your father and she gave me a wedding present and she rejoiced with me, and she was there at the reception. And I really treasure Ms. Young. I'm sure she's moved on, but I give such thanks for her, because she cared so much and she helped turn me around. She transformed my experience in high school. It could have gone from bad to worse, and instead it ended up very well.

PETER: And how skillfully done! Rather than try to challenge you in front of the whole class, to pull you aside and to begin with what sounds like it wasn't a guilt trip. It sounds like it was a very sincere statement on her part, how she was looking forward, and now look how things turned out, but also treating you as a sophomore, as a young adult who could hear that, who could hear what she actually felt. Do you remember anything else that she said? I'm just curious, you know, anything that she said besides, you know, “Can we start over?”

GRETCHEN: Well, she assured me that I could handle the material. I think that on a number of different levels I was resistant. You know, I thought, “This is a strange—What are you talking about? Proofs? This is strange.” I'd been much more familiar with words than numbers and shapes, and so she assured me that I could handle it. She didn't seem to have any question about that. Maybe that was a relief. Oh, she also told me that I was a leader and that she was concerned about the nature of that class and, of course, now many years later I can understand that. I must have been able to understand it at some level then. I knew I was a leader, and I guess she made me want to be a leader for good.

[VO]: I love this approach to a discipline encounter, whether you’re engaging with a student or your child. In addition to taking the young person seriously and speaking from the heart, Ms. Young’s approach addressed the issue of confidence, which is the heart of kids believing that they can learn or do something. When learners lack confidence, they may protect themselves by acting out as my mother did, and as I myself did so many times in school and elsewhere—or they may choose to disengage entirely, which it’s important for adults who care for them to remember is also a form of engagement based on the relative power that kids perceive in the interaction. It’s up to the wise adult to take a breath, allow a little space, and circle back for another attempt at connection when the time and setting might work a little better. I loved having the chance to talk with my mom for this show while trying to stay focused on teaching and learning, but then discovering many times how my mother’s own mother kept figuring into what we talked about. My grandmother Miriam would have turned 101 on June 2nd.

GRETCHEN: I remember hearing my mother say that she very much wanted to be a good mother. And she had her hands full. She had three of us under five years old and I think her first reflex, she felt, was to scold in order to find ways to help us behave the way she wanted us to. But very early she said she realized that by praising me she got a better response, that if she could do that first, then she could turn it into whatever desirable behavior she wanted. Instead of hitting my brothers, for example. Or instead of teasing them, she would use that. She—

PETER: This would be you hitting them, right? Just want to be clear.

GRETCHEN: Yes. Me hitting them. [Laughing] I guess I did start off by saying how I taught them! But I think instead of “starting a fight,” that was one of her phrases. I wasn't the only one of the three of us start a fight, mind you, but when I would do that, or when I would tease them or somebody else or “provoke” somebody else—that's a word that's coming to me from her that I haven't recalled for a long time. She decided, I think very early on with me to show the possibility of what I could be, of how I could be liked. I could be a leader and so she brought out the best. I could help her cook, I could make things, and then it began to be “Gretchen, I don't know what I would do! I don't know how I would take care of this whole house and the boys without your help. I really need you. I really need your help.” And that's all I needed to hear was that I was needed and counted on, and I responded to that. And I think responding to that, it was part of my inner being that I would treat others that way. So I definitely think that it came as a gift from Mom, as part of her way.

PETER: When do you remember her talking with you about realizing that? You know, talking with you about realizing that you responded better to—

GRETCHEN: Oh, I think I was maybe only seven or eight when I would heard, “You know, what I've decided to do, Gretchen, is count on praise more than punishment.”

PETER: Wow, so she said it to you in those terms when you were—that’s very interesting.

GRETCHEN: Yes, she would say that she'd been “confounded.” She really had a lot on her. She was a minister's wife in the days that ministers' wives were—

PETER: —a full time job—

GRETCHEN: Full-time employed, and she felt it very keenly. She was willing to do anything to be a worthy, helpful minister's wife. And she had a huge house as far back as Sidney, Ohio. I went to it a couple of years ago and I couldn't believe how big it was! So she had that, and she had the three of us under five, so she was in a position that she had no training for either, because she grew up without a dad in the house. Her father died when she was nine months old, leaving the mother with twins, and it was the grandmother that took care of the kids while the mother herself went out to work and was a professional woman in East Liverpool, Ohio, working as the Lead Secretary for the Potter China Company. So Mother had no experience in keeping house, in taking care of little ones, in being a wife. She didn't see a wife functioning, so she was almost in over her head, and I did respond to the praise and I think really knew she meant it, she needed it, and it seemed to be a wonderful—a combining of some of my gifts.

[VO]: Gretchen was also a professional musician, who performed with regional as well as professional orchestras, including the Buffalo Philharmonic, which she joined in a tour under the direction of Russian-born maestro Semyon Bychkov. She had not played the violin for at least three years when I asked her to break out the ol’ fiddle one more time for this episode’s soundtrack. We had such a blast that every non-Shayfer James piece you’re hearing in this episode came from mother and son playing together that afternoon. If you heard the conversation I had with my brothers for the Thanksgiving special (episode 007), you know music played a pivotal part in our growing up. Mom was behind arranging all those lessons, and making sure we got there, as well as thousands of rehearsals for orchestras and bands and summer workshops over the years. Behind her, as you’ll hear, was my grandmother. 

PETER: Tell me about your experience with the Suzuki method.

GRETCHEN: Well, again, I would point to Mother talking on the phone with me about it, and an amazing concert that she saw in Philadelphia and I was living in Buffalo. We had just moved to Buffalo, and I wanted you children to have music and your brothers had started piano lessons in Whippany, New Jersey with truly a saint of this world, Ruth Snow, who came to the house to teach your brothers piano. So I knew that I wanted something for the three of you here. It was impossible to think of life without music. And your father agreed. So your grandmother, my mother, talked about seeing little children playing Mozart on the stage in Philadelphia! She said it was magical! And within a week—this is some synchronicity, synchro-destiny—within a week I saw in the paper an advertisement for an accomplished violinist who would be willing to train in the Suzuki method at the Community Music School.

PETER: A want ad, in other words.  

GRETCHEN: Yes, an ad in the paper. And I talked with your father, and I called up and I answered the ad and they were happy to have me be on the staff there and they indeed sent me, and as it turned out, all of our family to Stevens Point in Wisconsin, which was in the heyday of the Suzuki movement in this country. We may still be in the heyday, but that was certainly some of the beginning of it. And I was able to work with Kay Sloan, among other people. And then in the course of my teaching Suzuki, I was with Dr. Suzuki himself several times. The Suzuki Method is named for Shinichi Suzuki, who died in 1998 at the age of something like 98. And he designed the method for teaching music, not for creating prodigies, but to ensure world peace. His method is called Talent Education. And it's the method also named Nurtured by Love. My memory is, and I'd have to check it, that it was in 1920 and ‘21 and his family was making violins and he began to take seriously what it meant for little people to play. And little people learn to play by listening to their parents, so they were imitating. They wanted to play the same way.

PETER: There's a couple things that are really remarkable to me about that. One is that, you know, to go back to thinking about the things that Momma loved most, I would include children and music. So little kids playing Mozart would have been like her vision of unicorns sliding down a rainbow! That would've been just delightful.

GRETCHEN: Oh, absolutely! Rhapsody!

PETER: I could imagine her approaching you with that. But the other part—because we have this idea sometimes about, you know, musicians, the violinist in particular (as I've explored in episode 009). There's something unusual about the place of the violinist in our culture. We think of this talented, virtuosic person, um, you either have it or you don't, you know, that kind of thing. Whereas Dr. Suzuki’s approach was saying, “It's not about that. Anybody can do it.” How would you compare the individual work with private [violin] students, in comparison or in contrast with working with a class full of Global Studies students or psychology students in a high school setting?

GRETCHEN: Well, it's an excellent question and I'm not sure I have a definitive answer. I did think that there would be many more similarities than there were when I applied to teach in the classroom in social studies and in English. Everybody needs to know that he or she is worthy and he or she is cared for, and you don't have a half an hour or an hour of a private session with one person to communicate that. But there are other ways to communicate it, such as eye contact, such as phrasing, such as praising, such as pulling out the positive before there's a request to inch ahead on the progress. And that's true for all of us. We all respond to the encouragement that comes from the faith that somebody has in you, and then the request to move a little farther, to climb a little higher, to be a little better.

PETER: When you say “phrasing,” for example, as one of the signals that you can use to say that you care about a class, that you're there for them. What's an example of something that you might say?

GRETCHEN: Well, I can think of examples of things that are unfortunate to say because they're—

PETER: Ok, counter-examples are good too!

GRETCHEN: —unfortunate to be heard, like “No, that's not right!” or “That's wrong! I told you that before, haven't we been through this?”

PETER: So what would you do if somebody, you know, they say something, a student says something that is what might be called “the wrong answer,” or not the answer you're looking for—how might you phrase that?

GRECHEN: “That's almost it! That is almost it! So if you're putting it together with the other event that happened that year, and you know that was the breakup of World War II, you know that that must've been 1939, so you're right, that must've been when …”

[VO]: So here once again you hear my mother’s affirmative approach, so omnipresent in my growing up as to be the water I swam in. I have a sister-in-law who has chided that the rule in our family is “Praise or be praised,” which is not too far off the mark! When it is genuine, I have found praise to be highly effective in getting others’ attention. With students, or others whose behavior you’d like to influence, it’s one way to go “soft on the people” before you go “hard on the problem,” as Roger Fisher and William Ury put it in their classic on win-win negotiation called Getting to YES! (see the related post on the show page). I asked Mom if this was something she learned from her parents.

GRETCHEN: I think so. I think I would give both Mom and Dad credit for valuing the person and the self-esteem of the other person and the confidence of the other person more than any particular, exact, objective fact. I think both of them went about their lives caring for all people in such a way that we came into that naturally. We were swept up in that conviction. I do believe that all things are possible to him or her who believes. And so if the inner soul is intact for a person, then possibility is endless. If there's no confidence, and if there have been too many hits on that person, too many points of frustration, then you're at a stopped place. I think some people who believe in punishment think that punishment will be enabling. Maybe that's the best you can say about those people who believe that punishment is the answer. There has to be discipline. There has to be expectation, with students and with children, and with violin students. But there are so many ways to enable, and so many ways to crush.

[VO]: I’m very grateful for this chance to have a conversation with my most influential teacher. Before the credits today, I want to share just a few lines from a favorite mother poem that I used many times with students in May. In a poem called “Translations from the Mother Tongue,” Suji Kwock Kim writes, “I listen for your mother in your voice and cannot know/ if I find her. Not much lives on, from one generation/ to the next. Not much, but not/ nothing” […] “I want to know what survives, what’s handed down/ from mother to daughter, if anything is, bond I cannot cut away, that keeps apart what it lashes together./ And I want to know what cannot be handed down, the part of you/ that’s only you, lonely fist of sinew and blood,/ deep in your gut where cords lash bone, nerve, breath,/ the part of you that first began to sing.” Thanks once more to Gretchen Meister Brand for joining me this month to talk, as well as letting me goad her into picking up her magic violin another time. Thanks as always to Shayfer James for theme musics! Thanks to you for listening, subscribing, rating, and sharing this podcast with everyone you know curious about what and how and why we learn. The next show will showcase my interview with Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jake Halpern—you’re not gonna wanna miss it!  

Peter Horn