Learning to focus

I ask him to look at the notes of his new song and he groans, turning his small body away from the piano.

It’s too hard, he says. He’s not going to learn how to play that, ever.

And I reach for his hair, or shirt, or shoulders, or whatever I can reach to face him forward again, focus his eyes back on the book.

Focus is the operative word, because when he does? He’s bright, and learns the notes quickly, racing through the flashcards each week. He likes doing flashcards.

He doesn’t like songs that skip notes. They trick him. C, D, E, F, G? That makes sense, one note after the other. C, E, G? Well, E and F look a lot alike and sometimes he plays D instead and then it’s all a mess, fingers playing randomly in case one of the notes is right.

Don’t guess, I tell him. Read the notes, count up.

He sighs, exaggeratedly, and hunches forward toward the music.

He’s a first grader with missing teeth and dirt under his fingernails and a cowlick in the back of his head and grubby trinkets in his pockets that now and  then he gives to me, childish gifts held out in sweaty palms.

His hands are so small and it’s an effort to keep the fingers on the keys.

And when his sister plays? For 30 minutes? There are books to flip through and board games to dissect and strange things on the  kitchen counter to touch and can he go to the bathroom? He tells his sister the note on the flashcard but tells her wrong and I tell him to sit; that lasts 30 seconds.

Until this week.

We’ve moved the ferrets out into the living room, tucked into a corner by the fireplace, and he squatted down outside their cage and stayed there the entire time.

They’ll bite, I warn him, though it’s only true about one, and I don’t think he takes me seriously because he comes away rubbing a finger, startled.

Jasmine begs to be let out, paws digging between bars; when she gives up she watches him and he watches her as the minutes tick past.

It’s the quietest lesson his sister has had since they started. I’m pleased, but concerned, too. She’s going first this week and how will he focus with them so near?

You’re up, I tell him and he leaves the ferrets behind and she takes his place, watching them instead of hovering near the piano and you know?

I only have to turn his head once.

Who’d have thoughts the ferrets would help a small boy focus on the notes?


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