Teaching My Baby To Read

Modern Day Castrati

When I was a freshman at Stanford in the late ’90s I was enrolled in SLE, taking 20 units, working a part-time job, and feverishly following a tight budget. (This was before Stanford rolled out their extensive financial aid packages of today that would have helped me afford taking the full four years to graduate instead of three.) But back to my frosh year… the one class I took “for fun” was Opera 101, because I have always been fascinated by opera.

One of my all-time favorite college memories was coming to class one morning a bit early, and being blessed to hear Professor Stephen Hinton and his TA Keith, play an impromptu piano and violin duet at 8:45 in the morning. It was a musical treat that to this day still inspires me. I remember thinking at that moment while I was sitting in the lecture hall listening to music “I love learning and the pain of accomplishing all of this is worth it.”

My freshman roommate, let’s call her Mary, has some different memories from that year. She was an only child to parents who had emigrated from Asia. In retrospect, I realize she was also the product of a “Tiger Mom” upbringing reminiscent of Amy Chua.

Brilliant, creative, and also a gifted pianist, Mary got to college and had a lot of big problems. Her parents tried to pick out her classes. Her parents tried to pick out her major. Her mother would call at 1 AM in the morning (4AM East coast time) to see if Mary was in her room studying. Mary didn’t have to work a part time job and stick to an exhausting academic schedule in the hopes of graduating a year early due to cost like I did, but she did have to deal with her parents.

By Winter quarter, Mary had shaved her head and people in our dorm started getting concerned. By Spring, she was hearing voices, lost, found by the police, put under lock and key at Stanford’s mental hospital, sedated, and taken home to the East Coast.

When her dad came to help me pack up Mary’s belongings and close down her side of the room, we realized that she had lofted her bunk bed without tightening the screws. It had been a miracle that Mary hadn’t been hurt because she literally had screws loose. In spite of all of her academic knowledge, Mary didn’t understand “righty-tightly, lefty-loosely”.

This brings me back to Opera 101. In that class I learned about the horrible history of “Castrati”. These were young boys whose parents had castrated them in the hopes of becoming famous opera singers one day. There are actual parts in opera that today need to be sung by women, since castrati no longer exist. In many ways, parents of castrati were the “Tiger Moms” of their day, and vice versa.

Some people might look at my Afterschooling page and think “Tiger Mom Alert!”, but that’s a very flawed comparison. If you actually read Amy Chua’s book, you will see that The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a journey. The beginning of Chua’s parenting journey is reminiscent of my roommate Mary’s experience. Where Chua ends on this journey, is probably very similar to my own parenting philosophy:

Do your utmost to give your children an academically advantaged home. Don’t let them rot their brains in front of the screen. If they do play computer games, make them educational. Teach kids to be resilient. Encourage your children to do what they love. Give children freedom to make their own choices and decisions.

After my freshman year I ran into Mary many times on campus, but we were never very close. I think Mary alone knew (and perhaps felt awkward about) how much added stress her own experience had put on me. I was the one who cleaned up after her. I made sure she wasn’t locked out when she lost her keys for the 50th time. I was the one who sometimes turned her SLE papers in for her. I was the one who held her hand when she was delirious and the police took her away to the hospital.

I began this post with one of my favorite college memories. Well that last story, of watching Mary drive away to the mental hospital was one of the worst. I love Stanford, but to this day I think that the University failed both Mary and me that quarter.

Mary should have received help and been sent home earlier. Somebody from the University, anybody, should have acknowledged the unfair burden that was placed on me taking care of her. Cleaning up the mess a Tiger Mom can make is not fun, especially for a 19-year-old. There are some prices that are too high to pay for beautiful music.

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