Once there was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher. She started playing the piano when she was eleven and the clarinet when she was thirteen. She loved playing and wanted to spend her life helping others like her have that opportunity too.
Third person, you understand. She isn’t me. Some other girl.
But actually that’s not the story. If you want to understand, it can’t start there. It has to start further back with a little girl who wanted to be a novelist. Or maybe an artist, she hadn’t quite decided.
The little girl loved reading books and drawing and making up her own stories, and she hated waking up early. She had heard that full-time writers and artists could wake up whenever they liked and never even had to change out of their pyjamas if they didn’t want to.
Sensible adults warned her that neither of these were easy careers. You couldn’t expect to make a living straight away, maybe ever, and you had to be really good.
She wanted to be really good.
She taught herself everything she could about writing from the internet, but most of what she learned was about bad writing. She read never-ending lists of mistakes and snide articles that dissected books she had loved to display their failing organs. She discovered plot holes and infodumps and two-dimensional characters and weak adverbs and purple prose and countless other things. There were so many ways to fail.
Maybe in another story she would fight on, learn things, face her demons and emerge successful and glorious.
But we’re here for the other girl, the one who wants to be a music teacher. And we haven’t quite found her yet.
You still need to know that the little girl didn’t have many friends. This little girl, the one who wanted to be a novelist or writer (but wasn’t good enough), was a social failure. She didn’t fit in and was being bullied.
And she was lonely.
So she joined her school concert band and clarinet ensemble. She had some friends in these groups and made some more, and she found she could cleverly schedule her instrumental lessons over the parts of the school day that she most wanted to escape.
And there she is, the other girl. We’re back at the beginning. I’m sorry about the detour, but it was important, and we can begin properly now.
Once there was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher. She played the piano and clarinet. She loved escaping to play them and wanted to spend her life helping others like her have that opportunity too.
The girl went to university to get the qualifications she would need.
She thought it would be like music at school, only better because music would be all the lessons instead of just some of them.
None of this happened to me of course. I didn’t have a bad experience studying music at university. I did not fall short again and again. I was not humiliated.
But maybe—third person—she was. That other girl.
Maybe she was told that it was a character test, everything was a character test, and that she was failing.
She remembered how after-school cartoons had tried to teach her that failure wasn’t a bad thing, real failure was not trying and supreme failure was giving up.
But it felt bad. And she was trying really hard and it wasn’t helping.
She didn’t really understand. But she thought she did, and what she understood was that she couldn’t give up. Not ever, no matter how much she wanted to.
So she tried to remember that she was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher and kept going.
She endured a whole year of not giving up. And then she attended her last lesson before the summer holidays and walked out and went home. That other girl.
And as she walked out she said good bye and happy holidays and see you next year.
Because she hadn’t quit. Everyone believed she would be back. She couldn’t even give up properly.
It didn’t start with a girl who wanted to be a music teacher, but where does it end and which girl does it end with?
Maybe it ended years ago, when the girl who wanted to be a music teacher got home at the end of the year wanting to be anything but a music teacher. She finally gave up, the most terrible and absolute way to fail. She changed degree (softly, safely via email), knowing that it was all character test, but not yet understanding that there is no grade.
It was not a decision she ever regretted, not even for a moment.
Maybe it ends now, with the little girl who wanted to be a novelist (or an artist) as a woman working as a writer and an illustrator. Perhaps, in the end, she did fight on, face her demons and emerge glorious.
But is it only okay that she failed then if she succeeds now? And success is a slippery term. She loves what she is doing and believes she is finally in the right place. But she isn’t making a living. And she has a chronic illness and cannot have another job to protect herself. And she is still frightened that she is not good enough, cannot be good enough.
(You have to be really good.)
Or maybe it ends someday yet to come, with a woman who sees her clarinet case and feels something close to curiosity. She will pull it out, wipe off the dust and put the instrument together. She will rediscover how the pieces fit, and then she will play again and enjoy it.
But that’s not quite the right ending either. And maybe nothing will be. I think that this isn’t the kind of story that ends.
Because she’s still walking out. That girl, that other girl. Somewhere, always.
She was caught like a mosquito in amber as she pushed open the door, with all the failure crushing down on her and no resolution. So she is still smiling—a tired, fracturing smile—and still saying nice things to the people who made her feel worthless. And she is still telling them she’ll be back next year. And she is always promising she can do better.
(She didn’t mean to lie, but she did and it is caught too).
The moment is suspended, and then that other girl is dropped back into my life, sending ripples in all directions.
I am always heading away from her failure. I am always heading toward he failure. I am always her, failing.
But I understand the cartoons a little better now. Failure isn’t a bad thing.
(Even when it feels bad.)